Swimming with Whale Sharks

Cancun – Yucatan, Mexico

Saltwater sprays across my face as the small boat I’m on races away from Cancun’s coast and out into the open ocean. Excitement builds as I wonder what this beautiful day has in store for the small group on board. I’ve joined one of the countless tours based out of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula that give seasonal whale shark swimming tours to eager tourists seeking a chance to swim with the world’s largest fish! I was fortunate enough to swim with whale sharks previously in Belize; but they were hard to find and their presence was short lived.. this experience would turn out to be quite different!

When I arrived to live in Playa Del Carmen for several months I had no plans or knowledge of the whale shark tours that were offered. It didn’t take long before I caught glance at the numerous billboards throughout the city promoting the tours, and you can’t walk down the famous 5th Ave without a half dozen salesmen hyping up the tour. The whale sharks migrate through the area in large numbers that are unique to this region. It’s literally the largest known gathering of whale sharks anywhere in the world.


The Incredible Whale Shark Experience

Snorkeling with Whale Sharks

After an hour+ long ride and roughing some decent sized swells we came upon what must have been 25 or more boats gathered around an area of 1 square mile. Large black fins began appearing all around us and I knew immediately we were in for an unforgettable time!

With a full boat of 10 people we took turns plunging into the shark filled waters two at a time (with the addition of a guide). We could immediately see enormous whale sharks swimming in every direction around us. Whale sharks are gentle giants, and it is impossible not to marvel at their amazing size and grace as they effortlessly glide through the water. These school bus sized fish aren’t afraid and swim right by us; even bumping into me on a couple occasions.

Whale Sharks

The tours allowed for 15 minutes in the water at a time, rotating other tourists in and out. On this day the water was wavy and several of the passengers became sea sick, myself included – and I don’t normally get sea sickness. Lucky for me those passengers stopped taking their turn allowing me more time in the water!

Before the tour ended we had been in the water and within a few feet of dozens of whale sharks. How could the experience get any better you might ask? How about a surprise visit from flying manta rays? Yes.. giant manta rays were propelling themselves into the air for our viewing pleasure! Some even swam by our boat and gave us a close up view!

On the way back to Cancun we ate lunch at the picture perfect (but slightly crowded) beach of Isla Mujeres. By the time the day had ended it put my previous experience in Belize to shame – this was literally a day that had made my dreams come true.


A Troubling Second Experience

Cancun, Mexico

My experience had been so great the previous year that I went back to do it all over again this year! However I was quickly reminded that magical travel experiences can be hard to repeat.

With friends in tow I booked 2 days of whale shark tours on a private boat and spaced them out between the week in case of bad weather – We had done our best to insure a good sighting. However, when dealing with wild and open ocean you are never really in control.

This year the weather was great and ocean was much calmer. But unfortunately weather wasn’t the only thing that could go wrong. The whale shark tours have become so popular that there were exponentially more boats out in the water this time with only a handful of sharks found each day. This meant there were hundreds of people on crowded boats jumping in the water to surround only a few whale sharks. Even though it was still impressive to see the gentle giants in the water it was hard not to notice how many people were crowding them. Nearly every shark we saw also had visible injuries to their dorsal fin or tail, likely from colliding with boats chasing after them.


An Uncertain Future

Whale Shark with Mouth Open

As tour operators continue to offer unlimited capacity and allow so many boats out on the water with small numbers of sharks things will likely only go downhill for everyone involved. The experience you get will be much less enthralling when so many other people are swimming and kicking around you; and with all the boats jockeying for position it creates  far more danger of an accidental injury to those snorkeling in the water.

And what about the poor whale sharks? The first time I went it didn’t feel invasive, we were able to float in the water and enjoy the sharks swimming around us. This year the boats were chasing the sharks around leaving them nowhere to escape. With all the people it felt more like harassment than observing one of nature’s most wondrous creatures.

There’s still hope that local authorities realize the problem and take action before it’s too late. First and foremost the whale sharks need to protection from injury and danger. With so much money at stake it’s hard to imagine things won’t get a lot worse before the get any better. Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly Mexico still has a better reputation than many other whale shark tour destinations.


Tips Before You Go:

Big Whale Shark

  • When To Go? With a close proximity to the mega-touristy Cancun the tours are accessible and affordable from all over the region. The season begins as early as mid-May and runs all the way into September. For the best outcome plan to go during the low-season when there will be less tourists.
  • What You Need?
    • A wetsuit – Tour operators require you to wear a wetsuit or life jacket when in the water. You will float in the ocean either way and unless you can’t swim a life jacket will only hinder your ability to swim next to the sharks. Be prepared to pay $10-25 per day for a rental wetsuit.
    • Biodegradable Sunscreen – The sun is strong and you’ll be without shade for most of the day. Tour operators will require ‘organic’ sunscreen that doesn’t pollute the water or potentially poison the sea life. It’s wise to bring your own as sunscreen is quite pricey here.
    • Motion Sickness Pills – Sea sickness is a real downer and very likely. Try to avoid it by taking Dramamine before you go.
  • Where are the Tours? There are tours leaving from Isla Mujeres, Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Isla Holbox. Most of them all boat to the same spot (wherever the first spotters locate the whales each day).
  • A Guarantee? Check for a money back guarantee from the tour operator you chose. Many of them will guarantee you swim with whale sharks or offer a refund of some kind.
  • What’s the Price? Tours range from $125.00 USD and up depending upon your need for transportation to the marina.