All you need to know about to swim with whale sharks in Cancun
Did you ever thought to swim with whale sharks in Cancun? Did you heard about swimming with whale sharks in Cancun? Do you want to swim with whale sharks in Cancun? Here is all you need to know!
What are whale sharks and why you can swim with whale sharks in Cancun
Latest since the animation movie "Finding Nemo 2" many people know that whale sharks exist. They all would love to see a real whale shark, which is absolutely possible. Public aquariums unfortunately captured more whale sharks to show them to their audience. But the best way is to experience them in their natural habitat, following their natural behavior. A great option is to swim with whale sharks in Cancun.
But what are whale sharks exactly? Let´s have closer look:
Are whale sharks whales or sharks?
Whales are mammals, sharks are fish. Whale sharks are fish and belong to the shark family, so definitely no whales. But why the "whale" in their name? One reason is their size, the longest ever catched was around 18m long, an average size adult is usually about 10-13m long.
Another reason is that they share the same feeding preferences like most big whales.
What do whale sharks eat?
The biggest animals in the ocean mostly feed from the most tiny one. For example the biggest animal ever in history of earth, the blue whale. He feeds from krill and plankton. So does the whale shark: His preferred dish is zooplankton and tiny fish. He feeds by filtering huge amounts of water through his enormous gills. You can see the feeding very well when you swim with whale sharks in Cancun.
Is it safe to swim with whale sharks in Cancun?
Do whale sharks eat humans?
No, whale sharks don´t eat humans. We are way to big to be on their plate. Remember, they eat plankton and it iss even for a very dumb whale shark impossible to mistake a human, even children, with their common food. They also can´t bite because they don´t have real teeth.
Can whale sharks swallow humans by accident?
No, they can´t. Despite that whale sharks have a giant mouth their throat is very small, more or less the size of a fist. In the very unlikely case that a human got partly into a whale shark´s mouth, the shark would spit him out immediately and unharmed.
Can whale sharks hurt humans?
As mentioned above, not by biting or swallowing them. If you swim too close to the big tail fin of a whale shark and get hit during his swimming movements you might get a few scratches. But the sharks swim very slowly at the surface and don´t use their fin to defend themselves.
Besides that you have to keep a safe distance when you swim with whale sharks in Cancun. Like that we don´t disturbed them and avoid to get hit by a fin.
Why there are so many whale sharks in Cancun?
In the ocean in front of Cancun and Isla Mujeres the warm water of the Caribbean and the cold, but rich in nutrition water of the Gulf of Mexico come together. This creates a huge plankton blooming and activates a food chain. The whale sharks are part of it by feeding mostly on certain fish eggs. But this phenomenon only happens during a limited time, the whale shark season. But then it is perffect to swim with whale sharks in Cancun.
When is season to swim with whale sharks in Cancun?
During May the gentle giants arrive slowly in the area. It is allowed to swim with whale sharks in Cancun from beginning of June until mid September. The best time is July and August.
Can you see only whale sharks?
No, you not just swim with whale sharks in Cancun: During the boat ride you often see different types of sea turtles, sometimes giant manta rays and even dolphins. At the whale shark site it is very common to see giant manta rays feeding side by side. The reason is that they share the same food preferences, plankton.
How are the chances that you will really see a whale shark?
The chances during whale shark season are so good that most tour operators offer a 100% money back guarantee if you don´t see any! This happens very rarely and if so mostly in the first 2-3 weeks of the season if you swim with whale sharks in Cancun.
My first swim with whale sharks in Cancun
The best way to give an impression of how it really is to swim with whale sharks in Cancun is to tell you how my first trip was. It was during the season 2015 when I just had moved to Playa del Carmen to become a scuba diving instructor.
How did I learned about the whale sharks in Cancun?
Every dive center or tour operator is selling somehow the whale shark tour. In tourist areas like Playa del Carmen´s 5th Avenida or in Cancun´s hotel zone street sellers are offering it. If you ask in any hotel for tour recommendations, for sure they will tell you about the whale sharks in Cancun.
So if you are here during whale shark season it is almost impossible not to hear about swim with whale sharks in Cancun.
My instructor trainer recommended so enthusiastic to swim with whale sharks in Cancun and showed me some of his unbelievable videos. So I decided to spend the money and booked to swim with whale sharks in Cancun for my next day off, it was end of August.
Trip to the marina: pick up and transportation
After a night with not much sleep because I was so excited, I arrived way too early at the pick up point. If you don´t live in a hotel you need to go by yourself to one of those points, but no worries, there are so many and smart located that it is only a short distance from the tourist condo areas. Just in time the bus arrived, a small transporter with 10 seats. It picked up all people from one boat and then our guide started explaining us the schedule and answered our questions.
The bus was new, well maintained, air conditioning and made the one hour ride to the marina in Cancun as comfortable as possible.
Welcoming at the marina and boarding
Once we arrived at the marina we were welcomed warmly and offered to have a breakfast at a nice continental buffet. The pick up time in Playa del Carmen is around 6:30, in most hotels you won´t get breakfast at that time, so a nice move from the tour operator. Somewher between 8-8:30 our guide collected his sheep and brought us to our boat.
The captain and his sailor welcomed us, we had to take off our shoes before boarding, got our snorkel equipment handed out and took seat in a really nice speedboat with two 250hp engines. Everything looked in great shape, exactly what you want to see if you are about to drive one hour or longer offshore. Let´s go for a swim with whale sharks in Cancun!
Awesome boat ride: Turtles, Manta Rays and Dolphins!
The boat ride lead through the shallow bay between Cancun and Isla Mujeres and then through the bay at Isla Contoy. We saw many sea turtles of all sizes surfacing for a breath. Also a few huge manta rays at Isla Contoy.
After leaving the shallow bay behind and heading into the deep blue ocean, the sailor suddenly yelled "Delfines!". You understand that even if you don´t speak Spanish. We all looked in the direction he pointed and really, a small group of dolphins was playing at the surface!
The captain slowed down and let the boat glide carefully towards the dolphins. Aware of the situation they swam up to us, played around the boat and looked curious at each of us. You will never forget the first time a dolphin looked straight into your eyes! It´s not like looking into an animal´s eye, there is so much more behind it that I got goose bumps.
After a few minutes the dolphins said good-bye and we continued on our way to swim with whale sharks in Cancun.
When we found the whale sharks
The whale shark site is not a steady spot. The sharks follow the plankton and that is drifting in the current. It can happen that the shark site is right in front of Isla Mujeres, 30 minutes from the marina. But it also can happen that it is 100-150km offshore so it takes up to 2 hours to get there. Once we came close to where the crew expected them, our guides started scanning the horizon.
Rules and how it´s done
During the ride we got a detailed briefing of our guides about the rules and procedures to swim with whale sharks in Cancun.
The whale shark tours are regulated by the local government. Luckily they learned from other destinations like in Thailand where an overdose of tourism drove away the local whale shark population completely.
To avoid that in Cancun all boat crews and guides are trained and have to renew their license every two years. The boats have to stay in a certain distance to the sharks, hold the propeller if one comes too close. It is forbidden to block the way of a shark so they always can swim free.
From each boat only one guide with maximum two guests is allowed in the water, you have to keep a minimum distance of 3m to the fish, don´t swim in front of him, don´t touch him at all.
Whale sharks everywhere!
Soon after the crew started scanning the horizon they found what they were looking for, huge shark fins breaching the water, many of them. When our boat came closer we realized that everywhere around us are whale sharks. We all got very excited and couldn´t wait to get in the water: let´s swim with whale sharks in Cancun!
Giant manta rays join the party
And something else showed up: Giant manta rays! They were swimming in loopings, showing their white bellys right at the surface, often even breaching it with their wings. We got ready and the groups were put in line.
I was the second to jump with my buddy. We were already sitting ready at the side of our boat. On command we jumped. In the water we looked for our guide and then we saw that all around us huge whale sharks were swimming slowly and majestic right at the surface. Cameras on and go.
Bummer! Somehow my battery didn´t charged overnight and so my camera turned off right away. But it also had its good side: While my buddy with his big camera was focusing on a shark, behind him a group of dolphins showed up, the same we met already before!
When he finally got it, they already started moving on and saying hello to the other groups that had shown up in the meantime to join our shark-manta-dolphin party. To swim with whale sharks in Cancun is just awesome!
Realizing what just happened
After I don´t know how long our guide brought us back the boat and we sat down completely silent. WOW! What had just happened?
I looked into my buddy´s eyes and knew he felt the same. I tried to process that I just had been swimming next to the biggest fish in the world. And dolphins. And giant manta rays.
We had been for just 12 minutes in the water. It sounds like nothing, but you are swimming the whole time to keep up with the shark´s pace which is quite exhausting. And it´s just happening so much around you that you are overwhelmed with impressions when you swim with whale sharks in Cancun.
When our second turn was I knew what to expect and instead of swimming next to a whale shark I stayed in one position and looked around. Very good decision as I found out soon. Here you see a whale shark in bottle position. That´s how it is called when they stay almost vertical in one position and filter from the surface because there is so much plankton.
Then you turn a little bit and see a group of manta rays flying by in feeding formation. You eyes follow them and a whale shark is crossing, making a sudden turn to avoid bumping in his buddy that comes from the left. UN-BE-LIEVABLE! But business as usual if you swim with whale sharks in Cancun.
And back to the boat.
Some of the other guests had already enough after their first swim. If you don´t do exercise ten minutes swimming in open water with a bit of waves can be quite exhausting, despite wearing a life west.
Even my buddy and me, both active scuba divers and good swimmers, had to catch a breath after the third jump. We were the only ones on our boat and when we got back it was time to head to Isla Mujeres.
Reef snorkeling at Isla Mujeres on the way back
Right next to Isla Mujeres is a shallow reef that fits perfectly for some snorkeling. We stopped there and got ready to get back in the water, this time as a whole group.
Nice Caribbean reef
The reef is nice. Not awesome, but good for a short exploration. It is not too long so everybody can manage it even after the swim with whale sharks in Cancun.
We saw some turtles, parrot fish, a moray eel, many little colorful tropical fish and corals. As I said, nothing exciting, but nice as a little goodie after the overwhelming lifetime experience before.
The reef snorkeling took about 15-20 minutes, back in the boat we headed towards our next destination for lunch.
Ceviche lunch and relaxing at the beach of Isla Mujeres
We arrived in a shallow lagoon, a scenery like from a post card. Many different boats from all different type of tours stop here at Isla Mujeres´ famous Playa Norte.
After anchoring our crew started preparing lunch.
Best ceviche ever!
A delicious home made ceviche was offered with traditional corn tortillas, guacamole, tostadas, some different stuff for vegans and veggies (sorry, I enjoyed my ceviche...).
We got soft drinks and some beers and tequila.
Chillin´with some beers in the paradise: Playa Norte
After lunch we had another hour to play in the warm water, relax at the beach or get some more beer and tequila in beach bar. We chilled there for a bit in the warm Caribbean water until it was time to get back to the boat. What a perfect place to end a day swim with whale sharks in Cancun!
An awesome day comes to its end - the way back
With boarding at Isla Mujeres the official program of the whale shark tour was over. A day with a lifetime experience for every guest came to its end. Each one of us had a big smile in his face and we were so happy that we made the decision to book the swim with whale sharks in Cancun.
Quick ride back to the marina
From Isla Mujeres it´s a quick ride back across the bay to the marina. Once the boat was tied to the jetty we handed out our snorkel gear, grabbed our stuff and shoes and headed to our bus.
Sorry, no idea about the transportation back home
I can´t tell you anything about the way back because after seconds I fell asleep, dreaming of riding on a dolphins back between mantas and whale sharks... At my drop off point the guide woke me up and I somehow made it back home -tired but happy.
I think it is obvious that I strongly recommend to swim with whale sharks in Cancun! It is literally a lifetime experience that you will never forget. You might not see all of what I did because it is the nature, not a zoo.
Is it worth to spend money on swimming with whale sharks in Cancun?
With the guarantee to get your money back if you don´t see a shark it is worth the risk. Even if you "only" see a shark and no mantas and dolphins, the experience is as exciting and overwhelming.
After my instructor certification I left Playa del Carmen and moved to Cancun to work for a dive center that also organized whale shark tours. I did during the last years many whale shark trips and the only two where we just saw one shark were still amazing and everyone was happy.
The price for a whale shark tour including the described schedule is 219 USD, early bird offers might be available for no more than 186 USD. If you book using one of the WhatsApp links here, you will receive a special discount price less than the early bird rate of 186 USD
It is not a tour that you do every day in your vacation, but at least once you should!
What should I bring to a whale shark tour in Isla Mujeres?
For swimming with whale sharks in Cancun you should bring sun protection! And I am not talking about sun lotion, you can´t use it on the tour because it contaminates the water and the plankton. Get yourself a long sleeve sun protection shirt, maybe leggins as well.
Are the whale sharks affected negatively by these tours?
If you arrive at the whale shark site during high season you will see boats as far as your eyes reach. Sometimes when you have only a few sharks, 20-30 boats "share" the same shark. On one of those days concerned guests asked me if the poor shark is not stressed out by all of these swimmers around him.
Simple answer: No, because if they stress him he is just diving down and comes up at another spot.
The regulations work
Especially on that day we could witness how great the local regulations work. Two boats of the park guards were the whole time present to control the situation.
All boats formed a huge open circle around the shark and made sure that the area in front of his head was never blocked by a boat.
The guides kept their guest in a good distance to the shark and it looked from the boats like a movie star on the red carped with orange dressed fans behind the fence. For more than two hours the shark never swam fast away or disappeared in the blue. He still swam at the surface when the boats.
Whale shark research
Research projects are monitoring the whale sharks and manta rays, identifying them using their spot pattern. No decrease in the number of visiting whale sharks could be measured, every year hundreds of different individuals are identified.
It might not be perfect but the way swimming with whale sharks in Cancun is organized and restricted it does obviously no harm to the animals and doens´t scare them away. There is no feeding by humans like for example on the Philipines or strong lights at night to attract plankton and so the whale sharks and mantas.
Check out whaleshark.org and mantatrust.org for more information.
What should I look for when booking a whale shark tour in Cancun?
As I wrote in the beginning everywhere in Cancun and the Riviera Maya are sellers that present you the best and cheapest tour.
If someone offers you a tour for as low as 120 USD from Cancun, you better stay away.
Only operators with a license are allowed to enter the shark site and the park guards are controlling in the recent years very closely. Cheap tour operators usually don´t have a legal license. If they guards stop them, your tour is over and your money gone. Also some of those boats are not in a shape that they should be out there with guests.
If you buy inside your hotel you will usually get a serious offer, but for a very expensive price. The same tour you buy online for 219 USD is than 250 USD and with a "super special discount just for you my friend" 230 USD.
If you are planning to come to Cancun and want to swim with whale sharks, save this link or if you know already when you want to go, follow this link to book online.