Swimming with whale sharks might not appeal to everybody at first glance. Not everybody knows what a whale shark is but everybody knows that a whale is huge and a shark is dangerous so if you put them together, well, it doesn’t sound good. But in truth there is nothing dangerous about it and if you are in Mexico during the summer or indeed anywhere in the world when whale sharks are there then I would highly recommend that you go and swim/snorkel with them. It is a super experience. To swim with something so big, so magnificent and so close is definitely unique.
Whale sharks are the world’s biggest fish and can grow up to almost 15mtrs (45ft) but are usually in the 10-12mtr (30-36ft) range and weigh up to 22tonnes (47,000lb). They are sharks but not the blood eating type. Despite their size they eat some of the smallest organisms on the planet, plankton. They come to feed around the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico during the summer time from May to September and it’s during this time that a huge amount of tours run in different areas to feed the appetite of the tourists. It should definitely be on the things to do list
You book your tour (more details below) and arrive at the marina all excited and apprehensive about what lies ahead. I did my tour with Eco Colours and they have a good system going in the port of Puerto Juarez. People come from and get picked up from everywhere and arrive to the bustle of all the ocean goers tucking into a hearty breakfast. This includes fruit, cake, coffee/tea all laid out for anybody who has booked a tour. Our guide was very friendly and could speak 4 languages fluently so no chance you could misunderstand her. You sign your life away on some form and they give you a thin wetsuit to wear. Although the water is not cold it is compulsory that you wear either the wetsuit or a lifejacket when in the water. After much hustle and bustle, applying of suncream and trying to neck the last cup of coffee we were on our way along with several other boats leaving at the same time. On our way admired the few beach goers that got up that early on Isla Mujeres as we flew passed it. The excitement of the 12 on board was growing as the minutes passed with some small talk conversation and some interesting facts from the guide. Finally after nearly 2hrs we slowed down and all heads immediately glanced around outside the boat. We were greeted by one boat and a huge fin penetrating the water. We gazed in amazement at the size of this creature ambling near the surface but as the boat eased by we eventually quickened up again as this was obviously not our final destination. I then had it in my head that this was what it was like, a couple of boats and your best bet of seeing them was from the boat. I was happy enough with that arrangement. 5minutes later and 2hrs after leaving Puerto Juarez we spotted what looked like the Spanish Armada.
Swimming with Giants
Countless boats were all bobbing on the surface ahead and as we joined them the captain turned off his engine and we could see exactly why everybody had come. There wasn’t just one whale shark like 5minutes earlier, there were hundreds . We were now like excited school children wanting to get in and frantically put on our masks, fins and snorkels. Some of us had to wait as only 2 people are allowed with the certified guide at any one time. You spend approx 5min in the water and then it’s the next couples turn. Finally after what seemed like 30minutes it was our go and we waited until one was coming our way and jumped in. With all the bubbles, excitement and trying to get the right way up it took a moment to adjust but eventually I could see properly. What emerged was this monstrous shark swimming slowly towards us and I felt like I was watching some National Geographic documentary. The sun shining meant that visibility was perfect to 20mtrs and this 30 foot giant swam within 6 foot of us with its entourage of smaller fish tagging along. As it glided passed you get to admire the beautiful white spots on its skin and what prompted the locals to name them dominoes. When you are this close you also get to fully admire the scale of these creatures and realise what you don’t appreciate when you read it. When a book says that this animal is 45ft long that means it is longer than a shipping container! As it passed it opened its mouth to feed, or what looked like a yawn, and you frantically try to keep up with this ‘slow moving’ fish. Just as my new friends 10ft tail was beyond me I got a pull by my guide on my fins and after initially getting a flash of being caught by a shark I turned around only to nearly be hit by one! One shark, with a chunk of him missing, swam only 1ft under me and I had to perform acrobatics so I didn’t hit him. The whale sharks are feeding and don’t pay an attention to the human observers. I suppose the way some hungry humans act. No sooner had this second whale shark gone when a huge manta ray swam around us in circles and did a few loops back on itself. Their swimming technique is basically like a slow motion bird in flight and looks very strange under water. They are also here for the plankton frenzy. It was then time to go back to the boat after one of the best 6minutes of my life. On both the second and third dives we saw the sharks and manta rays but neither time was as exhilarating as the first dive. On the third dive I looked around only to see one of the whale sharks only a few meters away with its mouth open coming straight for me. I got the fright of my life and then swam for my life with no harm done to either myself or the shark after I got out of the way. To see a a video of both manta rays and whale sharks in action go to the video page.
Three dives in and it was time to say goodbye to our new gigantic friends and the hundreds of other boats. The journey back didn’t seem half as bad as you replayed over the documentary you saw with your own eyes.
Need to Know, About Whale Sharks in Mexico
First thing to know is that you should definitely do it. Definitely! I get sea sick when the boat stops on the water and it was stopped for over 2hrs and I still thought it was well worth it. There were people on our boat who couldn’t swim very well and with good manoeuvring from the captain and some anticipation they got in the water, saw the whale sharks up close and thought it was brilliant.
- Currency – €1 = $17.7 Mexican Pesos, US$1 = $13.4 Mxn
- Date – The season is officially from 1st June to 15th September. This is the law and any tours outside those dates are illegal. All boats and guides must be certified by the government to run and participate in tours.
- Location – The whale sharks and manta rays congregate around the reserve in the waters off Isla Contoy, off the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico to provide this natural attraction. This is just north of Cancun.
- What to Bring and do – Swimming shorts, towel, wetsuit, suncream and sunglasses. Fins, lifejacket, mask and snorkel are provided but if you have your own of course bring them. You will be charged about US$10 for the wetsuit if you don’t have your own. You must wear a lifejacket when in the boat and either a lifejacket or wetsuit when snorkling with the whale sharks. If you want to duck dive underwater then having only the wetsuit is much better.There is also no problem taking underwater pictures or videos of the gentle giants. When in the water you are not allowed to touch the whale sharks.
- Language – Spanish but English is widely spoken on the tours. All tour companies have guides that speak Spanish and English and most tour companies have tours in French, German, Japanese etc.
- Where can you get a tour from? – Almost any town on the east coast of Yucatan/Quintana Roo or otherwise known as the Mayan Riviera in Mexico. This includes Cancun (~7am), Playa Del Carmen (~6am), Tulum (~5am) etc. The tour company will pick you up from your hotel at around these times. There are also tours that go from Isla Holbox and Isla Mujeres.
- Website: Some companies are www.ecotravelmexico.com (the one I went with) www.whaleshark-mexico.com/en/whaleshark_discovery.html#inicio, www.cancunwhalesharktours.com, www.islawhalesharks.com (from Isla Mujeres), www.holboxwhalesharktours.com (from Isla Holbox)
- Price and what is Included – The cost is between US$135 – US$150 per person and includes some small breakfast, the snorkelling gear, travel to the sharks, guide for tour and swimming and lunch on the way back.
- About Whale Sharks - Whale sharks are the world’s biggest fish. They can grow up to almost 15mtrs (45ft) but are usually in the 10-12mtr (30-36ft) range and can weigh up to 22tonnes (47,000lb). They eat some of the smallest organisms on the planet, plankton and zooplankton by filtering the water coming through their mouth. Plankton need light to live and so during the day they are on the surface. This is why the whale sharks and the manta rays swim near the surface to feed on these almost invisible organisms. After the swim you have little specs of salt all over but these are actually what the sharks are feeding on.