Swimming with whale sharks, the largest fish in the ocean weighing in at 50,000 lbs, is the ultimate adventure. Adventurous scuba divers around the world have this at the top of their bucket list. But swimming with whale sharks is an incredible experience that anyone can have. Find out about these fantastic creatures, and swim with whale sharks in an eco-tourist manner. And read my first-hand experiences of swimming with whale sharks in Mexico.
Whale sharks aren't whales, but they are sharks. And they are the largest fish in the ocean. The largest known whale shark was 61.7 feet in length. Whale sharks are filter-feeding sharks with giant mouths containing 300 rows of tiny teeth and 20 filter pads to filter their food. But unlike other sharks, the mouth of a whale shark is at the front of the head. And not on the underside of the head. And their mouths are massive, some being more than 5 feet across! Whale sharks have a broad, flat head and two small eyes the size of a quarter.
Their skin is dark grey with a white underbelly marked with pale grey or white spots and stripes. The pattern of dots is unique to each shark and helps identify them, like fingerprints for humans. As well their skin is tough, rough to the touch, and thick. And it can be up to 15 cm thick! Whale sharks also have two dorsal fins, which are set back quite far on their body. And they have a combination of 5 other fins along their body before the tail. These massive creatures weigh in at between 40,000 – 50,000 pounds. Or over 25 tons!
Usually, Whale Sharks are only found in water warmer than 21°C (70 °F). And they roam between 30°N and 35°S and have been as far north as the Bay of Fundy in Canada. And as far south as Victoria in Australia. But whale sharks in Mexico are much more common. And while they cruise around the surface when feeding, they can dive down to over 1,900 meters (6,200 feet) in depth.
So, let's get this straight. Whale sharks are up to 60 plus feet long. They weigh 50,000 lbs, have 300 rows of teeth, and people want to go swimming with whale sharks? Yes – and read on to find out why and how.
With 300 rows of teeth, a mouth that is often larger than 5 feet across, and weighing in at 25 tons, people often ask: are whale sharks dangerous? So, are whale sharks dangerous? For plankton, yes. But for humans, definitely not, which is why you can go swimming with whale sharks safely. Whale sharks are the gentle giants of the sea. Despite their fearsome reputation, whale sharks don't attack humans and feed on small fish and plankton. They do not pose any danger to humans and are very docile.
So, if they aren't dangerous to humans, what do whale sharks eat to get so large? They feed on plankton, krill, and small squid or fish. They also feed on clouds of eggs from the mass spawning of fish. This is why whale sharks in Mexico are so plentiful.
They feed by swimming forward and sucking large volumes of water into their mouths. This water is then filtered and expelled through their gills. Leaving behind plankton, krill, and small fish that they consume. The small fish that whale sharks eat includes tiny jellyfish, sardines, anchovies, mackerels, and small tuna. Every hour they process over 6,000 L of water to get enough nutrients to feed their vast body.
In 2016 whale sharks were classified officially as an endangered species. Even though there is no consistent global count of the number of whale sharks. Due to the impacts of fisheries, by-catch losses, and vessel strikes, the species are endangered. Combined with its long lifespan and late maturation.
A few jurisdictions have established local regulations to protect the species. And in some cases, these have created responsible eco-tourism businesses. For example, two Government departments regulate interactions with whale sharks in Mexico. The Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT) and the Secretaría de Turismo (SECTUR). When going swimming with whale sharks in Mexico, choose a tour operator with this certification.
Whale sharks have few predators because they are so large and difficult to attack. But attacks do occur when they are still small from aggressive sharks. But only killer whales can be a hazard once whale sharks become adults.
But the greatest danger to these colossal fish is humans. And one of the primary threats is the trade of their meat, especially in Southeast Asia. For example, they are not protected in China, where large-scale fisheries target whale sharks. Their fins are used for soups, especially in Hong Kong. Whale sharks are also hunted for their liver oil, used as a waterproofing treatment for wooden boats. Another reason to go swimming with whale sharks in Mexico is they are a protected species. And rules exist to manage interactions with humans.
The second-largest threat is when other species are fished on an industrial scale, and they get caught too. Whale sharks feed on the eggs of fish such as tuna and mackerel. Another threat is ship strikes. And habitat destruction and excessive pollution can harm whale sharks, such as floating plastic filtered accidentally during feeding.
With all the threats noted above, there are some reasons not to swim with whale sharks. But an article in Scientific American posed several reasons why you should go swimming with whale sharks. Amongst other things, it cited the importance of supporting the eco-tourism industry in countries that protect whale sharks. Since whale sharks became protected in Mexico, it has created a tourism industry for former fishermen. Instead of fishing for whale sharks, people earn their living from having a healthy and growing population. Whale sharks are not only protected, but local people now need to treat them well. From hunting them, they now rely on the population's health and ensure that swimming with whale sharks is a benign activity.
By imposing restrictions, it allows people the opportunity to get close to and observe these bemouths in their own habitat. Swimming close for 90-120 seconds to one of these gigantic creatures of the sea is an incredible experience of a lifetime.
To protect these incredible creatures, rules exist when swimming with whale sharks in Mexico:
There are two coastal regions of Mexico where you can swim with whale sharks. In the Yucatan Peninsula (near Cancun, Quintana Roo) or the Mexican Baja Peninsula. While there are advantages of swimming with whale sharks in the waters off Cancun, both offer fabulous experiences. The seasons for swimming with whale sharks in each of these areas are offset. In the waters off Cancun, the season is from June to September. While in the Mexican Baja, it is from winter to early spring.
Many people claim that Mexico sees more whale sharks at a given time than any other country in the world. In fact, some operators offer a "money-back guarantee" because they are so confident you will see a whale shark during your tour. And the facts back up these claims. In 2016 scientists counted 1,100 whale sharks feeding off the Caribbean coast, where the krill is bountiful. Whale sharks congregate at the surface around Holbox, Cancun, Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, and the tiny Isla Contoy. The latter is a Mexican national park and protected area which regulates eco-tourism.
As a frequent visitor to Mexico and to the Riviera Maya in particular, I'm always interested in exploring the many activities it has to offer. I've been to many, many spectacular beaches along the coastline; I've visited the best Mayan Ruins and swam in lots of incredible cenotes too. I've scuba-dived, snorkeled with turtles, paddle boarded, caught (and released) big game fish. And I've been to adventure water parks and dined out in some of the best restaurants. But, up till now, I hadn't ever gone swimming with whale sharks.
This time I was going to make it happen. But I arrived in the Riviera Maya the last week of September. And swimming with whale sharks here is from June to September. Would I be able to do it? I contacted some friends and asked around.
After speaking with my friends at the Akumal Dive Center, I contacted a regulated tour operator. I chatted with Stefano at Blue Caribe Tours, and he informed me that it was touch and go. There were still two possible days (Mexico prohibits swimming with whale shark tours after September 30th). But most whale sharks had already migrated from the region. He said he would contact me the next day to see if he would run the tour the day after next.
The next day, late in the afternoon, I received a call from Stefano saying that we were ago – there were still a couple of whale sharks in the area. He said that usually, he's able to offer a money-back guarantee but that he couldn't do that now. Although there are plentiful whale sharks to swim with throughout most of the season, this wasn't the case now. And there was a chance we wouldn't get to see one.
My tour, hopefully, to swim with whale sharks started early in the morning when I left Ocean Breeze Akumal. Our guide and driver were very hospitable as we drove to pick up several more people while heading north towards Cancun. On the way, we stopped for a break to refresh coffee, pick up water, and any other extras we needed. Then we headed straight to the marina.
On arriving at the marina, we left the tour bus and relaxed with breakfast. Coffee, juice, fresh fruit, and a plentiful supply of baked goodies. Then it was time to gather our belongings and board our tour boat. It was a well-equipped, comfortable, and well-maintained boat with plenty of room. As well as easily accommodating 10 of us on the tour, there was a captain, first mate, swimming guide, and our tour guide.
Launching from the Cancun marina, we sped away north, speeding across the turquoise blue Caribbean Ocean. All dutifully wearing our life jackets, eager to get a sight of a whale shark. And also nervous about the prospect of getting to swim with a whale shark. On my tour, there were 3 people from New York. A couple from Nuremberg in Germany and 2 couples from Mexico City on vacation in the Riviera Maya.
Since we weren't exactly sure where to find whale sharks, the final destination was uncertain. But our tour guide suggested that it might take about an hour or so to get to where they thought they could be. Fortunately, the scenery was spectacular. Initially, we sped along the coastline north of Cancun before heading further out to sea. Then we traveled past Isla Mujeres, and on towards Isla Blanca. No whale shark sightings yet. So, we then headed on towards Isla Contoy. This is a national park preserved by the Mexican Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources. It has little to no civilization on the island that is 8.5 km in length.
While most of the group had shade, some seats were unshaded. A reminder to make sure you bring a hat and other garments to shade you from the hot sun.
Luckily, besides enjoying the beautiful scenery, I also had a friendly chat with Andreas and his wife from Nuremberg, Germany. This was their third tour to go swimming with whale sharks, and they described it as the best adventure they'd had in all their travels.
Unfortunately, 2 of the New Yorkers weren't doing quite so well. They'd had a heavy night on the tequila the evening before. And the bouncing around on the sea wasn't a good mix. A good reminder that this adventure takes place on the high seas. So if you're not sure of your sea legs, then taking some Gravol or other similar products beforehand might be a consideration. And definitely go easy on the tequila the night before.
Suddenly after about 80 minutes on the boat, we slowed down. The captain, guides, and potential swimmers were all scouring the ocean looking for the tell tail double dorsal fins indicative of a whale shark. A few minutes passed, and the boat accelerated off again. False alarm. After about another 15 minutes, the boat slowed a little as we approached an area with 3 other boats off to starboard. As we got closer, we could see that the boats were moving slowly in a large circle.
Our guide told us that there was a whale shark. Not only that, but I was going to be the sacrificial lamb. And the first person to jump in and swim with whale sharks, so I'd better get ready!
I was frantically pulling on my flippers, adjusting my mask, and getting my GoPro set up. While our tour guide reiterated the instructions, I would have to follow. "Don't touch the whale shark. When you are told to get in the water, make sure you swim towards a 45,000 lb bemouth of the sea. Listen to the instructions of the swimming guide who will be in the water too. When you approach the whale shark, turn to swim parallel to it and kick your legs hard to keep up with it. Stay 3 m away from it,………"
Next, I found myself sitting on the edge of the boat, legs and flippers hanging over the side, gripping my GoPro, with my mask and snorkel on. We were now in the moving circle of boats and could see a 30-foot whale shark moving through the water. Its vast mouth open just under the surface, and its dorsal fins slice through the water.
The captain circled the boat in a very wide arc around the whale shark. Then when the boat gets perpendicular to the mouth of the whale shark several meters away, that's when you're supposed to jump in. As we arced around and came level with the whale shark, I stared at it several meters away. And at that instance, the guide and captain both shouted, "Salto, salto, ahora!!"
High on adrenalin, I jumped overboard into the water and blindly swam towards where I'd last seen the whale shark on the surface. And then, I'm swimming towards this gaping 4-foot-wide mouth, with 300 rows of teeth, thinking what the heck am I doing. Just as quickly, I turn to my left as the whale shark comes level with me and remember the tour guide's instructions. "Kick your legs really hard." Then the next 120 seconds were entirely surreal.
I'm swimming with a whale shark. Incredibly I'm only about 12 feet away. This mammoth, 30 ft, 45,000 lb creature, with its gills spilling vast amounts of water as it filters its food. It was swimming effortlessly without a care in the world. I can see the suckerfish on the white underside of its body. The whale shark's body rhythmically glides through the water as I watch the white spots on its grey skin. I look from its head and turn to the right to take in the entire 30-foot length of this magnificent creature. Although I'm still pounding my legs along to keep up, there's an essence of peacefulness. The last thing I'd expected of swimming with whale sharks was an essence of tranquility. But that's what it was for 100 of the 120 seconds that I managed to stay with it before gradually it pulled away.
I came up and looked around and saw my boat quite some way off. I started to swim back towards it when the guide told me to stop as the boat would come to me. I looked around for the other person who jumped off at the same time as me. They were a long way behind and at the boat. I guess they hadn't had quite the same experience as me.
On returning to the boat, I eagerly checked my GoPro to review the footage. But something had gone wrong, and instead of a video, I had a series of frames. However, after everyone else went and had a turn, I then got to go in again. And while it wasn't quite as good an experience as the first time – you can see below the video I took of swimming with whale sharks in Mexico.
After the exhilaration and high of everyone onboard swimming with whale sharks twice it was time to leave. Our captain plotted a course for Isla Blanca, where we stopped at a glorious, remote white sand beach. It was here that we relaxed, came off our adrenalin highs and ate lunch, and relived our experiences. From here, we headed back to Cancun and our return minibus transport home.
When going off to swim with Whale sharks, there are definitely several things you need to be mindful of and consider doing or bringing along. Including the following:
Each whale shark you swim with can be identified from its pattern of spots. For photo identification, it's important to take photographs of a standard zone of the body. That is the part behind the gills and above the pectoral fin. So, if you take a picture of the whale shark you swim with, then send it off to get identified. But try to make sure you also take a picture of the left side of the whale shark. By taking a photo of this part of the shark, it is possible to analyze the spot pattern using software. This software was initially created by NASA for identifying stars and was then adapted to identifying whale sharks.
The software can compare your photographs with other database images. In this way, you can create a shark story, establishing its range and in which periods it visits a specific location. This method is very effective as it is non-invasive and inexpensive. As a tourist, you can help by providing photos and/or videos to researchers. And if it's a brand-new shark, you can sponsor it and give a name to it! It's a great way to have a fantastic experience swimming with whale sharks and help scientists understand more about them.
If you are going to be in the Riviera Maya between June and September, you should definitely consider swimming with whale sharks. Find out more information on the tour that I did and accommodation in the Riviera Maya. And don't forget to enter our draw for a free-swimming with whale sharks in Mexico, tour for 2.
Swimming with Whale sharks is genuinely an incredible experience of a lifetime. They are amazing gentle giants of the ocean. And you know more about these mammoth creatures of the sea, including how to experience them in a controlled and responsible eco-tourism manner. Take the leap, and on your next visit, plan on swimming with whale sharks in Mexico. And don't forget to submit your whale shark photos and find out more about the specific whale shark that graced you with its presence.
About Our Blog
Exploring The Riviera Maya is Ocean Breeze Akumal's Blog. Here we explore the diversity of Mexico's best tourism destination to highlight the best beaches, cenotes, restaurants, attractions, Mayan ruins, etc., etc. We provide information to help you explore this spectacular part of the world and give you tips and tricks that only the locals know. Helping to give you the vacation experience of a lifetime.
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