How on earth did I find myself in the water with the largest fish on earth?
Imagine slipping into the clear, warm waters of Mexico. Seconds later as you get your bearings, a dark shape comes looming out of the deep blue. Dotted skin, a gaping mouth, and huge fins. There’s an indescribable feeling of being truly humbled by the sheer scale of nature, reminding us of how small we really are. Congratulations, you’re now swimming with a whale shark!
As a pelagic enthusiast and avid scuba diver who grew up in a country known for its whale shark sightings, it killed me that I’d never been lucky enough to see one. Upon learning that summers in Mexico almost guarantee whale shark sightings, let alone the opportunity to swim with these gentle giants…well, the first thing I did was book my ticket!
For an unforgettable experience of a lifetime, here’s how to swim with whale sharks in Mexico!
Each summer, whale sharks congregate primarily around the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding waters off the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Because of this, your trip will likely begin with a transfer to a pier in Cancun. There, you’ll board a boat and go searching for these majestic creatures.
You also have the option of driving up to the northern coast and traveling to Isla Holbox. Holbox is a quiet sleepy island, 25-minutes by boat ride from the mainland.
Personally, I would recommend departing from Cancun. The tour takes you to an area my guides called “Blue waters.” Though the name is not the most specific, I was advised that the visibility there is better than Holbox (where water is murkier with not as many whale sharks.) They were 100% right! Despite the abundance of plankton, the water at our site was crystal clear, meaning we could easily watch the dozens of whale sharks drawn in to feed.
Whale sharks can also be spotted in various areas around the world, including:
- Gadden Spit, Belize
- Utila, Honduras
- South Ari Atoll, Maldives
- Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
- Tofo Beach, Mozambique
- Donsol Bay, Philippines
- Koh Tao, Thailand
- Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia
- South Mahe, Seychelles
Whale shark season is from June to September, when hundreds of sharks arrive in the waters to feed and mate, with numbers peaking July to August. As the sharks feed the most in the morning, tours will depart daily around 9am for the highest chances to see them. I recommend going as early as possible to avoid the crowds!
Each year, nearby Isla Mujeres (“Island of the Women”) also celebrates their annual Whale Shark Festival over the summer months, with an International Whale Shark Day! Check your dates if you’ll be there around July.
Booking a tour
But how on earth do you actually see and swim with whale sharks?! A tour is pretty necessary for such close encounters. I went with EcoColors, which is a fantastic company with knowledgeable staff and experts on the whale sharks and surrounding areas. They’ve been running whale shark tours for 14 years, actually trained the first local guides and have taken the BBC / Animal Planet out as well!
If you want to maximize time with the animals, go ahead and hire a private boat! We did that with EcoColors, who offer very sensible prices.
*I was (unfortunately) not sponsored by EcoColors, and all opinions are my own.
When choosing a tour, be sure to ask the following questions:
- When is departure time?
- How many people will be on the boat?
- What is the ratio of guides-to-passengers?
- Is a whale shark sighting/swim guaranteed?
- How experienced are the guides?
Is it safe? Yes! Despite their large, gaping mouths, whale sharks’ throats are the size of a quarter. For all of you who’ve seen Pinocchio — you’re at no risk of being swallowed! Whale sharks are gentle, docile creatures that feed on small microorganisms and fish eggs that float around in the water. Consequently, they pose no harm to humans. We, on the other hand, are actually a bigger threat to their natural habitat and the survival of their species.
When swimming with whale sharks, always remember to adhere to the safety guides, which will protect both you and the shark.
Admit it — there is nothing cooler than photos of you next to a whale shark! Chances are, you’ll want to remember this experience forever. Just don’t let the sharks’ movements fool you — due to their size, whale sharks swim extremely fast! You’ll often find yourself dropped in the water as one breezes past, and it’s up to you to swim and keep up with it.
A GoPro is easiest for mobility and capturing the sheer scale of the sharks. Needless to say, a DSLR with appropriate housing is going to take the best quality image — just remember to use a wide angle lens!
Isla Mujeres beach stop
Lastly, many tour groups departing from Cancun will also include a stop at Isla Mujeres for lunch before heading back to the mainland. Freshly made ceviche never tasted so good after a morning swim!
So there you have it! Hopefully this guide will help you to experience the swim of a lifetime.
Already had a whale shark encounter? I’d love to hear your story in the comments below!