I have been visiting Cancun for almost thirty years, but only this year learned that you can do something that quickly made My Best Adventures Yet list– swim with whale sharks! How can you swim with whale sharks in Mexico? Where in Mexico can you swim with whale sharks? Is swimming with whale sharks scary? In this post, I will let answer all these questions and more and help make your dream of swimming with whale sharks a reality too!
Table of Contents
What are Whale Sharks?
Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish and invertebrates (they have no hard backbone). Other than their size, they seem much more like whales than sharks, but they are fish, so they are technically sharks.
They are so huge; it blew my mind the whole time I was in the water with these majestic beings. They can grow up to 40 feet long, average 5 tons, and live up to 150 years.
Why is it Safe to Swim with Them?
Although their mouths can be four feet wide, their teeth are so small they cannot bite or chew. They filter small fish eggs, plankton, and shrimp for food. They are also completely oblivious to you being there and swim very gently. Unlike humpback whales that jump, these fish gently meander (they move at about three miles per hour) through the water, passively filtering their food and reacting to nothing.
Where in Mexico can you Swim with Whale Sharks?
Whale Sharks migrate for food. In Mexico, they are chasing bonito fish eggs. There were so many fish eggs in the water that we got them in our hair.
According to National Geographic, this spot is the busiest whale shark hangout in the world, attracting up to 800 whale sharks. Scientists haven’t completely figured out where these animals migrate and give birth, but they travel long distances, over 5,000 miles, in a year. Most of the whale sharks in the Yucatan are males.
When booking my tour, I was confused about whether I needed to find a way to visit Holbox Island because I kept hearing that’s where the sharks were. I discovered that all the whale shark tours around the northeastern Yucatan go to the same waters, so you can leave from wherever is more convenient for you. Some tours leave from Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Holbox Island, and Isa Mujeres.
When can you Swim with Whale Sharks in Mexico?
Although whale sharks are in the area May-September, you are most likely to see them in July and August.
Is it Kind to Swim with Whale Sharks?
Unlike some wildlife encounters, these fish are not captive, nor are they lured with food. They are just doing their thing, and tourists come to watch them. When you do a tour, you pay a tax that supports their safety, and there are rules and wildlife police monitoring the tourists while we are swimming with them. Also, it is hard to leave swimming with these beauties without getting an urge to protect them and the ocean they depend on for survival. I have also discovered a love of sea turtles from swimming next to them down here.
Should I Snorkel or SCUBA to see the Whale Sharks?
We are SCUBA divers, so we considered diving with the sharks, but honestly, that would have been unnecessary. Whale sharks swim on the surface, and you can spook them by swimming under them, so snorkeling is an ideal way to swim with whale sharks.
The Story of My Whale Shark Tour
I was visiting Cancun with my parents, who are in their late sixties and early seventies, and my kids. Since my parents’ timeshare is ending, this may be the last year I am in the area during this time of year. We wanted to ensure that they could safely get into the water and have this experience, and we could have as much time as we wanted with the whale sharks. Due to this, we booked a private tour with Contoy Adventures. It was not cheap but was convenient, and the experience exceeded our expectations.
Private tours leave earlier than the group tours, so a van picked us up at our hotel at 6:15 am, then took us on the 30-minute drive to the dock in north Cancun. We were given a small breakfast of juice, coffee, and a pastry at the pier. There were bathrooms at the dock.
We then headed out past Isla Mujeres to search for sharks. After about 1 1/2 hours and a few dolphin sightings, we found the whales and about five other boats. Throughout our time, the number of vessels would increase to about 12.
So much of how good our tour was thanks to our guide, Kika. He put so much physical and mental effort into ensuring we got as much time with the whales as we wanted. Two people per boat are allowed in the water at one time, along with your guide. You are not allowed to touch the animals.
So once the decision was made about who the first two swimmers were, we put on snorkels, life vests, and flippers. We sat on the side of the boat, until given the signal from Kika to jump in. At that point, Kika helped us in the right direction, at times pulling us along or pushing us, so we were in the perfect orientation to swim alongside the massive whale sharks. We stayed in for about 15 minutes each jump, then climbed back into the boat using the back ladder.
Each of us went in the water as often as we wanted, which for me ended when I was physically exhausted after over 2 hours.
Not only did we swim alongside at least five whale sharks, but we also saw massive manta rays doing acrobatics in the water around us. They are also filter feeders and can grow up to 29 feet wide. They swam near us but flipped under us, showing their white bellies and smiling faces.
As I stated, my parents are elderly but were still able to participate in and enjoy this tour. While I was swimming for most of the two hours, they went into the water twice. Kika was excellent in towing them to where they needed to be and helping them get back into the boat. If you have physical limitations or are bringing kids, I would highly recommend a private tour.
After we left the whale shark area, we headed to North Beach on Isla Mujeres. Our captain anchored us in shallow water, and we enjoyed a ceviche lunch and drinks while in the shallow waters of North Beach. We also could go onto the island.
When we were done there, we headed back to the docks and then returned to our hotel at about 4:30 pm.
We have a GoPro and often use it to record our dives. But with this experience, we really wanted to just be in it with the animals, so we relied on the tour company to do the recording. After negotiating, the film and photos cost around $150.
Bring cash for tips. I was cash poor the whole time I was in Mexico this visit because so many more things required it, including taxes for any water tours, than they had in my past visits. Unlike the US, most guides don’t have Venmo or Paypal.
Our whale shark tour was everything we hoped for, and more! It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
How to Book a Whale Shark Tour
I would recommend our private tour with Contoy Adventures. I loved having no time limit and having the boat to ourselves. The group tours are limited to ten people, but I can’t speak about the experience. Book your whale shark tour today from a convenient Yucatan location.
We enjoyed this tour so much we went with them to Contoy Island just a few days later.
Is there an Age or Health Restriction to Swim with Whale Sharks?
Our guide told us that any age is welcome. You are wearing life jackets but can get more out of the experience if you are a strong swimmer. My parents were both grateful to have had the experience.
Please let me know if I didn’t answer all your questions in the comments. I hope I have inspired you to add a whale shark swim to your bucket list!