Cancún, a glimmering jewel nestled on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico known for its breathtaking beaches, luxurious resorts, and pulsating nightlife scene that will leave you enchanted and wanting more. While it may already seem like the perfect holiday destination, it still has one ace up its sleeve that continues to attract people all over the world: a chance to swim with whale sharks.
The city’s blue waters play host to a grand spectacle of nature as hundreds of these gentle giants gracefully glide through during their annual migration, offering a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness and even swim alongside one up close.
If that sounds like the kind of experience you’re looking for in your bucket list, join us as we give you some interesting facts about whale sharks, the best tours in Cancun, and some useful tips to make this underwater encounter a story for the ages.
What You Need to Know About Swimming With Whale Sharks in Cancun, Mexico
What are Whale Sharks?
Whale sharks, the largest fish species in the ocean, are gentle giants that can grow up to 40 feet in length. These magnificent creatures are known for their broad, flat heads, wide mouths, and distinctive spots and stripes on their skin.
Unlike their predatory relatives, whale sharks are a type of carpet shark that feeds on plankton and small fish by filter-feeding (like blue whales.) They can be found in warm and tropical waters around the world, except for the Mediterranean Sea.
Are Whale Sharks Dangerous?
Now that we got to know them a little better, the next question is: are they dangerous? Despite their massive size and name, whale sharks are not dangerous. In fact, they are quite friendly and gentle, and swimming alongside one is a truly awe-inspiring experience that will stay with you forever.
Where to Snorkel & Swim with Whale Sharks in Cancun, Mexico
Whale sharks love deep waters, so it is nearly impossible to see one close to shore. Some of the best sites for snorkeling and swimming with these magnificent creatures include Isla Mujeres, Isla Contoy, and Isla Holbox, which are all a couple of miles further out into the sea from Cancun. It usually takes about an hour to reach, but the effort is definitely worth it once you witness these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.
Best Whale Shark Tours in Cancun
Because of the annual migration of whale sharks in the area, Cancun has plenty of whale shark tour operators ready to take you on an unforgettable underwater experience. Below are some of the best tours you can find:
Keep in mind that while there are plenty of whale sharks during their annual migration, there are times you might not spot one at all. Some tour operators like Ocean Tours Mexico have a ‘Whale Shark Warranty’ where you’ll get to do the tour again on the off chance that it happens.
When is Whale Shark Season in Cancun?
The Whale Shark Season in Cancun, Mexico is from late May/June to September, where hundreds of whale sharks gather in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Yucatan Peninsula to feed and possibly even breed.
While it is the best time to see these gentle giants, it also means that there will be lots of people coming in as well, so keep that in mind while planning your trip.
Tips for Snorkeling and Swimming with Whale Sharks
Like all wildlife encounters, there are several things that we need to keep in mind while snorkeling or swimming with the whale sharks. Like all wildlife encounters, there are several things that we need to keep in mind while snorkeling or swimming with the whale sharks.
- Bring an underwater camera or GoPro in case there is no professional photographer there to purchase the typically overpriced photos from after. (Many times you will also be able to rent an underwater camera there). Turn your camera on before you jump into the water—sometimes you’ll be to amazed by the whale sharks to fiddle with your camera.
- Don’t make loud noises, especially when entering the water.
- Bring biodegradable sunscreen with you (like Reef Repairs SPF 50). It was a requirement when we were there. Many places will have it for purchase there, but if you want to be safe get it ahead of time.
- Keep at least 3 meters (9 feet) of distance between you and the whale shark. Touching them is also prohibited.
- Swimming beside them is fine. Never swim from the front or block their path.
- If one does come towards you, remain calm and slowly move out of the way.
- Turn off your camera’s flash when taking pictures.
- Never feed the whale sharks.
- Take your seasickness medication at the right time, knowing that the boat ride is 45 minutes long.
- Be ready when the captain says “go” because he is telling you at the perfect viewing time
With these tips in mind, we hope you’ll have a wonderful encounter with these incredible creatures. Happy swimming!
More than just a summer destination, the tropical paradise of Cancun is definitely one of the best places to visit for a unique bucket list experience, like a swim with whale sharks during their migration season.
While at first, it may be a terrifying experience, once we take the chance and show our care and respect for creatures such as these gentle giants of the sea, we will surely get to enjoy more breathtaking moments like this in the future.
For more water adventures like this, you can check these out:
Pig Beach: The Bahama’s Swimming Pigs of Exuma Island
A Guide to Swimming in Palau’s Freshwater Jellyfish Lake
PS: Cancun is not the only place in the world to swim with whale sharks. You can also do it in Belize, Honduras, Mozambique and the Philippines.
I am not a huge fan of cilantro, raw tomatoes, spicy food, tequila shots or wearing sombreros, which is why traveling to the touristy towns in Mexico is typically not high on my list. But, there was something in Cancun that I would eat a habanero pepper covered in tomato salsa while wearing a silly hat for. Swimming with whale sharks.
The Story of My Experience
I had been intrigued by their massiveness on television and read about their gentleness in magazines. It has been on my bucket list ever since and potentially a great addition to my list of the top things to do before you die. Fortunately, Cancun was not only the perfect layover on my way to a Blue Osa Yoga Retreat in Costa Rica, but it was shark season too. Lucky me.
The Whale Shark Daddy tour company, whom I found online, picked us up from the hotel at the early morning hour of 6:30. About fifteen minutes later we were at the marina, having a briefing to learn the dos and don’ts of swimming with whale sharks.
Surprisingly, no one asked if a whale shark could swallow you whole. But, that’s what was on my mind. These gentle giants are the largest fish in the world, growing up to 60 feet, that’s over ten times the size of me. Their mouths can extend five feet when open. That’s absolutely large enough to accidentally suck me in.
Whales sharks are found in the Cancun area from the months of May through September, but mostly during the months of July and August. We were there in a prime month.
After the informative talk, renting a wet suit and purchasing a bottle of biodegradable sunscreen, our captain Irving took us on a 45 minute boat ride to the area where whale sharks are typically seen in the season. Of course there could be no guarantee to how many would be there, just that there’d be at least one. I was hoping for at least a dozen whale sharks. Greedy.
We knew we had arrived when we saw an area in the ocean with a circle of boats. As we approached these vessels we saw 10-14 whale sharks leisurely swimming about, unfazed by our presence.
Each of the eight of us on the boat were going to get three opportunities to be within feet of these massive creatures. Peter and I were up first.
The boat pulled up to the front of one of the whale sharks and the captain yelled “go”. This is when I should have jumped into the water, but fearful hesitation caused me to miss the opportunity and the ginormous fish swam away. Why couldn’t you just wait for me Mr. Shark?
This experience is true to its name, it is called swimming with whale sharks, not whale sharks swimming with you. Again, the captain set the boat in a position that was believed to be a perfect viewing angle. This time when he said “go” I did.
One large whale shark swam in front of me and then two more came by. Stunned for a moment by their huge tails swaying back and forth I couldn’t turn my camera on fast enough, but at least Peter had the GoPro ready. We stayed in the water for about ten minutes then let the next group have their turn.
After the first swim, Peter was stricken with a severe case of seasickness even though he took medication beforehand.
So, the second time I went solo, just with my guide Mosquito. As soon as I jumped into the 70ish degree water a whale shark was staring me in the face, just a foot away from my head. We played a momentary game of chicken. I lost.
I veered to the right paddling alongside him, feeling the pressure of the water from his close proximity. I grabbed my camera, snapping photographs as quickly as possible. And then he was gone.
There were a few others swimming by, feeder fish attached to their sides, but nothing compared to the one gigantic one who had the perfect opportunity to take a taste of me for lunch. Luckily it was more interested in eating Plankton instead of me.
After this second jump, with the swaying motion of the boat, my stomach wasn’t feeling so well either. I am typically not a motion sickness sufferer, but the last of the whale shark viewing would have to be done from above water.
After the main adventure, the captain stopped us in some of the clearest blue water that was waist deep. Here we would be having our guacamole and shrimp lunch with a little cerveza.
Swimming with these gentle giants was an incredible experience. So, take your Dramamine, chew your ginger tablets, stick on your patch and sniff an aromatherapy stick. If you are not fully protected from motion sickness you will not be able to enjoy this once in a lifetime bucket list adventure.
Best Tips for Visiting Cancun Mexico
How to Get to Cancun Mexico: Cancun International Airport is a major hub and most airlines will fly into it. You can easily check for the best fare deals at Skyscanner, which also has the option to choose ‘cheapest month’ as the departure to find the lowest priced dates to fly to your destination. From the airport to the city center, you can take a shuttle bus, taxi, private transfer, rental car or the bus.
Getting Around: Driving in a new destination can be a bit of a challenge, but if you choose to rent a car, RentalCars.com has great deals. If you are not renting a car, there are plenty of other options. Taxis are available all over the city, plus most of the major attractions can be accessed with the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus. For a more budget friendly option, you can take the public bus.
Best Time to Visit Cancun Mexico: The months of December through April are the busiest travel seasons to Cancun. Most days are sunny and warm, but not oppressively so. Expect little rain and temperatures between 75 and 90 degrees. On occasion, cold fronts may bring with them chillier conditions for a few days.
Where to Stay in Cancun Mexico: It’s best to stay near the city center, public transportation or the area that you will be spending the most time in. Adhara Hacienda Cancun is a great choice in the Cancun. For something on the less expensive side, try Nomads Party Hotel & Hostel located in Cancun. For a hotel with a little more extravagance, book a room at the Renaissance Cancun Resort & Marina. Or search some great deals on hotels of your choice at Booking.com. If you’re looking for more of a home atmosphere (or are traveling with a group of people), head over to Airbnb that has houses, apartments and even just a room for rent in every price range.
Universal Adapter: Your American plugged equipment will need an adapter. I use the Celtic Universal Adapter, which has brought me around the world with no problems.