In August 2017, we took a trip to Riviera Maya, on the East Coast of Mexico. At the top of our wish list was to swim with whale sharks. This has been a bucket list item for a while, and there aren’t too many places in the world where you can to do this. We decided to jump at the opportunity!
Whale Shark season spans May to September. This meant that we had a good chance of seeing the sharks. Whale sharks are the largest living species of shark, growing up to 41.5 feet in length and weighing up to 30 tons – around the size of a small bus! They are one of only three species of Sharks that only feed on plankton. The sharks usually live between 70 to 100 years.
While the name “whale sharks” sounds pretty intimidating, these gentle giants are actually very docile and have never been reported to attack humans. Our tour guide began by explaining that even if the whale sharks wanted to eat us, it would be physically impossible. While their mouths can be up to five-feet long, the esophagus of a whale shark is tiny – around the size of a US Quarter. So even if they preferred humans over plankton, they wouldn’t have much luck swallowing us. With that in mind, we started to relax!
Highlights from our whale shark experience
Below is a summary of the highlights from the tour.
1. Eco Colors Tours:
Our day trip was run by EcoColors Tours, which has been operating Whale Shark tours for over 18 years. In fact, they were one of the first tour operators to run this excursion, so we felt in safe hands!
They run tours daily, so it was easy enough for us to book on the day of our choice. The staff was very professional and friendly. They did everything they could to make us feel safe throughout the trip.
After a quick introduction and set-up with the wetsuits, we were loaded onto the boats. The guides were very well informed and gave us so many interesting facts about the whale sharks. The also warned us that it wasn’t guaranteed that we would see the sharks. But they did promise to do their best! This disclosure is also on the website, and they recommend taking the tour during the most active part of the season, which is mid-June to August. Apparently, sunny days are better than cloudy days, both for visibility and because the sharks tend to surface when the sun is out.
2. Swimming with the Sharks:
After an hour boat ride through the Gulf of Mexico, we reached the point at which the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico meet. This is an area that is really popular with the sharks. This is because the meeting of the two currents causes the plankton to rise to the surface, hence being a nice lunch spot for the sharks.
There were so many other boats all headed in the same direction, it felt like we were all on a pilgrimage to experience something truly spectacular. And we weren’t disappointed! The excitement started to build as we became closer and closer to a large group of boats, and suddenly our guides started pointing out to the ocean and positioning people to jump into the ocean. We immediately spotted sharks to our left, right, and all around us. There were so many in the area that day!
When our turn came around, we were given a signal to jump into the water. As soon as we jumped in, we immediately saw a large whale shark and we started to swim right alongside it. Whale sharks move at around 2 miles an hour and are very gracious with their movements. We snorkeled next to it for a couple of minutes before it was time to let another pair experience the sharks.
We were given a second chance in the water and this time was even more spectacular! The sharks will often feed vertically, which is also known as “Standing on their Tail”. This is where they stay in one position for a while as they suck in the plankton. It’s a great position to be able to see the sharks as they are stationary. We were so lucky with our second sighting!
3. Isla Mujeres:
After a lot of adrenaline and excitement, we took the boat back towards the mainland and stopped at the beautiful Isla Mujeres for a quick swim and a Ceviche lunch.
Isla Mujeres is Spanish for “Women Island” and is around 8 miles off the Yucatan Peninsula coast. It’s a tiny island, spanning only 4 miles long and 650 meters wide. We didn’t make it onto the island but had a great time swimming in the crystal-clear waters surrounding it. We even spotted a starfish underneath us.
The stop was a nice touch to the day and was a great way to relax before heading back to shore. If we make it back to this part of Mexico, we’d love to spend some more time on this beautiful island.
Top tips for swimming with whale sharks
If you’re planning on taking a trip out to see the whale sharks, here are some of our top tips.
1. Reserve your booking in advance and book through a reputable provider:
When researching online, we found so many different companies offering whale shark tours. We ended up booking through Viator, which is a company owned by Trip Advisor that works with local tour providers around the world to coordinate online bookings. We generally prefer to book through reputable sources or recommendations from friends, family and respected travel agencies, especially when traveling to a new country or city. It gives us added peace of mind while traveling. Itinerary planning can be tough enough, and it’s one less thing to worry about knowing that the tour is legit and trustworthy.
2. Book a small group tour:
As mentioned, there are lots of different tour options for swimming with whale sharks, but we opted for the “Small Group Tour” operated by EcoColors; mostly because it was a smaller and more intimate group. There were 10 people on our tour, including a small crew of tour operator staff. We took turns jumping into the ocean with a partner (and, of course, the sharks!). Due to the small size of the group, the number of sharks, and the number of boats on the water, we were each given two jumps into the ocean.
3. Take sea sickness medication:
We were warned by our tour guide of the high possibility of getting seasick while out on the water. We decided it was best to stop by a local pharmacy where we picked up some Dramamine medication. This helped, however, we still managed to feel a bit sick. The rough waters definitely had its effect!
4. Opt for the wetsuit:
You’re required to wear a flotation device during the ocean swim, either a wetsuit or a life vest. We spoke to other people in our group who had done the experience before and they recommended the wetsuit option. We were happy with the choice as well. Even though it did cost $15 extra, it allowed us to get much closer to the sharks and swim much faster. I’d only recommend this if you’re a good swimmer, otherwise it’s best to stick with a life vest.
5. Pack appropriately:
We filled our day pack with travel towels, a change of clothes, sanitizing wipes, water, and most importantly, our GoPro. You do not want to miss the opportunity to capture this incredible experience! The boat does get pretty wet, so we also recommend you pack Ziploc plastic bags to protect your belongings from water damage. There is also little shade on the boat, so make sure you stay hydrated and be sure to take a hat along with you.
Another important thing to note is that you can’t use sunscreen while out on the water. This rule protects the animals and the sea from pollution, so it’s best to cover up if you’re sensitive to sun exposure.
We both agree that this was a once in a lifetime experience, and another major bucket item ticked off. If you’re in the Cancun area, we highly recommend it!
Have you been lucky enough to swim with whale sharks? Share your experience in the comments section below! And if you have any questions or comments, let us know. We are happy to provide additional tips.