My first attempt to swim with whale sharks in the Philippines didn’t result in anything as I was there during the wrong time of the year and not in the best spot, but fortunatelly things did work out in my favor and I finally managed to get to see the largest fish in the world in Cancun, Mexico.
With crystal clear water (most of the time, unless there’s tons of plankton) the tip of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula offers an unbeatable opportunity to observe these gentle creatures, as whale sharks come to feed in the waters near the island of Contoy. The whale watching season in Cancun lasts from May until September, and sightings are pretty much guaranteed although for the past few years they appear to be spending less time in the area.
Unless you have a boat the only way of reaching the whale sharks is by joining an organized tour, and I did so with Ecocolors Tours, a local company with more than 13 years of experience that focuses on environmentally friendly tours and is run by certificated professional guides who are naturalists and biologists and know everything about the area and the whale sharks.
Reaching the Whale Sharks
The tours start early in the morning as it takes quite some time to reach the spot where they feed. Ecocolors Tours will arrange pick up at your hotel or close to it, and you’ll be taken to the marina where a light breakfast is offered that includes coffe, tea, water, some fruit and pastries.
The marina they use is a bit far from downtown Cancun, but this allows a more personal service in a quieter location. Once all the participants have arrived you’ll be placed into groups of not more than ten people, and appropriate gear will be distributed. Life vests are mandatory unless you use a spring suit which can be rented on location, and masks and fins are provided.
Should you need a camera they also have the traditional underwater cameras for sale, which I had to buy as I didn’t have the water case for mine.
It takes about 45 minutes of high speed sailing to get to where the whale sharks are, time during which you’ll enjoy some beautiful views of unspoiled beaches and the Caribbean reefs. By the way, if you’re prone to get seasick make sure you bring some pills!
Swimming With the Whale Sharks
Odds are that by the time you reach the whale sharks there will be some other boats in the area, but they are usually spread enough to not bother each other. The sharks are constantly moving around eating plankton, and will be heading towards a boat just to veer off another way a few seconds later.
The process to swim with them is always the same: swimming in partners, you sit on the side of the boat which will head towards the intended path of the whale shark. When about 3-5 meters away from the whale shark you’ll be told to jump and will then try to swim fast to keep up with their pace, looking at them in the eye (while they look back at you) and trying to take some great shots. Mind you they swim much quicker than you and you’ll be left behind a few seconds later.
This is done with all the teams in the boat around four or five times, by then a few will be too tired to give it another shot.
Heading Back and Snorkeling Stop
After spending some good time with our friendly giants we headed back to the marina, but not without first stopping at a shallow reef where we were given some time to snorkel around for about 20 minutes and were offered some great fish ceviche and water or sodas. It was far from the ultimate diving experience but the sea was much cleaner here and the reef did have some marine life, though I was not able to see any turtles or a dolphins as we did when heading towards the whale sharks. In any event it was some good time to relax and enjoy the Caribbean, and definitely one of those those things to do in Mexico when on vacation!
Once lunch was over we sped back to the marina, the bumpy ride keeping you awake like it or not ( in my opinion attempting to doze off like one person did could be labeled as a crime as views like these are not easy to find). After a quick visit to the loo if necessary we all hopped to the van and were taken back to the hotel.
Whale shark watching tours are certainly not cheap, but they do offer a unique opportunity to mingle with the largest fish in the world, a statement that by itself has a lot of value. If you’re lucky and the water is very clean you can also end up with some spectacular pictures, a souvenir to brag about back home too!