Swimming with the whale sharks in Cancun has been on our adventure list for a while now. While we have had chances all around the world to swim with the whale sharks, it has never worked out.
They are wild animals and you cannot guarantee an encounter no matter how strongly you hope. Our chance to experience the world’s largest fish came during our recent travels to Mexico and was an experience worth waiting for.
While swimming with the whale sharks in Cancun was our main goal, we were excited to learn more about this endangered species and the conservation efforts in place to protect them in Mexico.
We were lucky enough to have an experienced divemaster and a Marine Biologist from the Isla Contoy project along with our group who were able to educate us on the whale sharks and conservation efforts throughout our experience.
It was amazing to meet such dedicated people who truly believe in educating people about whale sharks and protecting them in the waters around Cancun.
It is important for travelers to be educated and focus on traveling responsibly before heading out on their whale shark excursions. So many travelers miss the point when they have opportunities to interact with wildlife and they make simple and honest mistakes that harm the animals.
Don’t leave home without Lonely Planet Cancun, Cozumel & the Yucatan (Travel Guide)
How to See Whale Sharks in Cancun
Our day started on the white sand beaches of Cancun with the hot sun shining and the teal water moving slowly against the shore. We were briefed about the day and introduced to our guides before signing our lives away and waiting for the boat to arrive at the jetty.
Once at the dock, we kicked off our shoes and found our spots on the boat. The friendly captain briefed us about his boat and we started our way to the middle of the ocean in search of the whale sharks.
Unlike some of the other places in the World you can see them, the whale sharks in Cancun are in a different natural location every day.
To the Middle of the Ocean
There are spotters who monitor their movements so they know where they will be and they talk to the different boat captains so they have an idea where to go early in the morning.
Swimming with the whale sharks in Cancun is one of the most natural experiences on the planet. They do not bait them, they do not chase or herd them and they do not contain them.
You are taken to them, not the other way around and that often means the trip out can be just as much of an adventure as being in the water with them.
Truth be told, the boat ride can be miserable. If you’re planning this adventure with someone who does not do well on boats, you may want to think twice about it.
Our captain did his best but the boat was not a match to the large ocean waves that day and we spent a solid 2 hours riding waves and crashing down on the backside. The open ocean is not your Cancun sunset cruise.
The trip is, of course, a round trip and we had to prepare ourselves for a minimum of 4 hours of wild ride waves to and from the swimming site. There is no easy way to get out to the whale sharks and there is no close port to sail from.
We were literally in the middle of the ocean with no visible land by the time we reached the site for whale shark swimming that day.
TIP: If you have issues or fears about swimming in the middle of the ocean, you may want to rethink this adventure. I’m sorry to be honest, but it is a part of the trip that nobody talks about. You will not be able to see the bottom, you will only see deep blue water. If you can fight through the fears, it is totally worth it though.
Finding the Whale Sharks in Cancun
After crashing through the waves and the land had gone leaving us with ocean views for miles, we saw a small group of boats gathered. We had finally reached the site.
Almost immediately you could see the giant whale sharks making their way around the boats. This excited the whole boat and we were finally going to mark swimming with the whale sharks off our adventure list.
We were briefed again on the rules of swimming with the whale sharks and were required to acknowledge all the requirements before we grabbed our gear and prepared to jump into the ocean.
As I sat on the edge of the boat, I realized I was slightly scared to enter the water as the large sharks swam just under the surface.
Swimming with large groups of 24-32 foot sharks can be intimidating however they are harmless to people, in fact, they can be pretty friendly to swimmers. The guides yelled out that it was time to jump into the water and I slid off the side of the boat plunging into the deep ocean.
Once the air bubbles cleared from my plunge off the boat, I found myself face to face with a 28-foot whale shark that was making its way right at me. The shark’s eyes peered at me as he made his way through the water past me.
In a moment that seemed to last for minutes, but in reality, it was only a few seconds, the whale shark was gone.
You cannot beat the feelings that overcome you as a 28-foot shark swims next to you. As the largest fish in the sea, the whale sharks sheer size and grace as they make their way through the water are breathtaking in its natural habitat.
I was snapped out of my awe by our guide as he signaled to the boat to come and pick us up. I stumbled back onto the boat in disbelief, was I really just a few feet away from the largest fish in the world? Lina was already sitting on the edge of the boat and ready to go.
Now, the whale shark I swam with was gone but a new one had already replaced it near our boat. Lina’s experience was as magical as mine and she had a slower, even larger whale shark swim with her.
I appreciated the grace of the whale shark from the boat as I watched the experience unfold in front of me. She came out of the water with a huge grin on her face.
Second Times A Charm- Whale Sharks Mexico
We ended up with two chances each to swim with the whale sharks and the second chance was as magical as the first. That feeling I got jumping into the open water on the first jump didn’t really go away.
This was the open ocean, after all. However, once those bubbles cleared again, my eyes could not believe the sight of the large whale shark swimming right next to me.
This time, the whale shark was just an arm’s length away and I did my best to swim hard and keep up. I quickly found out that no matter how fast I swam the whale shark just did two swings of his tail and was gone.
Like the first time, it seemed like time stood still while I attempted to keep up with the shark, but the reality was that it lasted a mere couple minutes in total.
That would be my last time in the water on that trip and my experience of swimming with the whale sharks in Cancun would come to an end. I guess someone had to limit me, I easily could have spent all day in the water.
Lina’s second experience was even better than her first and admittedly the best experience of our whole group. She had one of the largest whale sharks come in with her while she was swimming.
It even took its time with her, swimming slowly next to her as if he was checking her out. He swam steady and allowed the experience to unfold. We all stared in awe as it swam next to her, lingering for so long it felt like time stood still.
After the high of our last encounters, it was time to pack up and head back to port.
No surprise, the 2 hour torrent of a wave crashing on the return boat trip hardly existed and every person on the boat stared into the distance with a smile on their face while they thought about the magical experience we had just had.
Make The Most of Your Whale Sharks Cancun Experience
You really only get a few seconds with the whale sharks once you get in the water and it is hard to get great photos.
We jumped in with the GoPro camera on our first dive but found them distracting. We wanted to revel at the moment. We were, after all, in the water with the largest fish in the World.
So many travelers don’t take the time to really take in the full experience. Instead they experience it though a camera lens. You can miss so much by being focused on trying to capture the moment.
It is not like you can jump right in and spend all day with the whale sharks. The boats have to be able to safely operate between you and the wild animals.
You have to jump in as the whale shark makes its way towards you otherwise they will turn and be gone before reaching you. This takes a bit of skill by the captain to get into place so you can get the best experience.
Sometimes you can jump in and miss them, other times you can be right next to them. This takes time, for our group of 6 it took around 10 minutes to line up safely, one diver in for about 5-8 minutes, then repeat till it’s your next turn.
So each turn took around 15 minutes and we were able to be in the water along with our guide. We loved this, no large groups of people thrashing around and ruining the moment.
Ready to See the Whale Sharks in Cancun for Yourself?
Swimming with the whale sharks in Cancun, Mexico is something that should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Even if the thought of being in open water scares the bejeezus out of you, it is worth it, trust me. You can accomplish anything you put your mind to and if this is something you’d love to do, just go for it.
The Yucatan’s whale shark tourism industry is booming from just a few hundred tourists a year to more than 12,000 annually. Unlike other places in the world, the Mexican government strictly monitors swimmers while swimming with the whale sharks.
There are strict rules and regulations that everyone must follow. If they are not followed, you will receive a fine. Fines for not following the rules vary from $1,000 to $5,000USD and are given on-site or once back on land.
The Mexican Army is charged with enforcing rules and can be very strict on tourists who are non-compliant.
Best Time to Swim with Whale Sharks in Cancun
While the weather in Cancun is pleasant for most months of the year, there are specific times that the whale sharks move into the area during their migration practices.
Luckily, they move through this area as part of their regular routes and your chances of getting a sighting are really high if you time it well.
June 1st to September 17 is the absolute best time to swim with the whale sharks in Cancun. However, July and August are peak season for swimming with the whale sharks and while there may be a few more visitors during this time, you’ll see the larger concentrations so it can be a fair trade-off.
Rules and Regulations for Swimming with the Whale Sharks in Mexico
- Only one person is allowed in the water with a guide, per boat, while swimming with the whale sharks.
- You must enter the water slowly from the boat. No jumping off the front or back of the boat into the water.
- No matter what, a life vest is mandatory.
- The boats must keep a minimum distance of 10 meters between the boat and whale sharks.
- Swimmers must stay a minimum distance of 2 meters from the whale sharks at all times. This also includes cameras and selfie sticks.
- Do not touch the whale sharks, you may want to but you will be quickly pulled out of the water and fined.
- Do not feed the fish.
- Do not take anything out of the sea.
- No fishing.
- No use of flash photography.
- You should only use biodegradable sunblock.
- No scuba diving with the whale sharks.
- Do not touch or kick the coral.
- Do not throw your trash in the sea, you should always take it back with you.
- All guides must have their SECTUR permit visible at all times and they must be certified for: CPR/First Aid, hold a Tourism Snorkeling Guide Certification, take a Whale Shark Biology Course and understand Group Management in Protected and Unprotected Areas.
- Boats must not exceed the capacity limitations indicated below. (Captain and Guide are included in the count.) 25’-6 persons, 26’-7 persons, 27’-8 persons, 28’-9 persons, 29’and over-10 persons. Boats over 33’ are not permitted to enter the whale shark area in Cancun, Mexico.
Mexico is one of the only counties that have strict rules in place. Other countries have been slow to adopt these policies and some even bait the whale sharks for tourists. You should do your research before booking a trip.
More Things to Think About- Whale Shark Swimming Cancun
- You should not board tours using diesel engines, the residue harms the whale sharks.
- We would recommend this adventure for the ages of 14-65. Younger kids may have an unpleasant time due to the rough boat ride.
- Do not put sunblock on before entering the water. Yes, you may have biodegradable sunblock on, however, it is still a chemical that can harm the whale sharks. Even biodegradable sunscreens take time to break down.
- Beware of anyone offering you a price below the legal standard or who claims they will allow you to violate the rules above. You should go with well known and educated tour operators only.
- You can hire a photographer to capture your swimming with the whale sharks adventure. This is better because they will get better shots then you will ever get, so it is worth it. I would recommend checking with your tour operator before you book to see if they offer this.
- If you want to swim with the whale sharks in Cancun, make sure you book your tour in advance. In peak season you cannot just walk up to a tour company and book.
Fun Facts About Whale Sharks
Even as the world’s largest fish, there is little known information about whale sharks available.
As we have figured out their endangerment, there have been ongoing and aggressive studies being done to find out more about them and how we can protect them.
In an effort to help educate the public about this fragile species, we want to share some of the things we learned about them during our experience in Cancun.
- The name “whale shark” comes from the fish’s physiology; being as large as most whales and also a filter feeder like many whale species.
- The whale shark is not only the largest shark; it is the largest fish in the ocean and the largest backboned animal that isn’t a mammal.
- They are slow-moving filter-feeding sharks and are the largest extant fish species.
- The whale shark is found in tropical and warm oceans and lives in the open sea with a lifespan of around 70 years.
- Whale sharks usually swim and feed near the top of the water.
- You thought your sister had a big mouth, well whale sharks mouths can be up to 4.9 feet wide.
- Whale sharks have unique patterns on their skin that are similar to human fingerprints, no pattern is the same.
- Their skin is up to 4 inches thick.
- Whale sharks are solitary creatures and do not swim with other sharks. They are, however, often seen swimming with smaller fish, particularly remoras (suckerfish).
- The worldwide populations of all whale sharks are only estimated to be in the thousands.
- It’s illegal to kill and process whale sharks as they are a protected species that are not currently threatened with extinction but they will become so unless trade is closely controlled.
- A single carcass is worth about $30,000 in China even though it is illegal. The shark meat is sold for food, the fins are sold to restaurants for shark fin soup, the skin is sold to manufacturers for bags and the oil is sold to companies that make fish oil supplements.
Best Places to Swim with Whale Sharks in the World
That’s right, there is more than one place to swim with these amazing creatures in the World. However, not all locations are created equal.
While some countries are taking huge responsibility in regulating this practice and contributing to conservation and environmental efforts, some are not.
It is important that you do your homework and makes informed decisions when dealing with wildlife and animals in your travels.
Use the information we have given you to have a sustainable experience and live the adventures you have been dreaming of.
- Cancun, Mexico: With the conservation efforts in place, this is one of the best places you can swim with Whale Sharks in the world. Tours depart daily from June to September when the whale sharks arrive to feed and mate. July to August is peak season.
- Utila, Honduras: This is one of the cheapest destinations in the world where you can swim with whale sharks all year around. Utila also boasts one of the world’s best whale shark research centers. Whale sharks are spotted every month, but the highest concentration arrives between March and April, fewer numbers are from September to Christmas.
- Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia: Australia’s largest and most accessible fringing coral reef. This UNESCO World Heritage site stretches over 300k and is home to more than 500 fish species. Whale sharks arrive to feed between mid-March and July.
- Gladden Spit, Belize: From March to June, whale sharks flock to Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve, near the coastal town of Placencia. April and May are the most consistent months to view the whale sharks here.
- Donsol Bay, Philippines: This little town quickly became one of the Philippines’ premier tourist destinations. Sightings of whale sharks are less frequent these days, but whale shark tourism is reportedly more ethical here than in Oslob, Cebu (where the sharks are fed). Whale sharks generally arrive between November and June, peaking from February to April.
- Tofo Beach, Mozambique: Maputo is home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of whale sharks in Africa, thanks to a year-round supply of plankton. Sightings of 50 strong congregations are not uncommon from October to March.
- South Mahe, Seychelles: This is where the whale sharks are the most protected. The largest island in the Indian Ocean archipelago, Mahe is the best place to spot them. Whale sharks migrate past Mahe between August and November, with sightings peaking in October.
- Koh Tao, Thailand: Koh Tao is known for its dirt-cheap scuba diving but did you know it is also known for seeing whale sharks? Whale sharks encounters are getting harder but for a stroke of luck, they can be spotted year-round, especially from April to June.
- South Ari Atoll, Maldives: Whales sharks can be found year-round in the Maldives but your chances of sightings are strong when you reach the south part of the Ari Atoll where they like to hang out on the reef shelves. Operators in the area run weekly all year-round.
Will You Join the Adventure?
Swimming with the whale sharks in Cancun, Mexico was truly a once in a lifetime experience and we are glad that our first time was in such a mindful and educated setting.
It is easy to forget about the technical side of things when the excitement of having the experience takes over. We want to give you the tools to be a mindful adventure traveler, so make it count.
If you are looking for an Eco-friendly resort to stay in Cancun you should check out Sunset Royal. The Sunset Royal is located on the sun-kissed white sand beach of the Mexican Caribbean.
With great views of the turquoise blue sea, this resort has everything to make you feel like you are in a dream. The best part? They source most of their fruits, vegetables, and flowers from their very own eco-farm, Ethos, in the Mayan jungle.
If you are looking for useful information on how you can help the whale sharks, the World Wildlife Organization has loads of useful information available.
If swimming with whale sharks seems a little too adventurous, there are plenty of other gorgeous diving experiences to enjoy in Mexico.
From reefs for beginner divers to tucked away cenotes, you’re guaranteed to find a natural escapade that will take your breath away.
Special thank you to Sunset World resorts for hosting us in Mexico and giving us this opportunity to learn more about their Eco-efforts and the chance to swim with these magical creatures. As always, all opinions are our own.
More on Mexico:
- The Amazing Mexico City Pyramids of Teotihuacan
- 12 Best Day Trips from Mexico City That are Worth Taking
- Manzanillo Mexico Travel Guide: A Cancun Alternative
- 28 Incredible Things to do in Cozumel
- 30 Things to Do in the Riviera Maya for an Epic Vacation
- 30 Awesome Things to Do in Playa del Carmen
- 29 Amazing Things to do in Cancun
- Hacienda Tres Rios: Sustainable Luxury in Cancun
- Celebrating 15 Years of Travel with Barcelo Maya Grand Resort