Face to Face with the Whale Sharks of Cancun

  • 01 of 04

    Learning About the Mysterious Whale Sharks is Part of This Thrilling Experience

    Whale shark silhouette
    ••• Whale shark in the sun. © Pol Dss Photos

    Swimming with whale sharks is both a unique adventure and a learning experience: little is known about these awesome creatures, except that for some reason they have chosen the waters off the island of Isla Mujeres near Cancun, Mexico, to feed seasonally for a few months each year. July to mid-August is prime whale shark season, although they can be sighted on tours from Cancun Adventures (and other tour companies) between mid-May and mid-September (there's even a Whale Shark Festival on Isla Mujeres).

    I am most definitely not a water baby, so my recent whale-shark adventure (arranged by Cancun-based AMStarDMC) was way outside my comfort zone. That said, our Cancun Adventures guide, Pol, was extraordinary in every way, encouraging my jumps into the water, answering all of my questions, and holding my hand as I swam alongside the whale sharks. Wetsuits are available at no extra charge, and I took full advantage of the increased buoyancy they provide.

     

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  • 02 of 04

    Take the Plunge to Meet the Giants of the Sea

    swimming with whale sharks
    ••• swimming with whale sharks. © Pol Dss Photos

    Whale sharks don’t just linger offshore, waiting for your attention: the boat ride to their plankton-rich feeding grounds takes 1 to 1-½ hours; a spotter on the boat keeps a lookout for their telltale fins. On the way, our tour was lucky enough to see flying fish and a leaping group of dolphins. But this was a only prelude to the remarkable whale sharks, the largest species of fish on earth.

    Once a pod of sharks is located, the boat moves alongside their anticipated path. Two people at a time are told to be ready to jump in at the guide’s direction.  Once in the water, you are instructed to dive under the water, snorkel depth, and swim as fast as you can, keeping care not to get directly in front of the whale sharks (so as not to cause undue stress and to reduce the possibility of them filtering the water where we leave chemicals behind), or swim directly behind (lest one accidentally whacks you with a big dorsal fin). A guide remains with the group until the whale shark swims out of...MORE reach and you can reboard the boat. Each group gets at least three chances to jump in.

    This approach reflects the environmentally sensitive approach of Cancun Adventures; other boats in the area were observed allowing as many as 12 people to jump overboard at the same time without a guide (contrary to Mexican government regulations), visibly disturbing the whale sharks and causing them to dive deeper.  

     

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  • 03 of 04

    Face Time with a 40-Foot Fish

    whale shark convoy
    ••• Whale shark convoy. © Pol Dss Photos

    Once underwater, you may literally be face-to-face with a whale shark, which can be up to 40 feet long. My personal reaction was to began whooping and laughing hysterically at this completely unexpected perspective: looking this creature in the eye is simply amazing, like seeing into the soul of the sea.  Best described as resembling a large, polka-dotted catfish — their mouths can reach nearly five feet wide — the whale shark is serene in every way, and simply dives away when it is fed up with humans in its habitat.  

    Cancun Adventures’ guides’ respect for these gentle giants was further evidenced by the educational portion of the tour: Pol took pains to answer all of our questions, even though very little is known about the whale sharks.  For instance, they are not actually whales even though they filter-feed on plankton, phytoplankton, krill, small fish and squid, micro algae, and tuna eggs: they have gills that allow them to breathe underwater. Their yellow or white spots are like...MORE fingerprints; no two are alike in the whale-shark world. 

    The whale shark lays its eggs internally, perhaps as many as 300 at a time, and carries them until birth of live young. Despite the large number of eggs carried by each female, scientists still describe the species as vulnerable, meaning they could become endangered unless the circumstances threatening its survival and reproduction improve.

     

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  • 04 of 04

    Cancun Adventures Does Whale Sharks Right

    Whale shark, head-on
    ••• Whale shark, head-on. © Pol Dss Photos

    During your whale shark adventure, guides takes many photos that can be purchased at an additional (and pretty reasonable) cost.  When the tour stopped for lunch at Zazil Ha Restaurant on Isla Mujeres — reached by wading in the spectacular blue waters from the boat — Pol showed us photos and videos of each of us in the group.  (You can view his photos of other whale shark experiences on his Facebook page: Pol DSS Photos.) The visual memories are well worth it.

    Our tour was arranged as part of our stay at the Secrets Playa Mujeres resort. Cancun Adventures advertises they are “inspired by nature” and have the best guides, and I wholeheartedly endorse these sentiments. When planning a relaxing beach vacation, consider Cancun in the summer months, as the opportunity to swim with these rare and special creatures is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for water lovers and landlubbers alike!