Snorkel With Whale Sharks in Mexico Tour Video
Pictures from Swimming with the Whale Sharks
Whale Shark Season - Coast of Mexico
This summer July 2011 I went with a group of friends on a tour to snorkel and swim with the whale sharks off the coast of Mexico. Whale Sharks surface seasonally a few places in the world and the ocean off of Isla Mujeres, Mexico (near Cancun) is one of these few places.
The boat ride to whale shark grounds is 30 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes depending on where the sharks are swimming. The best time to see them is during the full moon. We went the day after the full moon and saw dozens of whale sharks. We were told that the day of the full moon was the best time because hundreds of whale sharks could be seen. These animals live in their natural environment so there is no guarantee you may find the sharks if you take a tour.
The prices ranged from $150-$215 per person depending on the tour company, the size of the boat, the size of your group and the discount the booking agent was willing to give you. There will be no discount based on age. Almost all the the tours provide lunch, but bring your own snacks as well if you don't like what is served. Ask if the boat you are taking has a restroom, most of them won't so you will have to keep this in mind. Tours can last several hours.
Is it Dangerous?
Here was what we were told about swimming with the whale sharks:
Stay 9 feet away and swim only along the side of the sharks. They have eyes on the sides of their head and may not see you if you swim in front of them.
The whale shark may accidentally swallow you and spit you out if you get in front of them (they are filter feeders and do not eat humans). The tour company said this can be uncomfortable. HOWEVER, I am suspicious that they down-played the risks. It seems only logical that if you accidentally got swallowed or spit out, that you can risk death through drowning or bodily injury. Also, we were instructed to stay away from the tail because it sweeps the water around as it swims.
This was about the extent of the instruction we were given for the swim.
Whale Sharks Surface Next to the Boat
Snorkeling and Swimming With the Whale Sharks
The actual experience of the swimming with the sharks was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was an adrenaline rush as you swam with these very large creatures which can measure up to the size of a school bus (National Geographic). They appear large when you view from the boat, but when you get in the water you can fully experience that size of this animal.
The water in Mexico was clear enough to see other Whale Sharks coming from other directions so you had time to move out out of the way of any swimming toward you. I had to be very vigilant and look around frequently to see if there were any coming up behind me or from another direction if I was swimming alongside a whale shark already.
You are not supposed to touch the Whale Sharks because they have a protective layer of film on them that protects against bacteria. Also, any unpredictable movements of the whale shark can pose risks to swimmers if you are too close.
To keep up with the whale sharks and swim around them takes effort and they will swim faster than you. Expect to swim in 10 minute intervals and take turns with the other people on your boat. The tours allowed for pairs of 2 to swim with the shark and take turns. There was 1 guide form the boat in the water with us, but he spent a lot of him time taking pictures with tour company's camera.
This is not an activity for children and requires you be able to swim and be in reasonable enough shape to make quick movements in the water. The boat will stay close to you but may be a distance away that requires you to swim to the boat. If you become fatigued or cramp up, you will be close enough to signal the boat. There will likely be other tour boats in the area as well.