One of the biggest and best experiences in Cancun, in more ways than one, is swimming with whale sharks. These massive, plankton-munching creatures congregate in the waters to the north-east of Isla Mujeres every summer to feed. This gives thrill-seekers the perfect opportunity to swim alongside these incredible gentle giants of the deep. But don’t worry; whale sharks are passive and docile so it’s considered completely safe to share the ocean with them.
Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish and can reach 20 meters in length and live up to 100 years. They swim along the surface with their huge mouths held open to feed on microscopic sea life. Each shark has a unique set of white spots and stripes on its back. TiburÃ³n ballena, as they are called in Spanish, are a protected species in many parts of the world, including Mexico.
To see them, you’ll have to get up early. The tours, which operate from the 15th May to 15th September, usually set off at around 8.00am each morning. The best months to see whale sharks are July and August. The boat ride takes roughly an hour, and the excursion suits confident swimmers who will be asked to don a mask, snorkel and fins before they jump in the water in small groups with a guide. Whale sharks appear to move slowly but you have to swim quite fast to keep up with them. Children from the age of seven can also join the fun.
To make sure you don’t disturb the whale sharks in any way, swimmers have to adhere to a strict set of “˜don’ts’. Don’t touch the sharks, don’t get in their way, don’t swim too close, don’t harass them and don’t use your camera’s flash. But these are simply rules to help protect the sharks and the guidelines certainly won’t get in the way of you having fun.
Local marine biologist Rafael de la Parra from The Blue Realm Project explains how you can enjoy swimming with whale sharks in an eco-friendly manner. “˜The key is respect,’ says Rafael, “˜So please do not touch the whale sharks. You should use biodegradable sun block, wear a lifejacket or wet suit, and enjoy just watching and witnessing nature.’
Tour boats often stop off at a quiet spot on the way back to shore, where the crew prepare fresh cerviche served with cold beers, while you can enjoy snorkelling on a coral reef. And you will be back at the beach by lunchtime, so you’ll have the rest of the afternoon to enjoy the sun.
On a perfect day, with clement weather and calm seas, hundreds of whale sharks gather together and are often joined by manta rays, which are an equally popular sight. To find yourself next to a gigantic yet gentle whale shark is breathtaking, and the encounter helps to give people a new respect for the ocean and the creatures who live in it.
Have you been swimming with whale sharks in Cancun? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Catherine Gordon