By Claire Heginbotham | Published on March 28, 2022
Swimming with whale sharks in Mexico is a truly unique experience. Forget dolphins and turtles; there's nothing as special as sharing the water with the world's largest shark. Their massive presence is so astounding that even the most experienced holiday-goers often gasp at the sight of them!
Whale sharks congregate in the rich, warm waters of Mexico and are perfectly safe to swim with. And trust me, swimming with them in the wild is a story you'll want to bring home!
Whale Sharks — or tiburon ballena in Mexico's native Spanish — are a species of carpet shark that grow to be an average length of 39 feet long and weigh up to 79,000 pounds. As you'll find out when you're in the water with them, no photos can do justice to the actual bulk of this majestic fish. You simply can't comprehend it until you find your tiny body swimming next to them. Referred to as "Gentle Giants," whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, and both the east as well as west coasts of Mexico happens to be one of their most popular hangouts. Fortunate news for vacation travelers on cruise to Mexico near destinations like Cancun or La Paz.
They're known to roam warm tropical waters, effortlessly covering thousands of miles every season. Biologists believe that they can live exceptionally long lives of up to 150 years old and dive down to incredible depths.
I know what you're thinking, "Do I really want to get in the water with such a massive shark?" But don't hold their sharkness against them! Like whales, whale sharks only eat microscopic invertebrates such as plankton and krill. Plus, they have teeny tiny teeth that can't bite on anything larger than a millimeter!
Whale sharks are camouflaged with dark blue skin splattered by light spots unique to each shark, kind of like fingerprints. Though they were once a popular fish to eat, and they're still hunted in some locations. Mexico fiercely protects its whale shark population both from fishing and over-tourism.
You can see whale sharks swimming all year round!
On the Yucatán Peninsula (the warm tropical side of Mexico near Cancun), herds of whale sharks glide into the shallow, bright blue waters to suck up plankton. The best time to see them in action here is typically mid-summer during June or July.
The Baja Peninsula is where Mexico's whale sharks spend their time the rest of the year. Visit from November to May for a good chance of seeing whale sharks without the crowds.
One important note: You need to book a guided tour to swim with whale sharks as Mexican laws and regulations protect them.
Of all the islands, I find Isla Holbox the most charming and rustic. It's off the beaten path, packed full of brightly colored huts and well worth a quick stop for lunch between swimming sessions.
Part of what makes the peninsula so attractive to the usually shy whale sharks is the sudden drop off of 3 meters into 10-meter depths. The resulting currents cause a delicious upwelling of microscopic plankton that whale sharks can't resist.
While Cancun boasts a greater density of sharks during whale shark season, Baja California Sur is a much more spread-out affair. Whale sharks return from their shallow-water summer on the East Coast and move to greater depths.
With warm waters, little rain from November and reduced humidity, whale shark season in Baja California Sur is the perfect winter escape.
As the home to a whopping 800 marine species, including trillions of microscopic invertebrates, La Paz Bay is one of the hottest spots for teenage whale sharks to hang out and catch a bite to eat. La Paz Bay is so close to the city of La Paz; you might even see whale sharks from shore on a clear day.
Cancun's strict conservation and tourism rules relax a bit on this side of Mexico, so scuba diving with whale sharks is allowed (with safety rules in place). All you need is a valid PADI license, and you're ready to swim with one of these gentle giants.
Set your expectations in advance to have the best experience possible. At a minimum, I recommend getting some snorkeling experience under your belt before going, as it's pretty adrenaline-inducing when you first stick your head under water!
It can take your tour boat hours to get to the right spot, plus extra time to actually find a herd of whale sharks. I've personally witnessed others (and unfortunately experienced it myself) getting seasick on this trip, which is not something you want! Try seasickness pills to avoid the obvious, or nibble on ginger biscuits — a popular home remedy!
This may be the best ten minutes of your life! Your time is limited because of Mexico's regulations for how many people can be in the water at once to protect the whale sharks from overcrowding. But the added benefit is that you get a special moment alone with the whale sharks. Nothing compares with being eye-to-eye with these magnificent creations. So, be ready to jump in and orientate yourself quickly, or you may only catch a glimpse of thier fast-moving tail.
It's tempting to get closer to these logic-defying creatures, but your touch could potentially cause fatal infections for them. Remember: You're in their habitat only to observe.
Whale sharks are slow fish for their size. They only drift along at 3 miles per hour on average. But we humans are even slower. We can only go 2 miles per hour. So, you better be ready to swim and swim fast! You'll be given a snorkel and flippers at the beginning of the whale shark tour to help you keep up.
Lastly, don't leave the port without these essential items!
Swimwear — Wear something tight-fitting so it doesn't slow you down while you're keeping up with the whale sharks as you snorkel or scuba dive.
Biodegradable sunscreen — Regular sunscreen can be unhealthy for sea life and can have bleaching effects on coral.
Change of clothes and a towel — Most whale shark tours take the entire day and provide lunch and even other snorkeling opportunities. Make sure you have something dry to change into.
A light windproof jacket — This will save you from the wind chill as the boat powers back home in the evening waves. A lightweight shell jacket is ideal as it keeps the wind off and won't overheat you.
Money for souvenirs and environmental fees — Some shark tours don't include the environmental fee in their pricing (typically around $10), so have that ready in advance.