Whale Shark Snorkeling off of Cancun, Mexico

whale sharks cancun mexico
Whale Shark: photo by Cherilyn Jose

Snorkeling with Whale sharks off of Cancun, Mexico

Last summer (2012), I got the once-in-a lifetime opportunity to swim with whale sharks off of Cancun, Mexico. Whale sharks are the largest fish and the largest shark in the ocean, yet they only eat the tiniest denizens of the ocean, plankton. They are as gentle, magnificent, and as large as their namesake “whales.”

I want to share my experiences, and especially the logistics, so anyone seeking out whale sharks (or thinking about it) will have an idea of what’s ahead for them.

More than a year ago, while perusing Shark Research Institute’s auction catalog, I came across a whale shark expedition led by one of the world’s pre-eminent whale shark researchers, Dr. Jennifer V. Schmidt of the University of Illinois at Chicago. I quickly signed up for the 5 day expedition, and I even dragged my family along to Cancun, Mexico (only I participated in the expedition though).

So not only did I get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to snorkel alongside whale sharks, but I got to work alongside a whale shark scientist. Dr. Schmidt accompanied our group on the boat. Her lectures every evening were very informative and clear, as my 7 year old son could easily follow along. I have read everything I can find on the internet on whale sharks (most books are out of date), but I learned a lot from Dr. Schmidt, especially about her genetic work with whale sharks. Dr. Schmidt is not only knowledgeable about whale sharks, but also about the Cancun area. I enjoyed all her restaurant recommendations, and had there been time, I would have taken her advice for sightseeing.

The hotel we stayed at, the Radisson Hacienda Cancun, caters to businessmen, and was comfortable and clean. The advantage of not being on the main hotel strip of Cancun was that we were only 5 minutes away from the dock and it was much quieter. If staying on the strip, the van trip to the dock could take up to an hour or more depending on how many stops there were.

The expedition planned for 3 mornings of snorkeling with the whale sharks, but unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate and we only got two trips in. A hurricane passed just south of us, and the ocean near us felt its effects. The two mornings were more than worth the price of the trip (click here for information on this year’s trip).

The wind and waves began to kick up on the second morning, and many of the people on the boat were seasick. This meant my expedition’s party of 3 was allowed to stay in the water longer than the normally 10 allowed minutes per two people per tour guide. There are guidelines for eco-tourists to follow, most notably staying two guests per tour guide, and not touching or riding the whale sharks. But many boats did not stick to the tour guide rule, as we saw many lost tourists looking for their boat. The boats near the whale sharks must be permitted, but often other unauthorized boats will join in on the fun. Such is the price for eco-tourism, but it is better that the whale sharks are being loved, rather than killed for their large fins for shark fin soup.

Upon arrival at the dock (Puerto Juarez), it is quite chaotic with so many people there. In a nearby packed room there is a briefing, sometimes after a long wait in English (and also one in Spanish) of conduct around the whale sharks. They require biodegradable and eco-friendly sunscreens, and they sell some there if you don’t bring your own.

The souvenirs, such as t-shirts and stuffed animals, sold there benefit the whale sharks directly so they are worth buying. Bring along a credit card or American dollars, as they didn’t seem to have change for the pesos I brought. I bought two “I swam with whale sharks” t-shirts, and a stuffed whale shark.

After the briefing, it is a mad rush for tourists to get to their boats, many which are pinned in by other boats. The boat ride takes awhile (up to 45 minutes or more depending on where the whale sharks are feeding that day) and I got rather wet, so dress accordingly. The previous week’s expedition had gorgeous weather and calm seas, but my expedition had the opposite weather. Be sure to bring seasickness medication just in case. I always take a Bonine the night before, and the morning of my boat rides and have yet to be seasick.

Then out of the blue, there are boats everywhere in a boat “convention.” The water crawls with whale shark dorsal fins, and the tips of their tails sticking up out of the water. Then a whale shark cruises by, with its cavernous mouth gulping down water. There are so many boats around that engine fumes abound. The fumes made me more nauseous than the growing waves and rocking boat!

There were not any directions from the boat operators on how to get into the water, or for the order of people entering the water, but basically the first ones ready enter first with the tour guide. A lifejacket or wetsuit is required to enter the water, and they provide mask, snorkel, and fins if you do not bring your own.

Entering the water for the first time is surreal. There is something magical and humbling about seeing a 15-30 foot long behemoth emerge out of the clear blue water. It took several moments for my over-awed brain to register, “oh my, that’s a whale shark!” They are so graceful underwater for something so large (up to 9 tons for a 30 foot whale shark). Sometimes the whale sharks headed straight for me, and it took me several seconds to remember to get out of the way as I was too busy snapping photos. The whale sharks are highly maneuverable, and they will avoid any collisions. It is still a good idea to get out of their way though.

A good tour guide is invaluable, as many times I was transfixed on one whale shark, only to miss another one right behind me or underneath me. The whale sharks passed within inches of me, but never brushed me. They are definitely close enough to touch, but one must resist the temptation to touch them!

Pictures and videos do not compare to seeing whale sharks in person. Their gray bodies are splattered with white spots and stripes. Their spots look as though they were hand painted on with splotchy edges around them. I was mesmerized by the patterns of spots and stripes on a whale shark. These patterns are as unique to each individual as our fingerprints are to us. Scientists photograph an area just behind the gills to identify whale sharks in a worldwide database called Ecocean Whale Shark ID Library (whaleshark.org) Anyone can submit a photo to the database and help whale shark scientists track these magnificent creatures all around the globe.

The sunlight looks as though it is dancing across the whale sharks’ backs as they gracefully glide by. I once counted 10 seconds from when the whale shark’s head first passed me, to the tail passing me. It reminds me of the opening scene of (the original) Star Wars, where the Imperial Star Destroyer passes “overhead” for several seconds.

The whale sharks rhythmically gulp in seawater constantly, as this is how they eat. The water they inhale gets filtered through their gills, and their gills get covered in “food” which they then swallow. The whale sharks are attracted to this particular area because fish spawn here, and the whale sharks slurp up their eggs for an entire summer (May-September).

Depending on how many people are on the boat, one might get 2-3 10 minute sessions in the water with one other tourist and a tour guide. The minutes pass by quickly, and it is exciting to see the multitude of whale sharks from the boat. There were at least 100 whale sharks in the area we were in. It is sad when the boat finally motors off.

The boat I was on, through Caribbean Connection, stopped at a shallow coral reef for snorkeling after the whale shark encounters. They then stopped for lunch (with freshly made ceviche) and anchored off of Isla Mujeres. There the water is chest deep, and many people enjoyed a drink in the water. Then the boat travels back to port.

It was then time for me to go back to my hotel (by van, or you can take a taxi), to reflect on the once-in-a-lifetime experience I just had! Please contact me with any questions, as I would be happy to answer them.