I have been to Mexico many times, but somehow always missed the right season to swim with whale sharks. Swimming alongside the largest fish in the sea was one of my ultimate bucket-list experiences. I heard that each year from late May to early September whale sharks migrate from around the world to the warm, tropical waters of the Mexican-Caribbean Sea. The waters near Cancun, surrounding Isla Mujeres and Isla Contoy are known to have some of the densest populations during this period, so I couldn’t wait to do it one day. My wife and I finally got our chance.
We have booked our tour with Contoy Adventures, which is one of the most experienced tour operator for whale shark adventure in all the Yucatan peninsula.
The whale shark is the largest fish that exists in the world today, it can grow up to 15 meters in length.
Whale sharks are relatively slow moving and are filter feeders that tend to swim close to the water’s surface slurping up plankton, making them easy and safe to dive with.
The day we started our tour the sun was shining and the air was hot, we couldn’t wait to get on the boat to feel the cool sea air and finally see those sharks!
Travel tips: Riding the boat in deep waters can be rough, if you never ever got seasick in your life, still consider taking either a ginger tea, bring seasickness bracelets or get some medication to prevent it.
Before departure everyone has had the option to rent a wet suit or if you chose not to, you could wear a life jacket. My wife and I normally hate snorkelling in a life jacket, so we went for the wet suit option. Besides, for those who burn easily better to cover the body with a wetsuit.
Good quality wetsuits were kindly provided by National Geographic Snorkeler
Travel tips: It is not recommended to wear sunscreen when you swim with whale sharks, it contaminates the water, make sure to wear a long sleeved shirt to protect yourself from burning.
Whale sharks are very docile and gentle, they do not get scared when approached by divers or swimmers, so when we jumped into the water in front of that giant it didn’t look very confused.
It was just spectacular! This gentle animal would let you tag along for some time if you swim quietly next to it, you definitely can use a chance to dive down to get a close look at it.
Katya and I constantly stayed out front with the whale sharks swimming alongside as it opened and closed its mouth feeding on microscopic plankton. Interesting, that despite their size they subsist on some of the smallest organisms in the sea. These animals must eat enough plankton – tiny shrimp, copepods, marine worms and fish eggs – to support their energy needs. Recent study suggests that a 6 meter whale shark eats 21 kilograms, or 46 pounds, of plankton per day!
Travel tips: You have to have basic snorkeling/swimming skills for this tour.
One time Katya jumped right in front of a whale shark without seeing that giant animal was swimming towards her with its mouth wide open.
Even though we aren’t a part of their food chain, it was terrifying to see that giant mouth open up in front of my wife. It looked like it could easily swallow her petit body! Needless to say, I quickly swam towards her and move my wife out of its way. You watch this ‘horror-stricken’ moment on video footage bellow.
I have to admit that to see these gentle giants up close is like looking into the eyes of dinosaurs, they seem so old, wise and calm.
It is an intelligent animal and in many ways a scientific mystery. Except for some research, there is not much information about whale shark behaviour, mating, reproduction and birth has never been observed.
May be swimming with whale sharks can disrupt their natural lives, but other hand tourism might be important in helping wildlife to survive. We’ve been told by local guide that highly lucrative whale shark watching business in Yucatan peninsula has boosted the local economy, allowing former fishermen to earn more money than from fishing before so they switched to guiding tourists. May be this is the way of balancing conservation with economic growth and promoting awareness of good environmental practices in whale shark tourism.