Swim with Whale Sharks – A Massive Adventure in Mexico

We’d been to Mexico many times, but never in the right season to swim with whale sharks. We had heard people rave about the experience of swimming with them while they migrated through the region and we couldn’t wait to do it one day! We finally got our chance. They may be the biggest fish in the sea, but whale sharks are gentle giants. Growing to lengths of over 12 metres (40 feet) whale sharks are impressive to see. Just two hours off the coast of Cancun, you can see them if you go at the right time of year.

Swimming Whale Shark season in Cancun is from June to September. 

swim with whale sharks

What a Thrill to swim with whale sharks

We made it in the water, just in the nick of time. Whale shark tours were closing down for the season the week we were in Mexico and we only had one day to get out to the open Caribbean Sea. If the weather turned bad we would miss our chance.

Swim with Whale Sharks: The Tour

We were picked up early in the morning from our House Trip apartment in Playa del Carmen to shuttle us to Cancun. We were sure we were going to have to walk to another location for the shuttle, but it turns out, the El Taj Villas work exactly like a hotel. All we had to do was walk out our front door and wait on the street from our seaside village. Nice!

Dock out front of El Taj in Playa Del Carmen

One thing about Playa del Carmen and Cancun is that everything spread out. We often find ourselves driving up and down Hwy 307 no matter which town we’re staying in to take part in a day trip to the surrounding attractions along the Mayan coast. You should always be prepared to drive an hour or two when booking a day trip.

By the time we reached the harbour to catch our boat, the sun was shining and the air was hot. We couldn’t wait to get on the boat to feel the cool sea air.


Everyone had the option to rent a wet suit or if you chose not to, you had to wear a life jacket. Dave and I normally hate snorkelling in a life jacket, so we opted for the wet suit option. That way, we had a choice once we were out there. Besides, I burn easily so having most of my body covered in a wetsuit was a good idea. You can’t wear sunscreen when going in the water with whale sharks, so you either have to cover up or face the burn!


It was a two-hour very bumpy boat ride out to open seas where we were told it was 60 metres (195 feet) deep! We bounced our way out there holding on for dear life as coolers slid up and down and people were popped out of their seats. I started to think that maybe the life jacket might be a good idea!

When we arrived at the location where the whale sharks feed, I must admit, I was worried. There were a lot of boats circling around the sharks and I thought that it looked more like a circus than a quiet moment in nature. Are we bothering the whale sharks in their natural habitat? Can this be good for them?

Frenzy above the water

Our guide Alexandra told us that normally people only last about 2 or 3 minutes in the water because they are very tired. Whale sharks swim fast and people can’t keep up. So Dave and I decided to wear our life jackets for the first round. We were worried that we’d tire out in the water and not have enough time with them.

We all went in to the water at different times pairing up in groups of two. Each group jumped in with either Alexandra or our other guide Pedro. It was one guide to two people. We felt very safe with them.

Tip: When the guides tell you to jump in, do it immediately, they weren’t joking when they say whale sharks swim fast. If you hesitate, they’ll swim right by.

Dave and I jumped in quickly, put our heads down and swam with all our might to the front of the whale shark. It was spectacular! It was no joke how quickly they swim and I was grateful for the life jacket. I was huffing and puffing, but I didn’t have a fear of drowning due to my floatation device, so I kept on swimming. Alexandra took video and photos of us in the water and when we were finished she told us that we had a good 5 minutes of footage. We lasted for at least 8 minutes for our first swim. So we were very happy.

Chaos no longer. 

When we were in the water, my apprehension about the circus above eased. It was peaceful and quiet under the water and I noticed that the whale sharks barely even noticed our presence. If you swam quietly along side, it would let you tag along for quite some time. During one of our swims I noticed a rather enthusiastic snorkeller trying to dive down to get a closer look at the whale shark. He was frantic with his fins and kept diving in a chaotic manner. Heck, he annoyed me as I swam alongside the beautiful beast kicking bubbles in my face, and obviously he annoyed the whale shark too because within a few seconds, the shark dove deep. I thought to myself, “good for you man.”

I kept following it as it swam deeper and deeper, but it eventually resurfaced and I was right beside its head when he came back up. I stayed relaxed and quiet, keeping a far enough distance as to not intrude and he seemed content to let me follow along. Dave and I constantly stayed out front with the whale sharks swimming alongside as it opened and closed its mouth feeding on microscopic plankton.  It’s hard to imagine that something so large survives on such tiny organisms. They must spend their entire day eating.

We got in the water a total of four times for about 10 – 15 minutes each swim. One time we jumped in right in front of a whale shark swimming towards us with it’s 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 me. I thought that it could easily swallow me whole! Needless to say, I quickly swam out of its way.

Swimming with whale sharks was an experience of a lifetime. To see these gentle giants up close is like looking into the eyes of dinosaurs. They seem old and wise and calm and perceptive. I do worry that swimming with whale sharks may disrupt their natural lives, but I know that tourism is important in helping wildlife survive. Sharks of all kinds are being hunted regularly and tours help to educate and sustain their habitat. When local businesses see that they can make a living out of keeping sharks alive, it gives our oceans a better chance to thrive and survive.

Many of the tours we took in Mexico talked a lot about eco tourism. Our tour stressed that we are not allowed to touch whale sharks and that we cannot wear sunscreen. We had a guide watching our every move and I think if anyone misbehaved, there would be consequences. Our captain was careful to keep everyone in front out of his line of vision so that he wouldn’t hit whale sharks or snorkellers and he was never quick to drive away. I will admit that I saw other boats speeding off and I wasn’t happy about it. What if they ran into a whale shark?

By observing the whale shark in its natural habitat, we are having less of an impact on their lives than by penning them up or putting them in a place like Sea World. When people see that tourists are willing to spend money to see wildlife in their natural habitat, it gives them reason to preserve that habitat. With proper conservation efforts, eco tourism can thrive and wildlife can survive. Will it work? Only time will tell.  

Our whale shark tour was courtesy of Viator Travel. You can book whale shark day trips from Cancun and Playa del Carmen through their website.

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