Swimming with Whale Sharks Cancun – A Massive Adventure

Written By: The Planet D

We heard people rave about swimming with whale sharks in Cancun while they migrated through the region, and we couldn’t wait to do it one day! We finally got our chance to see these extraordinary creatures off the coast of Mexico, and it was worth the wait.

Swimming with Whale Sharks Cancun

They may be the biggest fish in the sea, but whale sharks are gentle giants. Growing to lengths of over 12 meters (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.

When to swim with whale sharks

swimming with whale sharks in mexico save the oceans on world oceans day
What a thrill swimming with whale sharks

You can Swim with whale sharks around Isla Mujeres on day trips from Cancun from June to September. We made it to Cancun 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. Check out more at The Best Things to do in Cancun

Swimming with Whale Sharks: The Tour

We were picked up early in the morning from our apartment in Playa del Carmen to be shuttled 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! Read more: Where to Stay in Cancun

Note: The best time to swim with whale sharks in the Yucatan is between June and September. 

Cozume Places to Visit in Mexico
Dock out front of El Taj in Playa Del Carmen

One thing about Playa del Carmen and Cancun is that everything is 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 and the Yucatan Peninsula. You should always be prepared to drive an hour or two when booking your trip to swim with whale sharks or really any other tour out of Playa.

Looking for more day trips from Cancun or Playa Del Carmen besides swimming with whale sharks? Check out 29 of Best Things to do in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

By the time we reached the harbor 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 and see those sharks!

2-Hour Journey from Cancun to Whale Sharks Migration Area

swim with whale sharks dave
Enjoying the boat ride out.

It was a two-hour, very bumpy boat ride out to open seas, where we were told it was 60 meters (195 feet) deep! Whale sharks tend to dive deep, so when you swim with whale sharks, you will go out into very deep water. 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!

Arriving at the Snorkeling Site

swim with whale sharks cancun | jumping in
Our guide hits the water

“It seemed that hundreds of people were swimming with whale sharks when we arrived.”

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 to swim with whale sharks in their natural habitat. Are we bothering them to the point of hindering them? Can it be good for them to be chased by tourists?

Swim With Whale Sharks – The Experience Explained

swim with whale sharks deb dave
Ready to get in the water.

We had a choice ahead of us. Would we wear a wet suit or No Wet Suit When Swimming with Whale Sharks. Plus should we wear a life jacket. We didn’t want to look like nerds swimming in a life jacket. We wanted to be part of the cool kids in the water, but in the end we chose to rent both the wet suit and the life jacket.

Everyone had the option to rent a wet suit or if you chose not to, you could wear a life jacket. Dave and I normally hate snorkeling in a life jacket, so we opted for the wet suit option. That way, we had a choice once we were out there.

What to Rent When Swimming with Whale Sharks in Mexico

cancun day trips whale sharks
Up close and personal swimming with whale sharks in Mexico

I burn easily so having most of my body covered in a wetsuit was a good idea. You can’t wear sunscreen when you swim with whale sharks, it contaminates the water, so be sure to wear a long-sleeved shirt to protect from burning. The wetsuit not only helped keep me warm so I could stay in the water longer, but it protected my skin from the sun.

Whale sharks also swim fast, and people can’t keep up. Our guide, Alexandra, told us that normally, people only last about 2 or 3 minutes when they swim with whale sharks because they get tired quickly. By wearing a PFD (life jacket) we could stay in the water longer without worrying about getting tired. The life jacket kept us afloat, and we didn’t have to work as hard as others.

We opted for the PFD

swim with whale sharks deb swimming
Deb is ready to swim with the whale sharks

We all went into 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.

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 swam, and I was grateful for the life jacket.

When Dave and I decided to wear our life jackets for the first round, we thought we’d be cheating and feel silly in them. But once in the water, we were grateful for the extra floatation. I was huffing and puffing, but I didn’t have a fear of drowning due to my floatation device, so I kept on swimming.

Our guide, 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 realized that everyone else was back on the boat long ago. They didn’t have a life preserver and tired out quickly, returning to the boat to catch their breath. We just kept on swimming and didn’t even notice that others were dropping like flies. We lasted for at least 8 minutes for our first swim. So we were very happy.

Love adventures like our swim with whale sharks? You will also love our Remarkable Mexico Cenote Adventure

Peaceful Under The Water

front of whale
Eye to eye with our first whale shark

When we were in the water with the whale sharks, my apprehension about the circus of boats above subsided It was peaceful and quiet under the water and I noticed that the whale sharks barely even noticed our presence. If you swam quietly alongside, the whale shark will let you tag along for quite some time.

Swim Quietly and Be Calm

swimming with whale sharks in mexico

During one of our swims, I noticed a rather enthusiastic snorkeler 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.” (about the shark – not the stupid swimmer)

I kept following the whale shark 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.

Whale Sharks in Mexico – Final Thoughts

whale sharks underwater
Watching them eat is magical.

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 its mouth wide open. Even though we weren’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.

Ecotourism and Whale Shark Conservation in Mexico

swim with whale sharks entrance
The entrance to swim with the whale sharks

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 when we swim with whale sharks, we are not allowed to touch them ever. And sunscreen or lotions are not allowed in the water.

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 snorkelers, and he was never quick to drive away.

side of whale
On the side of the whale shark

I admit that I saw other boats speeding off, and I was not happy about it. What if they ran into a whale shark?

By observing the whale sharks in their natural habitat, we are having less of an impact on their lives than by penning them up or putting them in a place like SeaWorld.

When people see that tourists are willing to spend money to see wildlife in their natural habitat, it gives them a reason to preserve that habitat.

With proper conservation efforts, ecotourism can thrive, and wildlife can survive. Will it work? Only time will tell.  

Tips for Swimming with Whale Sharks

  1. When the guides tell you to jump in, do it immediately, they weren’t joking when they say whale sharks swim fast.
  2. If you hesitate, they’ll swim right by.
  3. And we recommend wearing that life jacket no matter how proud you are of your swimming.
  4. We spent longer swimming with the sharks than anyone else on our boat because we had the jackets on to keep us afloat and could push through for longer than without.

 You can book a swim with whale shark sharks from Cancun and Playa del Carmen and tours will pick you up at your hotel.

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About The Planet D

Dave Bouskill and Debra Corbeil are the owners and founders of The Planet D. After traveling to 115 countries, on all 7 continents over the past 13 years they have become one of the foremost experts in travel. Being recognized as top travel bloggers and influencers by the likes of Forbes Magazine, the Society of American Travel Writers and USA Today has allowed them to become leaders in their field.

Leave a Comment

31 thoughts on “Swimming with Whale Sharks Cancun – A Massive Adventure”

  1. Swimming with the whale sharks is a must tour when you visit Cebu Philippines. This unique adventure will amaze how friendly the whale sharks are.

  2. Thank you for sharing this amazing post very interesting to read and I must say your writing skill is too good. God bless keep sharing.


  4. Love this! Love whalesharks! Love you guys! Thanks for sharing. Awesome pics and video of your kickass adventures in Mexico.

    Kristen Gill

  5. New regulation means most tour operators don´t have a choice of whether they go to the Gulf (green water), or to the Caribbean (Blue water) now. I really recommend asking and insisting that you want to do the tour in the blue water around Isla Mujeres as it´s warmer, has better visibility, and more sharks. Last year 2016 was one of the best years in recent memory for Whale Sharks, we have 50-100 sharks everyday. Bring a long sleeve top as the sun is fierce here, if you bring your own wetsuit you don´t have to wear a life jacket so you will be more mobile in the water.

  6. Swimming with whale sharks could be one of the most daredevil adventures. This is definitely breathtaking and something you won’t forget in your whole life.

  7. What almost happened to you did happen to me … I took a trip to Cozumel in early October and found out I missed the opportunity to snorkel with whale sharks by just 2 or 3 weeks. What an awesome experience! I think it might even be worth going back next year just to be able to do this.

  8. Dear Deb & Dave,
    These are amazing pictures!
    What surprises me is that you could swim 4 times 10 to 15 minutes with Whale Sharks… How did you manage to follow them?
    I went this summer in Mozambique – the visibility was nothing near what you had (from your pictures) and besides, it was almost impossible to keep up with the pace of this giant… After a few minutes it was just way ahead of us…
    Thanks for sharing

  9. Wow! Love the pictures here. How amazing that you got to go in 4 times, glad you didn’t get eaten when you nearly jumped in to it’s friendly mouth!

  10. So amazing! It sounds silly, but I’d feel a lot braver if they weren’t called ‘sharks’! Still, I’d totally go swimming with whale sharks.

    • Haha, it’s true. I used to think that anything that had the name shark after it was deadly. I guess whale elephants doesn’t sound quite as sexy 😉

  11. That’s one big fish! I never seem to be in Whale Shark territory during the right season… maybe one of these days.

    • That’s how we’ve always been. We finally got out chance. When scuba diving in Honduras way back in 2003, we caught a glimpse of one between dives and had a quick swim, but we didn’t have an underwater camera or anything then, so we were really excited to have the chance again a decade later.

  12. Hi Guy!

    I love your posts and your photos are unreal!! great job 🙂 We went to swim with the whale sharks too, how terrifying is the initial jump? I am super scared of fish, so seeing these sharks freaked me out! ! It was an unreal experience and had the best time! Heres our post too on our experience http://www.whoneedsmaps.com/whale-sharks/

  13. Sounds like it was a fun experience! It’s great to hear your concern for the wildlife. It certainly is better that they are not in captivity and can swim freely and that this promotes awareness for it.

  14. I will be honest I never even new you could go swimming with whale sharks. Looks like an awesome experience and they are huge creatures. We have been whale watching a couple of times once when we visited friends in BostonMass and when we were in South Africa. They were both from a boat this looks like a huge step up though actually being in the water with them.

    Excellent thanks Barry

    • Hi Barry. Yes it’s amazing to know that you swim with such giant creatures. Unlike Blue, humpback, orca and others whales, you can swim with whale sharks as the fee do. plankton and filter the nearly microscopic food. It’s incredible. They are gentle giants of the sea.

  15. What an experience! Definitely high up on my list of things to do. Can’t even imagine what it would have been like with that big mouth coming at you!

    • I hope you get the chance Thomas. I must admit the adrenaline was pumping when that big mouth was opening and closing. But I scramble out of its way and all was well. They are very gentle, so something tells me it wouldn’t have inadvertently eaten me. I Hope!

  16. From your description your guide was following a clear set of guidlines in your interaction with the whale sharks. The problem is the rapidly expanding market. Most of the previous comments all state ythey would like to swim with whale sharks. Currently 700 million people visit a zoo or aquarium each year. If now they decide to see the animals in the wild the result will not be pretty.
    I sense you have concerns as voiced in your last paragraph. This aspect of tourism needs to be thoroughly researched to ensure we don’t kill animals with our love.

    • Great points John. You are right, the future is looking bleak for wildlife, let’s hope we figure out a sustainable way of seeing them in the wild without destroying their habitat.

  17. I have been wanting to snorkel with whale sharks again ever since I randomly ran into one in Costa Rica! I didn’t manage to get any pictures since we didn’t have our GoPro then but you guys have some fabulous photos! Whale sharks are such magnificent creatures.

    • Thanks Samanatha. I know how you feel, we have so many photo opportunities we missed pre-go pro, waterproof camera and even a digital camera. Our past travels rely mostly on memories, but it’s been fun capturing moments again with all our gear.

  18. Great post and great pictures! 🙂 I had the chance to see with one of these beautiful fishes whilst diving in Thailand, it lasted just a few seconds but I’ll always remember that amazing experience.

  19. Swimming with Whale Sharks is high on my bucket list- it looks like such an amazing experience! Good for you for lasting 8 minutes on your first swim. I swam with Manta Rays, but it felt more like I was chasing them because they swim so fast!