This article gives you the low down on what to expect, likely costs, trip planning tips and our experience swimming with Whale Sharks in Cancun, Mexico.
Des has long talked about swimming with Whale Sharks and I always just assumed it was something he would do, and I would go off and have a girlie day at the spa, or read a book by the pool.
Not so – We heard the Whale Shark season was ending in a few days, there was no time to think about it. You know that fear of missing out.
Somehow it was just booked and we were going. There was no question as to whether I would go or not. Still not really thinking about what it would be like Synthia from Eco Colors Tours picked us up right on time at 7.00 in the morning. Then the reality set in when she suggested that we call at the pharmacy to buy sea sickness tablets. Was it going to be that rough I thought? We don’t turn back if you get sick she said.
Thankfully I never get seasick, but she made me a little nervous. The day was a little windy, cloudy and clearly the weather wasn’t perfect. I’m not a great swimmer and not much of a water baby either, so looked like I might need my big girl pants for this trip.
Swimming with Whale Sharks… this was going to be some scary adventure.
No – well not really. Despite the name and connotation of danger, they are just gentle giant plankton feeders that will do you no harm. However they are massive and nothing will prepare you for what you’ll see when your face mask hits the water. Just don’t swim too close for their comfort, and yours, a swish of that tail could hurt.
Whale Sharks are the largest fish in the sea and can grow up to 40 feet and weigh up to 15 tonnes. Just a giant fish, not a whale and not a shark. Thankfully they have no interest in me as food… eg that ‘human fish’ with a funny looking mask on.
For more interesting information about whale sharks, check out the National Geographic website.
It was a long and roughish ride, with the waves belching over the front in torrents getting us prepared for the adventure ahead. Coming from New Zealand where there are some of the roughest oceans in the world this was nothing new. We were used to bouncing around in boats like this. Synthia was very upfront in saying that we might have a hard time finding the Whale Sharks given the weather and the choppy sea.
But all of a sudden I could see a pile of boats in the distance… and then fins appeared… and there were the Whale Sharks!
Just watching them from inside the boat was fantastic.
Now for the scary part… jumping into the swollen sea with them?
In the choppy ocean it took a while to locate the whale sharks – something that absolutely cannot be predicted. And, when we did find them, there were less than five for us to see… which meant each boat had to take their turn.
Our adventure with Eco Colors was a very professional and well organised affair. Each of the 5 couples on board was given a number, and this is the order in which you would jump. It was always clear exactly what to do at any given time, and I really liked the concise instructions – after all we had no clue what to do!
Thank God, we were number 3… and there would be two couples before us!
“NUMBER 3 Get Ready”
Listo! Vamos! Ready, Let’s Go. (OMG no time for nerves now)
“Get your feet over the side and hang on…”when I say JUMP, you JUMP – Ok?”
“Ok,” I say timidly – Synthia holds my hand – I am grateful. I was terrified of jumping into the heaving swell and getting water up my nose!
Then the captain spots a Whale Shark, he gets the boat in position then turns off the motor.
Then he and Synthia yell in unison:
“JUMP, JUMP, JUMP”
“GO, GO, GO”
“SWIM, SWIM, SWIM”…
I was a little slow on my first jump… I hate water up my nose – I’m a dog paddle kind of swimmer at the best of times, AND never mind the Whale Sharks for now!
By the time I’d landed in the water, I was coughing, spluttering and trying to clear my snorkel enough to breathe. I started to SWIM, SWIM, SWIM… but the whale shark that was nearest to me had already escaped… a distant flick of its tail was all I saw!
I was kinda disappointed in myself, but I quickly learned the game – my time was up, and that was the reality.
Meanwhile, Des had swum off with all his heart and followed the beautiful spotted beast for a good 100 metres. I was back in the boat long before he returned. Sadly he got cramp, and that was the end of his jumps.
Recalling the memory of the first jump, I completely missed the jump on my second attempt – I just sat there… frozen still!
Luckily I was offered another chance. I couldn’t say yes fast enough. And this time, when Synthia shouted JUMP, I didn’t hesitate. She grabbed my arm and made me swim like mad.
What happened next was all a bit of a blur. With Synthia beside me in the water directing me this way and that way, I found myself swimming right on top of the world’s largest fish… All 9 metres of him, or was it a her?
Nothing prepared me for how awe inspiring it looked… until I actually put my face under the water… and come face to face with it.
The bubbles cleared, and my vision was replaced with a wall of white speckled, rough skin of a whale shark. He was bigger and closer than I expected. If you’ve ever tried to have a panic attack while breathing through the small tube of a snorkel, while swimming like mad… then you’ll understand what the next minutes were like, as the Whale Shark and I met each other.
To my astonishment, we actually glided through the water together in unison. It was almost as though the Whale Shark slowed down for me, and eventually we became totally relaxed together.
That feeling was exhilarating, amazing, unbelievably humbling and emotional… I still can’t believe the spectacle of what I saw that day.
Then… suddenly it’s all over, it’s time to go back to the boat.
I’m hysterical with excitement as I climb up the ladders, blubbering words of wonderment to the others… ‘That was absolutely amazing!’
Even if Cancun wasn’t our choice destination, I’d go again just to go swimming with Whale Sharks.
Whale sharks are tropical creatures and they love warm waters, me too! For this reason they migrate around the world chasing the warm tropical waters. Whale sharks can be found in many locations from Indonesia to Australia to Tanzania to India. Check out Wikipedia for the locations.
However, in Mexico, there are two main places and swimming seasons. Off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, the whale shark season runs from 15th May until 17th September and sightings are guaranteed 1 June until 31 August.
Across in the west, the whale shark season off the Baja Peninsula runs slightly later from October to February. Swimming with Whale Sharks is a booming tourism industry in Mexico. During the season, expect to see at least 20-30 boats in the area.
Our personal Whale Shark tour described here was ‘unforgettable’ to say the least.
Eco Colors are environmentally aware, and dedicated to helping protect the natural world. Our guide Synthia was passionate, patient and knowledgeable. Friendly and super well organised, there was never a doubt as to what was happening next.
Captain Patron was in charge of the boat, and ably assisted by first mate Samuel. I usually only trust my Dad behind the wheel of a boat in the sea, but I felt super safe with Patron. His skill in manoeuvring and negotiating the swell, and the giant waves was exemplary.
Together this trio played a huge part in making our swimming with Whale Sharks experience unforgettable.
If you go into this experience with an understanding of how it goes, and with the right expectations, you will love it. While the time with the Whale Sharks can feel a bit rushed, swimming with these spotted giants in the clear waters of the Caribbean is certainly an amazing experience. You’ve no time to be scared and that’s a good thing.
Important booking note:
Swimming with whale sharks is a regulated industry in Mexico – so the swimming dates are set. If anyone offers to take you on a swimming with Whale Sharks expedition outside of the set dates, then walk away – what they are offering is illegal.
Eco Colors aren’t the cheapest, but what we experienced in our opinion was top notch – a totally professional, safe and well organised tour.
Our swimming with Whale Sharks Adventure was partially subsidised by ‘Eco Colors Tours Mexico’. As always, our thoughts and writings are based solely on our experiences. See Eco Colors Tours Mexico if you want to go on this, or one of their other adventures.