These gentle giants have a natural curiosity toward people. // © 2012 Solo Buceo
Even though I’m not a diver, I’ve spent some interesting time with creatures of the sea in their unbound territory. I’ve fed sting rays in Tahiti. I swam with dolphins in Florida. I’ve even floated with hundreds of stingless jellyfish in Palau. But nothing truly took my breath away (via snorkel) like swimming with whale sharks in Cancun.
Cancun is famous for its white-sand beaches, shopping, nightlife and all-inclusive resorts, so it’s no surprise that off-peak activities that require a bit more effort may fly under the radar. In fact, I visit Cancun a number of times a year and only recently discovered the opportunity to swim with whale sharks.
Whale sharks are the largest fish in the sea and can grow up to 60 feet in length. These harmless giants migrate to Cancun between May and September every year and, thanks to the abundance of plankton and warm water surface temperatures, sightings are supposedly highest off the coast of Cancun — more than anywhere else in the world. According to Dr. Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory, approximately 1,400 whale sharks arrive each summer to the waters just north of Isla Mujeres, near Cancun.
It was only in the past decade that interest in whale sharks picked up. The Whale Shark Festival on Isla Mujeres experienced its fifth year last June 21-24, where visitors were educated on whale shark protection and conservation and also had the opportunity to swim with them.
For my excursion, I woke up at 6 a.m. to arrive at the dock where I met my tour operator, Solo Buceo, one of several tour operators that specialize in whale shark tours and other marine activities. It was worth catching the sunrise, but more importantly we wanted to beat the herd.
With eight other tourists on a small fishing boat we sped away from the coast toward Isla Mujeres. The water was choppy and, at one point, it began to rain. But when we arrived an hour later, none of that mattered. We all stood up in awe as several frontal fins protruded from the surface of the ocean. They say there’s no guarantee of a sighting, but we were surrounded by dozens of whale sharks. It was both exhilarating and frightening, considering the immense size of the creatures.
Whale sharks are playful, friendly and — unlike most sharks — vegetarian. Seeing them above water is amazing, but swimming alongside them is a whole different adventure. Donning snorkel masks and life jackets, we took to the water in small groups with the guide and entered an entirely surreal world. The whale sharks swam freely about and there was never a moment when there wasn’t one in sight. The water clarity was nearly perfect. Tell clients to bring an underwater camera — they are going to want to share photos of this on Facebook. It’s also a spectacular sight from the boat — the sharks swim near the boat so clients can stay onboard if they prefer.
The whale sharks ranged in size from as small as our fishing boat to as large as a bus — in the water, they seemed as curious about us as we were about them.
Even though no-touching rules are strictly enforced, the opportunity to swim side-by-side was perhaps the best connection.
The trip lasts about three hours and costs $120-$160 per person, with drinks and sandwiches included.