There have been very few Cancun shark attacks, but those that have occurred have grabbed the public eye.
“It was like a scene from Jaws,” the Toronto Star declared in 2011 after Nicole Moore, a Canadian tourist, was bitten by a bull shark in the shallow waters of Cancun, just outside the Caribe Park Royal Grand Resort.
Nicole was lucky to survive the attack but lost her left arm and a large chunk of her left thigh.
At the time, no one issued any warnings as shark attacks were so uncommon in the area.
A few months later, another tourist received an 8-inch wound to her foot. She entered the water despite warnings from lifeguards who had spotted sharks in the vicinity.
Before the incidents in 2011, no shark attacks had occurred in Cancun for over 100 years, possibly more. How, or why, two incidents took place so close together is something of a mystery.
A couple of years later, another attack occurred, this time involving a tiger shark.
Details of this attack are limited, but the victim, Isabella Carchia, was swimming near the Seagull Beach resort when she suffered an avulsion injury to the lower right leg.
How many Shark Attacks in Cancun?
Despite these three recent incidents, shark attacks in Cancun are extremely rare.
There have only been 40 shark attacks in the whole of Mexico in the past 450 years, compared with 828 in Florida alone.
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Within the Quintana Roo region, where Cancun is situated, there have been substantially more attacks than almost anywhere else in Mexico, barring Guerrero and Veracruz:
- Quintana Roo 10 (4 fatal; last one in 2013)
- Guerrero 12 (8 fatal; last one in 2012)
- Veracruz 12 ( 8 fatal; last one in 1967)
These attack statistics in no way reflect the number or variety of shark species found in Cancun. This is one of the world’s top destinations for shark sightings and diving experiences.
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9 Types of Sharks in Cancun
Only 25 different shark species were thought to inhabit Cancun’s tropical seas for many years. Earlier this year, however, a couple of researchers from the University of Quintana Roo updated that data, revealing an impressive 85 different species of sharks and rays in the region.
The following are the nine most common sharks seen around Cancun.
#1 Whale Shark
Tourists flock to Cancun for the opportunity to see, swim, and scuba dive with this endangered shark species.
The attraction is understandable. I was lucky enough to snorkel with a whale shark off the coast of Mozambique some years ago and will never forget the experience of sharing an hour or two with these peaceful creatures.
Reaching lengths of up to 66 feet long, these gentle giants could hardly be more different from their ferocious cousins, the great whites.
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Instead of 3-inch-long serrated teeth, the whale shark has “filtering pads,” which it uses to sift through 20kg of plankton every day.
The slow-moving whale shark prefers warm waters and is found throughout all tropical seas.
Despite its distribution, this slow-moving species has been hunted intensively, and its population has declined dramatically as a result.
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Fortunately, in areas like Cancun, the whale shark’s economic potential as a tourist attraction offsets the market value of its meat and encourages locals to protect the species.
#2 Caribbean Reef Sharks
Often confused with other species of requiem and reef sharks, the Caribbean Reef shark is one of the most common sharks found in Cancun.
While not considered a particularly aggressive species, the Caribbean Reef shark has been known to attack.
With their white bellies and grey backs, these eye-catching sharks resemble other reef sharks in both appearance and behavior to other reef sharks. The most distinguishing features are its large eyes and blunt snout.
Like other reef sharks, the Caribbean frequents coral reefs where it hunts for fish, rays, and large crustaceans, including the Caribbean king crab.
Due to its habitat, the Caribbean Reef shark comes into frequent contact with divers, yet only a handful of attacks have ever been recorded. More liable to attack if cornered, experts believe this species also warns its victim by performing a series of movements known as a “display threat.”
These maneuvers include:
- Arching its back like a cat
- Performing a series of quick movements or turns
- Weaving or spirally with its head up
- Lowering of one or both pectoral fins
We’ll discuss how to stay safe in the face of such a display later in this article.
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#3 Hammerhead Shark
There are several species of hammerhead in the Cancun area, ranging from the four-foot-long bonnethead to the 20-foot-long great hammerhead.
Despite their size and reputation, even the largest hammerhead species pose very little threat to humans.
While they are aggressive predators that will come close to shore in pursuit of bony fish and other shark species, attacks on humans are extremely rare.
According to experts, hammerheads are generally so timid that scuba divers try to avoid exhaling bubbles when they’re nearby in case they scare the sharks away.
#4 Bull Sharks
Bull sharks are one of the world’s most aggressive shark species and are responsible for two of the most recent shark attacks in Cancun.
As bull sharks frequent the same shallow waters as humans, are large enough to inflict serious injuries, and have “teeth designed to sheer rather than hold,” they are some of the most dangerous sharks you could ever encounter.
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It’s perhaps because of that risk that so many scuba divers are drawn to Cancun to swim with these phenomenal creatures.
The best time to dive with bull sharks in Cancun is between December and March when the pregnant sharks move into the warmer waters to give birth.
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#5 Shortfin Mako Shark
This pelagic shark species prefers the open ocean to the shallow waters close to shore, limiting its encounters with humans. Despite that, it’s still considered a dangerous shark species due to its size, power, and speed.
Avoiding an attack by a mako shark is relatively straightforward as they swim in a figure of eight pattern with their mouths open before they attack, giving divers plenty of warning and time to escape.
Cancun shark tour operators consider the mako dangerous enough that they rarely free-dive with this species, instead offering cage diving experiences off the coast of the Isle Mujeres.
#6 Nurse Shark
This non-aggressive shark species is largely nocturnal, spending its days resting in rock crevices and caves during the day.
Being bottom dwellers, they rarely encounter people swimming but can be seen when snorkeling and, more frequently, scuba diving.
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Nurse sharks feed by sucking in fish, crustaceans, and stingrays. They can even extract conchs from their shells using a combination of teeth and suction.
Some of the tourist activities involving nurse sharks may not be in the animal’s best interest, and visitors should use their discretion before participating in such pursuits.
#7 Tiger Shark
The tiger shark, named for the distinct bars or spots that decorate its flanks, is one of the most formidable shark species in the world.
It’s responsible for more attacks on humans than any other species besides the great white. It was also responsible for the last recorded shark attack in Cancun.
Despite its reputation, the tiger shark is usually curious rather than aggressive. On the other hand, it seems willing to eat almost anything, including tires, car license plates, and even a bottle of wine!
Even if its prey proves to be an unappetizing human, it won’t spit it out as quickly as a great white!
#8 Lemon Shark
Lemon sharks are social creatures that prefer to hang out in groups, especially as juveniles. With their yellowish coloring, lemon sharks blend in perfectly with the sandy areas where they hunt and forage.
These large sharks reach up to 11’ in length but are generally harmless. There have only been a handful of attacks on humans, most of which have occurred in Florida.
A few days before writing this, I read about a woman who narrowly escaped losing one of her feet to a lemon shark while snorkeling near Florida Keys.
Although lemon sharks are rarely aggressive, the International Shark Attack File says, “Caution is still warranted as they are a large predatory species.”
#9 Blacktip Reef Shark
As their name suggests, these distinctive sharks enjoy the same habitat as other species of reef sharks, including the Caribbean Reef shark.
With bold black coloration at the tips of their fins, they are easily identifiable.
Anyone scuba diving or snorkeling in the Quintana Roo region is likely to encounter the Blacktip and can enjoy the experience in relative safety.
Over the past 100 years or so, the Blacktip has been responsible for just 14 attacks on humans, most of which involve the sharks biting the feet or legs of waders after mistaking them for prey.
Where Can You Find Sharks in Cancun?
Shark sightings are common along the Riviera Maya coastline between Cancun and Tulum.
The nearby Isla Mujeres is a hotspot of activity, attracting an abundance of whale sharks and Caribbean reef sharks. The best time to see sharks in Cancun is between May and September. During these months, whale sharks pass by pursuing their migratory plankton food source.
Can You Dive with Sharks in Cancun?
Diving with sharks is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Cancun, and there are numerous operators to choose between. Some offer bull shark scuba diving tours, while others specialize in mako shark cage diving experiences.
Not only do these experiences promise some incredible shark encounters, but they also give you the chance to visit Cancun’s incredible underwater museum, locally known as the Museo Subacuático de Arte.
Some dive operators in Cancun claim they offer cage diving with great whites off the coast of Playa del Carmen, but this is misleading. The nearest great white cage diving experiences take place near Guadalupe Island, off the west coast of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula.
How to Stay Safe?
Swimming in the tropical waters of Cancun inevitably brings you into proximity with various shark species. Even if you only stray a few meters from the beach, there’s a chance you could run into a hammerhead or, if you’re unlucky, an aggressive bull shark.
To prevent a shark from becoming too interested in you or mistaking you for potential prey, avoid wearing bright colors as these can attract a shark’s attention.
You should also remove any jewelry or other items that may reflect the light. Experts say that, to a shark, this resembles the sun reflecting off the scales of fish, and increases the likelihood of attack.
If a shark approaches you, keep eye contact with it and remain vertical rather than horizontal.
Be aware of the possibility of other sharks in the area and slowly move out of the shark’s territory while remaining as calm as possible.
Move slowly and try not to splash or flail around, as this mimic the behavior of the shark’s prey and increases the chance of an attack.
When diving with sharks, be aware of threat displays, such as those exhibited by the mako and Caribbean reef shark. Should a shark start showing signs of aggression, make sure an escape route is available and move slowly away from the shark, allowing it to flee.
The tropical beaches of Cancun attract visitors from all over the world, but not all of them are human.
The Isla Mujeres, situated just 13 km off the coast of Cancun, is one of the world’s best places to swim with whale sharks.
In addition to the peaceful whale shark, there are around 80 other shark and ray species in the region, including potentially aggressive species like the bull shark, tiger, and Shortfin mako.
While shark attacks in Cancun are infrequent, you should exercise some level of caution whenever you enter the ocean.
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.