Swimming with whale sharks is an experience of a lifetime, and Cancun, Mexico, is one of the finest places to witness the largest fish in the world in their natural habitat.
Not only are these giants of the sea huge (the biggest one ever measured was an incredible 18.8 meters (61.7 feet) long), but they’re also graceful and entirely peaceful. Although they may be massive, you can be assured that whale sharks are only interested in eating tiny plankton, not the visiting tourists!
Swimming with whale sharks in Cancun is possible thanks to them appearing reasonably predictably in the nearby Caribbean Sea. Every year, between June and September, whale sharks gather in large numbers to feed in the warm waters off the Yucatán Peninsula.
Numerous tour operators arrange boat trips from Cancun to swim and snorkel alongside the whale sharks. But to have an unforgettable AND responsible time, all visitors must understand that whale sharks are an endangered species, and human behavior can easily harm the animals we want to see.
We will show you the importance of ethical whale shark tourism and provide tips on choosing a reputable tour provider who cares about the sharks and follows the rules. It’s vital to avoid operators who don’t act in the animal’s best interest and just want your money.
Swimming with whale sharks is not just an adventure but also a unique opportunity to learn about these magnificent creatures and their importance to the marine ecosystem.
By choosing to swim with whale sharks ethically, you can contribute to their conservation and encourage eco-tourism.
So, if you want to swim with whale sharks in Cancun, read on, and we’ll help you witness these ocean giants the responsible way.
Key takeaways from this article:
- Cancun is a great place to swim with Whale Sharks.
- You will need a tour guide to swim with whale sharks
- Best time to swim with whale sharks in Cancun is from June-September
- There are strict rules for swimming with whale sharks
Swimming With Whale Sharks in Cancun
The whale shark is genuinely one of the wonders of the ocean, and if you’re lucky enough to be visiting Cancun, you could have the chance to swim with them for yourself.
But before you book the first trip you’re offered, let’s dive in with a deep look at swimming with whale sharks in Cancun.
Did You Know: You can support the Ocean by supporting these 11 Ocean Charities?
Where Can You Swim With Whale Sharks in Cancun?
Whale sharks like warm, open seawater where there’s plenty of plankton (tiny ocean organisms) for them to eat.
Thankfully, during the summer, this perfectly describes the Caribbean Sea off Cancun, Mexico. Whale sharks migrate here predictably each year in big numbers allowing you to swim with them in the wild.
One of the main areas where whale sharks are seen is the tropical waters reasonably close to the Cancun coast. In addition, they are also reliably found around the islands Isla Mujeres, Isla Contoy, and Isla Holbox off the Yucatan Peninsula, to the north of the main resort.
All these locations will require a boat trip as the sharks generally prefer to stay in deeper water away from the beaches.
When Is the Best Time To Swim With Whale Sharks in Cancun?
The best time to swim with whale sharks in Cancun is in July and August when the sharks are around in the highest numbers and sightings are the most reliable.
However, if you can’t visit during those months, the “Cancun whale shark season” typically runs between mid-May and mid-September. That said, this can change slightly every year.
So, if you’re planning a trip towards the beginning or end of the expected season, it would be a good idea to contact operators beforehand to check the current conditions.
Did You Know: Sharks mostly like warm water, but there are also cold water sharks.
How Can I Get To Cancun To Swim With Whale Sharks?
Flights from Europe, North America, and the rest of the world arrive daily at Cancún International Airport, and from there, it’s approximately a 20-minute trip by car to the Hotel Zone.
If you’re already in the country, you could take an internal flight or use one of the bus companies that operate routes to Cancun from the major cities in Mexico.
Once you’ve arrived, if you didn’t book a trip in advance, you can speak to your hotel or visit the marina to arrange a tour to swim with the whale sharks.
What Should I Expect From a Whale Shark Swimming Trip?
How Long Does a Typical Whale Shark Swim Last? – Expect about seven to ten hours. Depending on the schedule you’ve booked, you may be back at the marina at about 2 pm.
Alternatively, you could have a longer day out, including lunch on the beach at Isla Mujeres with coral reef snorkeling on the way back to Cancun.
Almost all excursions start with collection from your hotel or meeting at the marina between 6 and 8 am. Don’t be late!
The boat trip takes 30 minutes to an hour or more, depending on the destination. Although the seas are generally pretty calm, it’s worth taking sea sickness medication in advance if you know you’re likely to suffer.
The guides should use the opportunity during the boat ride to give you all the information you need to swim with the whale sharks. Pay close attention to get the most from the trip, and stay safe.
Whale sharks are large, dark with spots, and spend almost all their time close to the surface.
That said, it could take a little time for the crew to locate one to swim with, so you might need to be patient and wait, ready with your mask and wearing your snorkel life vest.
When it’s ready to swim, you’ll enter the water as instructed without splashing. It’s easy to get distracted by seeing such incredible creatures for the time, but make sure you pay attention to the guide.
It’s normal to take two people into the water at a time to swim with the sharks.
Whale sharks move constantly, and you’ll swim alongside them while the boat follows at a suitable distance. Make sure you follow the “no touching” rule.
Your guide will swap people on and off the boat so everyone gets a turn. Typically you’ll get two or three turns each for several minutes or more.
After you’ve enjoyed swimming with the sharks, you might have lunch as the boat returns to Cancun or head to one of the islands.
Did You Know: Many sharks are endangered because of overfishing by humans?
Top Tour FAQs
Is It Possible to Snorkel With Whale Sharks in Cancun? Yes, it is, and snorkeling is the best way to get a good look at the beautiful creatures.
Operators should include snorkeling gear, which typically consists of a mask, snorkel, and fins, and show you how to use them. If you’re uncomfortable with the snorkel, you can always pop your head out to breathe.
Remember that you should never feel pressured if you aren’t happy swimming. Watching from the boat is still a great experience as whale sharks swim practically at the surface.
Can I Swim With Whale Sharks Without a Guide? No, everyone must swim with a guide for their and the shark’s safety.
How Close Can I Get to the Whale Sharks? You must keep a minimum distance of 5 meters (15ft) at all times.
Can I Touch the Whale Sharks While Swimming With Them? No, you must never touch the whale shark or any other creature you see on the trip.
Is Swimming With Whale Sharks Safe?
Yes, swimming with whale sharks is safe if it’s done responsibly with a reputable tour operator. The activity is highly regulated in Mexico, and strict rules exist to ensure the safety and well-being of sharks and visitors.
Whale sharks may be big, but they’re filter feeders and only eat tiny plankton, so they are not dangerous to humans.
However, keeping a minimum distance of 5 meters (15 feet) away is essential, as an accidental collision could still be pretty painful.
You could also hurt or disturb the sharks by touching them, so you must avoid any contact by staying well away.
While the sharks themselves are considered safe, there is some risk from swimming in deep water.
Everyone must wear a life vest, and you should follow the guide’s instructions carefully. They’re there to keep you safe and give you an unforgettable trip, so they will only let you swim in small groups.
Are There Any Ethical Concerns With Swimming With Whale Sharks?
Human interaction with wild animals can raise ethical concerns. Those specific to whale shark swimming include:
- Disturbing the whale sharks’ natural behavior, particularly if too many boats are present in the area or if visitors get too close to the animals and cause them to become stressed or even hurt
- Impact on the ecosystem, including pollution generated by the sheer number of tourists and boats
- Over-commercialization of the activity causing operators to prioritize profit over responsible ecotourism practices
The Mexican Government has brought in regulations to allow ecotourism development and let visitors take part in this beautiful experience responsibly while managing these concerns.
All operators and boats must be correctly licensed and follow rules that include:
- All swimmers must wear a life jacket
- Swimmers must make a controlled entrance to the water. Diving or splashing isn’t allowed
- Never touch the whale shark or any other animal
- Boats must stay at least 10 meters (32 feet) from the whale shark
- Swimmers must keep a minimum of 5 meters (15ft) from the whale shark
- A certified guide must supervise swimmers at all times
- Sunblock or other lotions and oils are not allowed. Swimmers should wear sun-blocking swimwear
- Flash photography or video lights are not allowed
- Drones are not allowed
- Do not feed the whale shark or other animals
- Do not litter
Benefits of Swimming With Whale Sharks in Cancun
There are reasonable concerns regarding swimming with whale sharks in Cancun. However, when carried out correctly, there can be a wide range of benefits to go with the truly unforgettable experience of seeing the largest fish in the world in their natural habitat.
Well-run tours are more than just an opportunity for a new Instagram post. They can be an educational experience to teach visitors about the animals, their environment, and their conservation.
Visitors who have taken part in trips to swim with whale sharks in Cancun and seen the endangered species up close may be more likely to take an active future interest in ocean conservation and support relevant charities and causes.
Critically, locally, the value of whale shark swimming trips provides sustainable income to people and encourages the ongoing conservation and protection of the animals and their environment.
Responsible tourism revenue can also help fund formal research programs that protect whale sharks and their habitat.
Finally, whale shark swimming trips can provide a cultural experience by getting tourists out of their hotels and letting them meet locals and visit the area more widely than they might otherwise.
Choosing a Whale Shark Tour Operator in Cancun
Before you choose your whale shark tour operator, it’s wise to do some research.
- Websites like Tripadvisor let you read up-to-date reviews to check the experiences of actual visitors
- Make sure that the operator is correctly licensed and insured with certified guides and staff
- Check that you’re clear on the schedule for the trip, so you’re not disappointed if you’re expecting lunch on one of the islands and additional snorkel stops
- Check what’s included. For example, not all trips have a snorkel kit, wetsuit, or lunch in the price
- Consider group size. You might want a smaller, more personal tour
- Check the boat you’ll be using. Cheaper trips may use smaller boats which are less comfortable
While you’re on the trip, keep your eyes open and try to make sure that the operator is following the guidelines. As well as the list above, this could include limiting the number of boats in the area so as not to crowd the whale sharks.
Swimming with whale sharks in Cancun is an unmissable experience if you’re lucky enough to visit during the season that runs from mid-May to mid-September.
Seeing these giants of the ocean up close is simply incredible. However, it would be best if you chose an ethical operator for your safety and that of the animals.
There are reasonable concerns surrounding swimming with whale sharks. Fortunately, the Mexican authorities have brought in rules to help minimize the impact of trips.
Properly executed, whale shark snorkeling trips not only let you see the animals in the wild but can also be educational, encourage conservation, and provide valuable, sustainable employment in the local communities.
If you want to swim with whale sharks in Cancun, make sure you choose a licensed, ethical tour operator, and you can look forward to a responsible and incredible trip.
Did You Know That….
British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.
Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.
When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.