Swimming with Whale Sharks

As the boat pulls up you can’t help but hold your breath as you see giant whale sharks gliding by. Not one… Or two…  But 50 of these beautifully graceful creatures welcoming you to their inner circle. And when you enter the deep blue ocean to swim with the whale sharks, you feel a sense of privilege that they are allowing you a view into their world. I rate this as a must-do bucket list experience.

The whale sharks I was fortunate enough to swim with were located about an hour offshore from Cancun, Mexico near Holbox Island. Attracted by the abundant plankton, they pass that way on their annual migration and are only viewable from mid-May to mid-September after which they head off into deeper ocean. The window of opportunity to see them is therefore very small and you would have to plan your trip accordingly.

Before you worry about a creature that has both “whale” and “shark” in its name and can get up to 40 feet and in some cases the size of a school bus; realize that the whale shark is harmless even though it holds the title of being the ocean’s largest fish. That being said, it can be an overwhelming experience to swim eyeball to eyeball with a colossal creature with its huge mouth open skimming for food. Two people on our boat of 10 became unsettled by the experience and suffered from mild panic attacks. Wisely they opted to return to the boat. Regardless of the strength of your nerves it is still a surreal experience to sit on the boat and watch their spotted backs surface and then dive. Especially if you are surrounded as we were by a large group.

It appears that they were aware of our presence as their eyes followed you as you swam however they did not seem bothered by you invading their space. The large numbers of boats did concern me however I was relieved to learn that Mexican Environmental Protection Agency has laid down strict rules to minimize the impact of the activity. I observed the tour operators following the rules even in one case at the risk of backlash from their guests when told to get out of the water. Only 10 people per small boat are permitted on a trip; two snorkelers per boat are allowed in the water at any time and they must have a guide with them. You are not allowed to touch the whale sharks and need to stay near their heads to avoid accidental swatting by their tail. And lastly but most importantly, only a limited number of operators have licenses to run the tour. From an eco-tourism standpoint, this natural wonder provides a meaningful income to local fishermen in the area by allowing them to become tour operators.

You may want to add this to your list for the near future as these gentle giants are considered vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and there is no guarantee in the future that they won’t stop tours for fear of disturbing the cycle of their life.

As always when I get to observe wild animals I feel a sense of awe at their majesty. My most meaningful moment of the tour is when I became separated from my guide and swimming partner. I looked around to find them and saw two whale sharks heading towards me and no other swimmers around. Forgetting I was in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by giant creatures I put my head down and started swimming. Me, alone with my whale shark companions…. Gliding. Communing. And revering in the joy of being wild.