We’ve been trying to get in the water with whale sharks for years. Our most recent attempt in Belize earned us a fabulous underwater dolphin adventure, but exactly zero whale sharks. Then we tried again during a snorkeling trip from Cancun, Mexico.

Whale Sharks Isla Mujeres, Mexico

A small snorkeler with a massive whale shark in the waters between Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox off Cancun in Mexico. Photo courtesy of Solo Buceo.

Whale sharks: hard to spot

This is surprising since whales sharks, as their name would imply, are some of the largest creatures in the sea. They’re members of the shark family and the “whale” part of their name comes from their size. They’ve been measured at 45 feet (14 meters) long and more than 46,000 pounds (21,000 kilos), though scientists believe these filter feeders (they only eat tiny krill and the occasional small fish) can get much, much bigger.

Whale sharks: nomadic giants in the world’s largest swimming pool

Another fact that makes whale sharks hard to spot is that they are shy and they’re seasonal, only showing up in certain places at certain times of the year when their tiny food source is plentiful. However, every year between June and August hundreds show up in the waters around Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox near Cancun, Mexico. Isla Mujeres even hosts an annual Whale Shark Festival. In May nearby Isla Holbox also hosts an extended whale shark festival.

We left Cancun and traveled to a spot in the ocean pretty much between these two islands, high hopes in tow.

Whales sharks: worth throwing up for

A handful of tour operators in Cancun have licenses to take small groups of snorkelers out to the open ocean where whale sharks congregate during certain period, drawn to high concentrations of food in the warm Caribbean water. We went as guests of Solo Buceo.

After a choppy, seasickness-inducing, one and a half hour boat ride we arrived at the feeding grounds. How did we know? The surface of the water was crisscrossed and broken by hundreds of fins. They call this “the boil” and, if you squinted, it really did look like the water was boiling. Every once in a while the massive oval that is a whale shark’s mouth would break the surface of the water. Their gaping maws were big enough to take in a compact car. Or a snorkeler.

We pushed that last thought out of our minds as we scrambled to get our masks and fins on so we could jump into the water. That’s when it hit us: we were surrounded by hungry animals the size of buses and we were in their watery world. Our captain, Anselmo, estimated there were nearly 200 whale sharks in the vicinity. Being among them was everything we’d dreamed it would be, and plenty more.

Whale sharks: even bigger in person

Despite having imagined being face to face with a whale shark many times the reality proved more shocking than we anticipated. A few expletives were shouted through our snorkels until we got used to being sandwiched between two of these massive creatures as they cruised along near the surface with their five-foot-wide mouths open, filtering food in a kind of grazing frenzy.

They didn’t seem to mind our presence, but they also didn’t make many concessions to us. Intent on feeding, they swam wherever the food was. If a snorkeler was also there, well then he or she should really watch out.  Many whale sharks came close enough for us to feel the swoosh of their meter-long tails as they passed.

Get a feel for it in our video below and do not miss seeing Eric get totally blind-sided by a whale shark at 1:22 into the footage.

Adding to the adrenaline was the fact that there was only about 20 feet (6 meters) of visibility in the water which was all clouded up with the krill the whale sharks had come to gorge on. Many times a whale shark would be rising silently through the murky water below us and we would have no idea it was there until it was practically right under us.

Whale sharks: controversial contact

Swimming with Whale Sharks Cancun, Mexico

It’s a good thing whale sharks are filter feeders. Photo courtesy of Solo Buceo.

As whale shark tours gain in popularity, conservationists worry about potentially harmful side effects of so much contact with so many humans and their boats. During our own encounter with whale sharks, the water was often uncomfortably full of snorkelers. By the time we left the area, at least 20 boats had amassed in a very small area and the human and boat traffic was changing the behavior of the whale sharks which dispersed into looser and looser groups as the crowd thickened.

The effect of humans and boats on whale sharks is being studied in places like the island of Utila in Honduras where we visited the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center and learned a lot. The lecture was fun and free and there were even with bar specials.

Even more controversial is the practice of hand feeding small shrimp to whale sharks to make them rise to the surface where tourists can see them more easily. Boat captains have been doing that in the Philippines since the 1980s but the baiting of whale sharks was outlawed in August of 2012 after biologists raised concerns that the hand feeding was turning the whale sharks into dependent beggars.

Whale shark travel tip

The ride out to “the boil” and sitting around parked on the surface of the water are both choppy experiences and some of the people on our boat became so seasick they couldn’t snorkel. Take medication or use a Sea-Band or similar product if this is a problem for you. And book the earliest boat possible since the sea is generally calmer in the morning.

 

Here’s more about travel in Mexico