Snorkel with Susan B. Barnes as she swims with the migrating whale sharks as they make their way through the Caribbean waters off the coast of Cancun.
After nearly an hour of cutting across the Caribbean Sea in a 10-passenger boat, we made our first sightings of the whale sharks about seven miles off the coast of Isla Mujeres.
Their dorsal fins and tails silently cutting through the surface. First, there was one. Then another. And another. Soon, I came to realize our small boat was essentially surrounded by these 40 foot gentle giants. A quick, unofficial count came to about 30 or so, circling around the area, feeding.
Migratory Path Through the Caribbean
From mid-May through mid-September, more than 1,400 whale sharks make their way through the Caribbean waters off the coast of Cancun.
During these warm summer months, there’s a veritable shmorgishborg of the sharks’ diet—plankton, krill and very small fish. Huge filter-feeders, the sharks draw in gallons of water filled with this food supply, filtering out the goodies using gill-rakers (fine and mesh-like, perhaps like cheesecloth) and expel the excess water through their gills.
Conservation Efforts by Tour Operators
The outfitters who guide whale shark tours out of Isla Mujeres are working diligently to protect the fish, and are leading the industry of whale shark tour outfitters around the world.
At the Third Annual Whale Shark Festival, held earlier this summer, Dr. Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., commended the Isla Mujeres tour operator community for their conservation efforts.
The Rules Before Swimming
Before we jumped in, our guide, David with Ceviche Tours, discussed the protocol for swimming with the whale sharks.
Rule 1: Do not touch the sharks—especially their tails.
Actually, that’s pretty much it. Though very gentle creatures, whale sharks are indeed wild animals and will defend themselves if they feel threatened.
David told the group about a woman who grabbed onto a shark’s tail and—being caught by surprise—thrust her 30 or so yards away. Keep in mind, that a whale shark is 40 feet of pure muscle!
Swimming With the Whale Sharks
At last, it was time to swim with the sharks. Who says that?! Two at a time, we donned our masks, snorkels, fins and lifejackets, and swam with David along side these incredibly massive fish.
When I first hit the water, I was discombobulated. My mask slipped, water went down my snorkel, and all of a sudden I had the reality of the fact that we were seven miles off shore hit me square in the face. After a minute, I settled down and got it together. This was going to be an experience of a lifetime, after all.
Enjoy the Experience
And what an incredibly surreal experience it was. When I calmed myself, the only sounds I heard were the whooshing of the water around me; my hypnotic breathing through the snorkel; and suppressed giggles as the sharks grew near.
The grace and ease with which the whale sharks move through the water is breathtaking, which can be precarious when snorkeling. Gently gliding along, they open their mouths—up to four feet wide—and all of a sudden it’s dinner time.
Several times, I found myself in the direct path of the sharks and, at the very last second, they’d effortlessly turn themselves to avoid collision. They seemed to have been having fun with it!
As the whale sharks effortlessly swam by—and I kicked wildly to keep up—their beauty was unequivocal. The white spots that dot their bodies were seemingly blotted on with a paintbrush, with a pattern unique to each animal. Their gills flowed like ribbons in an Olympic ribbon dancing competition as they expelled water.
At last, it was time to leave the whale sharks in peace. We climbed back aboard our boat and made our way back to land, leaving the gentle giants to enjoy the rest of the day.
Prices for swimming with whale sharks with Ceviche Tours start at $125/person.
Want to get an idea of what the experience of swimming with whale sharks is like? Check out this video and see if you could handle being up close with such large sharks.
Susan B. Barnes is a travel writer and photographer. A proud Army brat, she was born on a military base in Belgium and has been on the go ever since. While Susan has traveled across the United States and into Canada, she has also managed to visit such European cultural hot spots as Paris, London, Ireland, Athens and Rome, and has even explored the second largest reef in the world off the coast of Belize and the cloud forest of Venezuela, among many other exotic locales.