Swimming with whale sharks is one of those things I heard a lot about but wasn’t quite sure I needed to try. Still, when a friend mentioned he was planning to celebrate his 50th birthday by taking a group of his close friends and relatives swimming with the largest of the fish, I offered to organize the whole thing for him! I called my friends at Ocean Tours and we put together a full day of awesome sea adventures for our group.
Searching for the Elusive Giants
On the day of our trip, our tour guides picked us up in Playa del Carmen very early in the morning (7 a.m.) to drive us to Punta Allen in Cancun, where we were greeted with a light breakfast consisting of fruit, pastries, coffee and ginger tea (recommended for seasickness prevention). From there we embarked on two separate boats led by our expert guides and sea crews.
Finding the exact spot where approximately 30 whale sharks chose to feed that morning wasn't an easy ride. It took us 1.5 hours speeding past Isla Mujeres into the open waters of the Caribbean Sea to the point where it almost meets the Gulf of Mexico. To describe the journey as a “bumpy“ one would be an understatement. I thanked myself for not drinking alcohol the night before, for taking the Dramamine offered to us on the way to Punta Allen, and for having two cups of ginger tea that morning!
Just when we started to feel really anxious, the boat slowed down to approach what looked like an island in the middle of the water—a group of about 20 boats carrying other adventurers like us. It was almost disappointing to realize we weren't the only ones out there hoping to get lucky with the mysterious sharks.
As the boat stopped and we began adjusting our snorkeling gear, I saw one of them swimming on the surface of the water right next to us, a dark figure as long as our boat moving slowly, given away by the characteristic white spots on its back. Unbelievable and such a thrilling first glimpse that I instantly forgot whatever roughness got us there!
On my very first jump, I was a bit confused right after going underwater, the waves gushing into my snorkel tube for a second or two, but I was able to quickly get my bearings and started to kick my fins as fast as I could to catch up with the beautiful whale shark swaying by me. I swam up its side coming very close with its huge gills—water and plankton sucked in and pushed out again and again. Then his eye found me.
Making eye contact with that gentle giant felt special. I was so excited, I waved hello. He didn’t seem to mind me at all. Instead, he opened his humongous mouth letting water go in as I looked in awe into it. Good thing they don't use their 300 or so teeth to eat!
Now that I think back to that moment, I wonder if the look in his eye was a mix of annoyance and resignation. Like trying to say, “WTF are you doing here, watching me eat?” All I can say is that I was genuinely happy at the moment, even if I did feel a bit like an intruder later.
Once I was out of the water, our guide told me the particular whale shark I swam with has been coming back year after year. They are able to recognize him due to the unfortunate shredding marks left by a boat's propeller on its top fin long before this activity was regulated by Mexican nautical authorities. It made me sad that experiences like the one I just had could be exploited by people who perhaps don't have the sharks' best interest in mind. Thus, the importance of choosing a responsible and eco-conscious company when booking a trip like this.
Finding My Zen
The second time I went in the water was my favorite. My shark was starting to submerge after filling up his belly so I swam right above him for a while, my arms extended like a "T" as we went together. Such a peaceful experience.
I wanted to catch all possible angles of the majestic creature so I kept kicking until my legs couldn't keep up. Its back fin hit me as he went on swimming. Altogether, I was in the water for about 8 minutes of blissful zen.
I went in a third time for more close-up views and would have gone for a fourth but as the sharks finished feeding, our time was up, too. Our boat crew passed some delicious sandwiches around and we started our two-hour journey back to shallow waters for fresh shrimp ceviche and some cold beers.
GOOD TO KNOW
They're big! On average they reach 18 to 32.8 feet (5.5 to 10 m) and weigh about 20 tons
Do not underestimate the amount of sun you'll get out there. Bring plenty of cover to protect yourself from sunburns including a hat, sunglasses, a long-sleeved shirt, and a towel
Bio-degradable sunscreen, while recommended by the guides, won't protect you enough
Do yourself a favor and don't drink alcohol the night before—the worst thing you can do is being hungover as you’re heading out to the open sea
Take Dramamine and whatever other seasickness options are offered to you, you’ll thank yourself later!
You’ll have the option to rent a wet suit for about $15 US (or bring your own) if you don't want to use a life vest and are comfortable swimming in open water with snorkel gear (it's not the same as scuba diving!)
Be respectful of the environment and of your own limits. While amazing, this experience isn't for the faint of heart. You'll be out in the ocean for many hours, swimming with the sharks will require good physical condition and the boat ride can be very rough