For many passionate scuba divers, encountering a whale shark, the largest fish in the world, is their absolute dream. I was one of them. These gentle giants of the sea evoke a deep sense of wonder and respect. However, swimming with these elusive creatures is not an easy feat.
Crossing path with whale sharks underwater is often a journey filled with anticipation, patience but also, sometimes, disappointment. One question arises: should this encounter come at any cost? As I witnessed respectful encounters with whale sharks in Utila and the Galapagos, my concerns grew when I learned about the proximity of the famous Yucatan whale shark gathering to Cancun, the bustling temple of mass tourism in Mexico.
The promise of hundreds of whale sharks gathering off the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula is undeniably enticing. Regulations and guidelines attempt to ensure responsible interactions. Yet, the price tag averaging 200 USD raises important questions. Where do we draw the line between protecting whale sharks and fostering local economic development? I headed to Isla Mujeres to unveil the realities of swimming with whale sharks. Here is how it went.
When to swim with whale sharks in Isla Mujeres?
Timing is crucial when planning a whale shark adventure in Isla Mujeres. The whale shark season usually runs from June 1st to September 15th, aligning with their annual migration. Note the official dates in 2022 were from May 15th to September 17th. Any tour outside of these dates is considered illegal. However, the chances of seeing whale sharks at the beginning and the end of the season dramatically drop.
I went at the beginning of June, on the 10th to be exact, and we searched for 3 hours to finally find 2 whale sharks. July is usually the peak season, with gatherings allegedly up to 100 individuals (but I can’t confirm this information).
Where to swim with whale sharks in the North of Yucatan?
Everyone goes to the same spot wherever you book your whale shark tour in Yucatan, Mexico. That was one of my key findings. There isn’t an area in Cancun, one in Holbox and one in Isla Mujeres. There is one deep-water area between Isla Mujeres and Hoalbox, East of Isla Contoy, which is significantly closer to Isla Mujeres (about 35 km). Note there was originally another smaller congregation of whale sharks off Cabo Catoche in Holbox, which was turned into a protected area, the Whale Shark Biosphere Reserve. But this is not where the tours take people anymore, even from Holbox.
This area was nicknamed “Afuera” by the local fishermen who first spotted it in the early 1990s (tours started about 12 years later). “Afuera” means “far out there”: you need 1 to 2 hours of bumpy navigation heading North from Isla Mujeres. If you are prone to seasickness, you should stock up on motion sickness pills. The proximity to Isla Mujeres explains this is where you can find the best deals; the lowest price I found was 150 USD (you won’t see these tours advertised in Mexican pesos).
Whale sharks gather in large numbers due to abundant fish eggs from spawning Little Tunny or Bonito, a small Atlantic Tuna species, in the summer when water temperatures reach 25ºC. The bonito eggs found at the Afuera attract many whale sharks to feed, way more than the concentration of zooplankton can apparently at Cabo Catoche, in Holbox.
For information, I booked with a dive centre in Isla Mujeres, but the operation was subcontracted to another business. This is the usual practice in Isla Mujeres; you rarely meet the person you are booking with. Dive centres act only as travel agents in this case.
But people come from all over Yucatan. On my boat, we had a group who came from Cozumel. They woke up at 5 am that day and still arrived late because they missed the ferry from Cancun to Isla Mujeres because their ferry from Cozumel to Playa del Carmen was delayed. Coming from Cozumel with all the included pre-transportation can go up to 400 USD per person.
What is the regulation in place to swim with whale sharks in Mexico?
Preserving the well-being of whale sharks and ensuring sustainable tourism practices necessitate the implementation of regulations and guidelines. From that point of view, the Mexican government did the job by putting rules for the whale shark tours of Isla Mujeres. When I boarded the boat, I was pleased to see a poster recapitulating the rules of swimming with whale sharks in Mexico.
The main rules are as follows:
- Swimmers must wear a life-jacket
- Swimmers must be accompanied by a guide
- Only one boat per spotted whale shark
- Scuba diving and Freediving are forbidden
- If there are fewer than 5 whale sharks, water entry is prohibited
- No flash photography
- Selfie sticks are forbidden
- No sunscreen, wear UV-protected swimming apparel
- no splashing, no touching
As you will see, almost none of these rules were respected during the tour I joined and anyone who joined a tour that day anyway. At this point, it’s also important to highlight that some of the waters around Isla Mujeres are part of a national park: Parque Nacional Isla Mujeres-Cancun-Nizuc. However, it only includes the West Coast of Isla Mujeres. The same applies to the Isla Contoy National Park. The whale shark gathering area, the Afuera, is not even included in the Whale Shark biosphere reserve created off Cabo Catoche in Holbox. Still, it apparently belongs to the Biosphere Reserve of the Mexican Caribbean which covers the rest of the shore of the peninsula. But for what level of protection ?
My experience of swimming with whale sharks in Isla Mujeres
I knew it was the very beginning of the season. Unfortunately, despite having 6 weeks to visit Yucatan, I had a flight taking me to the Galapagos, where I had booked a liveaboard, so it wasn’t possible to wait for more. Our captain said they didn’t see any the day before, but they could see a couple of whale sharks earlier that week. I was very well aware I could potentially spend hours at sea and see nothing. But I was willing to take chances. It’s how nature works, right?
We left Isla Mujeres from one of the piers of Playa Norte at 10 am, waiting for the group arriving from Cozumel about an hour later than planned. In a way, our delayed arrival in the Afuera might have been beneficial if we knew where to go since boat captains from different operators help each other. As we headed North, the calm turquoise waters of Isla Mujeres were quickly replaced by deep blue waves.
I don’t take chances anymore now: I’m glad I took that motion sickness pill with my coffee that morning. The ride was bumpy for 2 hours, looking endlessly and unsuccessfully to the horizon in the middle of the ocean. Then the captain got a message on the radio that others spotted a couple of whale sharks quite the opposite direction of where we went. On board, all passengers were cheering the captain, asking to go even if some of them started to be badly affected by sea sickness.
Obviously, this is what all the other boats did. Talking with our captain while we made the run for our last chance, I eventually learned that 300 official boat licences existed. 300! And wait, this is without counting the “pirate boats” operating illegally. When you later learn that the area we were scouting is about 18 km², that sounds a tad much, even if the maximum of 120 boats in the area was respected. And so, 30 minutes later, here we were, together with 33 other boats with 10 passengers on each. Two whale sharks were swimming among the boats for more than 300 swimmers to wait to go in the water. This is when the rules face reality.
The boats positioned themselves into swirls to form a waiting line. The only rule applied that day (at least on our boat) was that no more than 2 swimmers (and their guide) could be in the water with a whale shark. After one boat dropped a team of swimmers and got them back, about a minute later, it had to return to the back of the line. We did it 5 times, giving each buddy team less than a minute in the water for a much-awaited encounter.
When it was our turn, my buddy and I positioned ourselves at the back of the boat, waiting for our guide’s signal to drop us a few meters in front of the route of the whale sharks. 1, 2, 3, we glide into the water with as little splashing as possible. The boat’s edge was quite high, so it’s not easy if you’re not an experienced diver/snorkeler.
With so many boats around, dropping the swimmers close enough to the whale sharks but ensuring they’re safe from the other boats makes it virtually impossible to respect the minimum distance with them. Here I was in the water, facing the most adorable of the sea giants. When you see images of them, they look like they’re slow, but they’re not. So in seconds, the distance we tried to maintain was a mere memory as the whale shark swam right by us. We had to swim back to let it pass but still got hit by its caudal fin (no harm, no worries, I was more worried about the shark).
Thanks to the clarity of the water, we had another moment to watch it swim away peacefully. And that was it. 4 hours at sea for 30 seconds in the water. I’m immensely grateful every time I’m in the presence of these incredible marine animals. But the reality struck back when I came back on board in the swirl of boats.
My mixed-feeling experience in Isla Mujeres
Being the closest inhabited area to the Afuera, Isla Mujeres offers the ideal base to swim with whale sharks thanks to its white sand beaches, hotels and restaurants… in theory. I didn’t go to Isla Mujeres on my first trip to Mexico as I tried my best to avoid Cancun’s craziness. But for 12 years, I kept hearing friends saying they loved it. I thought, OK, worth giving it a try.
After returning my rental car from Valladolid, I took the bus from Playa del Carmen to the central bus terminal of Cancun. Crossing the centre of Cancun this way was enough to reinsure me that this concrete jungle is not a place I ever want to spend time in. Then I needed to join the ferry terminal at Puerto Juarez. I could have done it by taking another bus, but it started to be quite late, so I took a taxi in 10 minutes for 100 pesos. Crossing to Isla Mujeres takes 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on whether you take the fast or slow ferry.
I only had 2 days to explore the northern part of the island and go on the whale shark tour. OK, maybe I missed something by not going to the south of the island, but at this point, I was done. On the first day, I spent half of my time at Playa Norte, which is, without a doubt, the most beautiful beach I’ve seen in all of Yucatan. Especially since I was right in the sargassum weed season, and Isla Mujeres remains unaffected by these.
Unfortunately, despite all the signs, the sand is often trashed with plastic cups from people buying drinks from nearby minimarts. With my buddy, we went as far as cleaning a group’s mess at sunset between abandoned cups, bottles and plastic bags of ice. But the most discouraging was seeing it everywhere we walked around the island, the worse being maybe the Malecon (seafront promenade) on the east shore. But if it wasn’t enough, when we decided to walk along the west shore to take pictures of the whale shark monument, there was this permanent smell of petrol in the air to the point of giving you a headache. You would think Isla Mujeres would be an eco-friendly destination with all its golf carts, right? Except none of them are electrical!
Most beautiful beach, maybe, but Isla Mujeres is now a temple of mass tourism with visitors who only care about drinking and partying. At least the hostel I stayed at had fantastic chilled vibes. While being super central, it was quiet and even offered breakfast in the morning, which was a great moment to meet the other guests.
Unfortunately, it was not enough for me. I won’t come back. There are many other places I want to explore in Yucatan, such as Merida or Banco Chinchorro. I might even give Holbox a chance. It is way more expensive than Isla Mujeres accommodation-wise, but at least it looks more preserved.
Responsible tourism & conservation efforts for whale sharks
For once, here are some good news. In 2016, whale sharks were registered as an endangered species on the IUCN red list. In 2021, a new study showed a global improvement of their population now classified as depleted with a recovery score of 29%. It doesn’t mean of course, we should stop protecting them. It shows with adaquate conservation measures (especially fishing and bycatch), we can help them reaching a healthy population across the ocean.
If you search online, you will likely find very little content discussing the responsability of shark encounter experiences, whether we talk about whale, white, tiger, bull, or hammerhead sharks. Somehow the worst is within our ocean community, where this is still a huge taboo. Why? Because these “ecotourism” tours often mean big money for fishermen communities who sometimes just survived before these tours started.
I often heard that if more people can meet sharks underwater, they won’t see them only as a terrifying predator and will help their plight. I also heard when fishermen communities realise how much sharks are worth alive compared to dead to sell their fins, it can then save the sharks. But if these tours are out of control, is this a happily ever after for the whale sharks in Mexico?
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