top of page
  • Writer's pictureKay

Are whale sharks safe to swim with?

Updated: Apr 13, 2021

Whale Sharks are not dangerous!

Go on a Virtual Tour now and swim with Whale Sharks

Swim with Whale sharks Playa del Carmen, Cancun, Holbox and Isla Mujeres, Mexico

We are getting more and more excited, the closer we get to the month of June when Isla Mujeres Whale shark season officially begins. Every year, when the sea temperatures rise, huge amounts of plankton come pouring out of the Gulf of Mexico and into the Caribbean.

In preparation for our favorite time of the year, we wanted to share with you everything you need to know about swimming with whale sharks in Mexico.

Whale sharks in Mexico

This natural phenomenon is caused by the changing tides and temperatures due to the upcoming summer season and attracts many plankton feeders like Sardine, Manta rays and Whale Sharks. These animals know that and migrate every year to these nutritious areas in the north of the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.

When does the whale shark season start in the Riviera Maya?

Observing and swimming with whale sharks takes place in a protected area, due to the importance of its eco-system and the flora and fauna it contains. To protect the area the ministry of environment and human resources established a set of rules (Plan de manejo) also known as the "Biosphere Reserve Management Program". This governs when the Whale Shark tours in The Rivera Maya can begin and must end.

Their authority covers the area in the marine zone northeast of the Yucatan Peninsula, including the Biosphere Reserve Tiburon Ballena (Whale Shark) and the Yum Balam Flora and Fauna Protection Area and the northern region of the Mexican Caribbean Biosphere Reserve.

Graphic: Ministry of Environment and human resources (SEMARNAT)

Who offers whale shark tours is bound by this set of rules, needs to apply for permission at the ministry of environment and human resources, must meet certain specifications in regards to the boat, crew, and can only operate within the regulations of the management plan.

The management plan for 2019 states that the official dates for whale Shark season are

15th of May till 17th of September 2019

If you see any other dates that contradict this is likely to be from service providers who are hesitant to offer the tour during the first week of the season.

As you can imagine, the exact location of the whale sharks in Mexico is unknown and it is just not that easy and certain to find them during the first couple of days.

Is a Whale Shark a Whale or a Shark?

While its name may be deceiving, the whale shark is actually a shark, which means it is a cartilaginous fish.

Below you will find some of the most important facts you should know about whale sharks.

Whale shark facts:

  • Scientific Name: Rhincodon typus

  • Slow-moving plankton feeder

  • Largest known fish species

  • Length: up to 12,5 meters / 41 feet

  • Weight: up to 21.3 metric tons / 47,000 lbs

The whale sharks are non-mammalian vertebrates, originated about 60 million years ago and can be found in open waters of the tropical oceans.

Whale Shark Reproduction

Whale sharks are ovoviviparous and females give birth to live young that are about two feet long. Their age at sexual maturity and length of gestation is unknown, but it is believed to be in the range of 25-30 years. Not much is known about breeding or birthing grounds either.

In March 2009, rescuers found a 15-inch long baby whale shark in a coastal area in the Philippines, where it had been caught in a rope. This may mean that the Philippines is a birthing ground for the species. Whale sharks appear to be a long-lived animal. Estimates for the longevity of whale sharks are in the range of 60-150 years.

They do not have any natural predators but are threatened by humans because they hunt for their fins.

If you want to learn more about their behavior, read this interesting blog-post from Simon Pierce: The Science Behind The World’s Largest Whale Shark Aggregation: Isla Mujeres, Mexico. He has been studying whale sharks since 2005.

If you want to support organizations like the Oceanic Preservation Society you can learn more and donate here.

You might be thinking, what is this all about?

Swimming with whale sharks in the middle of the ocean!

While whale sharks have a huge mouth, they almost exclusively feed on plankton. That is why they are absolutely harmless to humans. They are mainly interested in fish eggs, algae and krill, and they are definitely not interested in the person swimming next to them.

“Gentle giants”

The eco-touristic activity of swimming with whale sharks in the surroundings of Cancun, the Island of Holbox and Isla Mujeres started around twelve years ago. The fishermen would call a whale shark “Domino,” because of its characteristic white dotted pattern. Today, we know the big fish to be "gentle giants" and that is what we call them these days.

Your Chance to Swim with Whale Sharks

To swim with Whale Sharks Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, or anywhere else in the Riviera Maya Kay Tours is here to offer you the best tour in the area (FACT just check our reviews on Trip Advisor)

The Isla Mujeres based boats pick us up from the ferry terminal in Cancun. From a hotel in Playa del Carmen, it is a 50-minute ride to get to the ferry terminal. There are snacks, like bananas, cereal bars, and water available during transportation. We arrive there at 7:00 a.m. sharp, so we have a head-start of the mass-tourism.

It is recommended to practice snorkeling before you go on this tour! We will provide life-jackets and wetsuits.

Once you are onboard we will introduce you to the crew. All the boats have a maximum capacity of ten guests. While leaving the port, your guide will give you a detailed briefing about the “do`s and the don'ts” and the mate will hand you your equipment. In the best-case scenario the boat ride takes around half an hour and in the worst case up to three hours. We don't want to scare you, we want to be honest. Looking for whale sharks in the middle of the ocean is similar to searching the needle in the haystack.

Sea Sickness

If you are prone to motion sickness we advise you to take Dramamine the day before!​

Many times people get motion sickness once we find the whale sharks and the boat stops. There are many different things you can do to deter motion sickness. In general, it is wise to take it easy the day before. Since you will be getting up early and doing the physical exercise the following guidelines are recommended:

Tips to avoid motion sickness:

  • Stay hydrated, eat some light food for dinner and breakfast.

  • If you get motion sickness easily it is recommended to take Dramamine the day before, so your body is getting used to it.

  • The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends trying ginger tea or taking a 250-milligram capsule three times a day.

  • Try bracelets against motion sickness.

  • Learn more about pressure points to relieve motion sickness.

  • Do not drink (excessively) alcoholic or caffeinated drinks the day before and get a good 8-hour rest.

"Look for a grey patch in the size of a school bus!"

We recommend you to get familiar with the equipment during the ride. Put the mask on and adjust it, so it is not too loose or too tight. See if the snorkel is located properly and fits easily in your mouth. Try the fins on and let the crew know if you need a different size. It is important to be ready when arriving at the whale shark area.

We are actually in a National Park and that is why certain rules apply, like wearing the lifejacket. Once we are about to arrive at the area of the whale sharks the crew will give you a heads-up. This is your sign to gear up and get ready.

Remember the crew is always here to help you!

The ten guests will be divided into five teams of two with the first team getting ready in the back of the boat, while the captain is looking for a whale shark. The mate and the first two guests are sitting on the edge of the boat with their fins outside facing the water, waiting for the signal of the captain.

What is the minimum age and is swimming with whale sharks safe for children?

Although there is no actual age restricting, we do recommend a minimum age of 4 years. From there it is totally up to you and depending on the character of your youngster.

Are they adventurous or are they shy? We had children of 4 years old swimming on the back of the guide next to the whale shark. We learned that the attitude of the parents reflects on their children. If you are nervous and anxious, your child will also be.

Is it dangerous to swim with whale sharks?

It is not dangerous! We would not take you on this tour if that would be the case! Do yourself and your little one the favor and trust us! Let our guides answer all your questions and show confidence. You are going to have a great time and experience something unique together with your family.

Ready to go for the swim with Whale sharks

Once the boat is in the right position the mate or the captain will give you the signal to get into the water. In the water stay with your guide, and he will lead you toward your whale shark, which you will be snorkeling next to. Your guide will be next to you the entire time, taking care of you.

Whale sharks swim an average of 7 km/h or 4 mph. This is enough to eventually outpace you, so once you see the huge tail it is time to get back to the boat, giving the next team the chance to get into the water and wait for your next turn. In that way, you can rest and everybody gets the chance to see the whale sharks. Make sure you have some water on hand and stay hydrated.

Exhausted and happy...

...that's how you will leave the Whale sharks behind.

Need another reason to book this tour? Take a look at this video!

To make your whale shark tour experience as comfortable as possible we recommend you bring the following: towels, hat, sunglasses, rash-guard or long sleeve shirt, sandals or flip-flops, and money for tips and souvenirs.

We also recommend that you already have your swimming trunks/suit underneath comfortable and light clothing.

General guidelines

  • Do not touch any animal. Respect them!

  • When wild animals are exposed, please DO NOT support that by taking pictures.

  • The ability to swim is required.

  • Leave items of value (tablets, cameras, etc.) in your hotel.

  • Rash Guards or Organic sunscreen only.

  • Please do not put any sunscreen or repellent on before we go into the water.

Download our fact sheet about whale sharks

Should you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to write in the comment section below or send us an e-mail to

Follow us on Twitter & Instagram @kaytoursmexico

2,033 views1 comment
bottom of page