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The Ultimate Guide to Swimming with Whale Sharks Tours: Everything You Need to Know

A free diver admires a whale shark while diving underneath the animal swimming along with it.

This article was updated on June 1st, 2024


You'll will find all the answers about swimming with whale sharks here:


Introduction to Whale Shark Tours in Cancun

Cancun, a gem nestled in the heart of the Mexican Caribbean, is not only celebrated for its pristine beaches and vibrant nightlife but also for the unique marine adventures it offers. Among these, swimming with whale sharks, the gentle giants of the sea, stands out as a must-do for nature lovers and thrill-seekers alike. In this guide, we delve into everything you need to know about whale shark tours in Cancun, from the best season to embark on this adventure to safety tips to ensure an unforgettable experience.


We highly recommend to listen to our podcast with Nick who is sharing his firsthand experience right after he swam with the biggest fish in the world.


 

TRAVEL TIPS PODCAST

To listen, download or stream over 160 episodes click on your favorite podcast platform.

 

What Are Whale Sharks?

Whale sharks, despite their formidable name, are gentle filter-feeding giants that grace the oceans. As the largest known fish species, these behemoths can grow up to 40 feet in length but are known for their docile nature, making them perfect swimming companions. Characterized by their broad, flat heads and distinctive pattern of white spots, whale sharks roam the tropical seas and are frequent visitors to the nutrient-rich waters around Cancun. Swimming alongside these magnificent creatures, one can't help but be awed by their grace and the sheer scale of their presence.


Whale Shark Season in Cancun

The whale shark season in Cancun runs from May 15th to September 17th, offering a generous window for visitors to partake in this extraordinary experience. The peak months, typically June to August, witness the largest gatherings of these gentle giants, drawn to the area's abundant plankton. Planning your visit during this period not only maximizes your chances of encountering whale sharks but also allows you to enjoy Cancun's splendid weather and warm waters.


In the next section, we'll explore the different types of whale shark experiences available, including both public and private tours, and what you can expect from this remarkable adventure.


Whale sharks in Mexico

Choosing Your Whale Shark Experience

When planning your whale shark tour in Cancun, you have the option to choose between public and private tours, each offering a unique experience. Understanding the differences between these options can help you select the one that best suits your preferences and needs.


Shared Whale Shark Tours

Public tours are a popular choice for those looking to enjoy the experience in the company of other adventure-seekers. These tours are typically more affordable and are designed to accommodate small to medium-sized groups. The most important part is to consider the travel time to and from the marina since there are several stops at other hotels for pickups and drop-offs of other travelers possible. Here's what you can expect:

  • Duration and Inclusions: Shared tours last between 6 to 11 hours, depending on your pickup location and additional stops at other hotels. The package includes a shared round-trip transportation to and from the marina, a light breakfast, snorkel gear, and food and beverages on board.


Semi-Private Swimming Tours

Semi-Private tours are a great option for those that don't want to waste time during the transportation to and from the marina. In this specific context, the round-trip transportation from the resort to the marina is private, ensuring that the group enjoys comfort and exclusivity during the transfer with no additional stops at other resorts.

Once at the marina, the whale shark tour takes place in a shared setting, where the boat and the water experience are enjoyed alongside other participants. The maximum capacity of any given boat is 10 snorkelers. This allows for a combination of exclusivity in transportation with the opportunity to socialize and share the costs of the main activity.

  • Duration and Inclusions: Semi-Private tours last between 6 to 9 hours, depending on your pickup location. The package includes a private round-trip transportation to and from the marina, a light breakfast, snorkel gear, and food and beverages on board.



Private Whale Shark Tours

For those seeking a more personalized experience, private tours offer the exclusivity of a dedicated boat for you and your group. This option is perfect for families, friends, or couples who prefer privacy and a customizable itinerary.

  • Benefits: The primary advantage of a private tour is the flexibility it offers. You can enjoy a more intimate experience with the whale sharks, often with the ability to tailor the trip to your group's specific interests and pace.

  • Capacity: Private tours can accommodate up to 10 people, making it an excellent choice for larger groups.


What to Expect on Your Tour

Going on a whale shark tour in Cancun is an experience of a lifetime, you won't forget. From the moment you set sail to the actual encounter with the whale sharks, here's a glimpse into your day:


  • Pickup: The day begins early with your host picking you up at the lobby of your hotel or entrance of your vacation rental. The pickup times differ depending on the location, but are usually scheduled between 05:00 am and 06:30 am. It is our goal to arrive at the marina at 07:00 am and depart by 07:30 am in order to be one of the first boats out.

  • Preparation: Once on board and introduced to the crew we will start with the briefing on safety and conservation guidelines. It's crucial to understand how to interact responsibly with the wildlife to ensure both your safety and the well-being of the whale sharks.

  • The Journey: The ride to the snorkeling location is an experience in itself, offering stunning views of Cancun's coastline and the chance to spot other marine life, like sea turtles, flying fish, manta rays and dolphins.

  • The Swim: Once you arrive at the snorkeling site, you'll dive into the clear waters to swim alongside the whale sharks. Witnessing these majestic creatures up close, in their natural habitat, is an unparalleled experience. Their serene demeanor and graceful movements through the water are mesmerizing, creating memories that will last a lifetime.



Next, we will delve into the safety measures to keep in mind during your tour, what's included in your whale shark adventure, and why Cancun is the ultimate destination for this incredible experience. Stay tuned for more insights and tips to make your whale shark tour a smooth and unforgettable journey.



Long Sleeve Shirts - Sun Protection with UPF 50+UV & Perfect Souvenir

Four white long-sleeve shirts featuring whale shark and tropical designs. Two shirts display a large whale shark graphic with 'Whale Shark Mexico' text, while the other two showcase a sunset, palm trees, and 'Isla Mujeres' and 'Puerto Morelos' text with snorkeling gear illustrations.

Durable Dri-Fit, protective, quality clothing. Designed by our Guides!




Strict Regulations Govern Whale Shark Tours in Riviera Maya to Protect Delicate Ecosystem


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.


Map showing the protected marine zones around Isla Mujeres, including RB Caribe Mexicano, RB Tiburón Ballena, and APFF Yum Balam. Highlighted areas indicate the non-extractive utilization zones for whale sharks. The map includes coordinates and a key for interpreting the symbols.

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.

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 two weeks 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.


A swimmer in blue snorkeling gear is underwater alongside a whale shark, with the bold text 'THIS COULD BE YOU' written in white on a blue background.

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.


A swimmer in blue snorkeling gear is underwater alongside a whale shark, with the bold text 'THIS COULD BE YOU' written in white on a blue background.

Your Chance to Swim with Whale Sharks


To swim with Whale Sharks in Cancun, with pickup in 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.


A snorkeler in black and blue gear swims underwater near a whale shark, while a boat with people onboard floats on the surface nearby.

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.



Long Sleeve Shirts - Sun Protection with UPF 50+UV & Perfect Souvenir

Four white long-sleeve shirts featuring whale shark and tropical designs. Two shirts display a large whale shark graphic with 'Whale Shark Mexico' text, while the other two showcase a sunset, palm trees, and 'Isla Mujeres' and 'Puerto Morelos' text with snorkeling gear illustrations.

Durable Dri-Fit, protective, quality clothing. Designed by our Guides!


Infographic by WWF Mexico outlining guidelines for whale shark encounters. It emphasizes observing without touching, wearing lifejackets, maintaining minimum distances, and avoiding harmful behaviors like scuba diving, littering, and using sunscreen. Icons illustrate each rule, promoting responsible and respectful interactions with whale sharks.

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 contact@kay.tours

Follow us on Facebook & Instagram @kaytoursmexico

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