“I don’t want to go.”
“Come on, darling. It’s a friendly whale, not a shark.”
“No way!” He said as he gripped the rails on the boat.
So we jumped without him.
A mere 1 minute later he yelled down at us, “I wanna go!”
And so my 6-year-old son stepped to the rail of the small boat, climbed over the side with nothing but a snorkel and googles…
…then he jumped.
Right into the middle of the Caribbean Sea, to swim with the world’s largest shark.
If he can do it, so can you.
At first swimming with a whale shark sounds terrifying. The name of this creature is enough to scare the pants off me, let alone the sheer intimidating size.
What Is A Whale Shark?
Whale sharks, while looking like gigantic whales are actually fish due to their gills and dorsal fins. In fact, they have nothing to do with whales, other than their proportions.
They’re the largest fish on the planet.
The longest confirmed whale shark was 41.5 feet (12.65m), but unconfirmed sightings have been reported over 46 feet long and weighing at least 66,000 lbs. From the comfort of our boat they looked big, but from below the water line they were insanely huge! It’s like swimming beside a spotted school bus.
So Will A Whale Shark Eat Me?
A whale shark’s mouth can be 4.9 feet (1.5m) wide and contain 200 to 350 rows of tiny teeth. But don’t worry, they only eat plankton. A juvenile whale shark eats 46 pounds (21 kg) of plankton per day!
Phew, so he wasn’t going to eat me, but what about my kids? With a mouth that big I was sure he would just open it and they would accidentally float in. Nope, no such chance either. Do you know how big plankton are? These graceful creatures had no interest in choking on my kids.
Where Do You Go To Swim With Whale Sharks?
We chose the Swim with whale sharks in Cancun small group snorkeling tour from Viator for our once-in-a-lifetime experience. We were in Mexico for a few months and found this tour to be the most socially responsible and eco-friendly tour operator.
There are many local operators offering whale shark tours and some cut corners so choose wisely. A responsible tour will not speed through the water around whale shark feeding grounds. Our tour guides yelled at several boats to slow down while we were out swimming with the sharks, both for our safety and the sea life.
Responsible tours limit their time with the whale sharks, don’t feed them, and only allow 2 swimmers in the water at any one time. This is so they don’t overwhelm the sharks and guests receive the best possible shark views from a safe distance.
Our friendly tour guide collected us at 6am from Playa Del Carmen and drove us to a port in Cancun. There we received pastries and fruit for breakfast before suiting up (in an optional wetsuit), before departing for Isla Mujeres via boat. There we picked up a few other guests and continued the 1-hour boat ride out to the middle of the Caribbean Sea.
What Should You Bring?
We found tour operators in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula place heavy emphasis on biodegradable reef friendly sunscreen. You can buy it online or at most supermarkets. Just make sure it’s “reef friendly”, because some are not. We find this type of sunscreen doesn’t work as well as regular sunscreen so we also chose wetsuits to protect our skin from the sun.
We were advised by our guide to take seasickness tablets. I usually don’t get seasick, but this is a long day on the water. In between your swimming sessions with the sharks we spent time sitting on a boat bobbing up and down, so consider taking it as a safeguard. It would be so disappointing to have your big bucket list day ruined by nausea. Always seek professional advice when taking medication.
Obviously bring your swimwear. If you don’t plan on hiring a wetsuit, I recommend wearing a rash-shirt. Snorkel equipment is provided, but if the thought of sharing is not your cup of tea, bring your own. We found the equipment to be in excellent condition.
The Mexican sun is quite strong so you might not need a towel, but if prefer to dry up quickly after a swim bring your own.
If you have kids, bring a few snacks. However, water, soft drinks and lunch are included.
Don’t forget your underwater camera or GoPro. Gaining photos of the sharks is incredibly difficult so having the all-encompassing wide angle of a GoPro is essential. But even the best photographer (cough cough, Josh) can struggle. Tour guides offer photos and video services, but it’s expensive. All in all, consider taking a few images from the boat and just enjoy the in-water experience.
What Do You Do When You See Whale Sharks?
Get ready. The whole experience was fast and exciting. We sat on the side of the boat waiting for a whale shark, and as this bus-sized creature swam towards our boat the guide yelled, “now!” and we jumped right in front of it.
Of course, the shark didn’t stop to take a selfie, it kept swimming. So we needed to start swimming too. Hard and fast to follow him for a little while.
Make sure your googles are in place before you jump. I found snorkelling too hard since the waves were consistently dumping water into my snorkel. Instead I just put my head down and came back up for the occasional breath of air. Choosing your own snorkel with a closing flap would be a great idea!
Kids over 5 are allowed to participate. My kids were 6 and 7 at the time and I was initially a bit nervous about them. During my first swim I went with Mia and spent most of my time making sure she was okay. Then the guide asked if he could help.
On the second snorkel the guide grabbed my child and swam with her, placing her face right into the whale shark’s face. She got a better view than I did! They did the same with our son and the kids loved it. This freed up both Josh and I to just focus on our own swim with those big, beautiful creatures.
On our third and last swim we all jumped into the water at the same time and managed to snap some super happy family underwater selfies.
After our swim, we were on a high. Excited, thrilled, and out of breath. And the perfect way to complete that was with lunch on the Caribbean and a more relaxing swim. After the hour ride back to Isla Mujeres, the boat anchored in the shallows and we hopped out, lazily swimming around while the captain and crew prepared lunch. We enjoyed sandwiches and fresh ceviche with crackers.
It was a wonderfully soporific end to an exceptionally exhilarating day.
The Bottom Line
I had high expectations for an experience that had been on my bucket list for as long as I could remember. And fortunately every aspect of this tour exceeded them. Next time you’re visiting the Caribbean coast of Mexico, add this tour to the top of your list. You’ll thank me for it.
Consider staying at Grand Velas during your visit with the whale sharks. Check latest prices here.
Reader Comments..."I respond to every comment by direct private email. I look forward to your feedback" - Josh Bender
Awesome experience. We tried to do this in Palencia Belize without results. The whale sharks were too far below the surface that day :-( Glad you had success!
It sounds fabulous! I'm very envious but most importantly I'm so pleased to hear how responsible they are. It isn't always easy to know which operator takes such things seriously and which just say they do. If I make it over that way some day (and I seriously hope I do) I'll be looking up this post to make sure I go with these guys. It would be a dream come true.
What an amazing experience Erin! Gorgeous photos and I'm guessing your children have little left in the fear department after doing that.
He was so brave to do that!! We swam with whale sharks in Indonesia (and also at the GA aquarium), and I was nervous the entire time. The guides we were with did say that there was a danger of accidentally putting your hands too close to their mouths when they are feeding, you might get your arm stuck and die of drowning when they swim back down. :O Not sure if that has actually happened before though.
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