The Best Way to go Swimming with Whale Sharks in Cancun, Mexico
Swimming with whale sharks has been on my list of travel goals for quite some time. When we made plans to head down to Excellence Playa Mujeres in Cancun, Mexico for a week we spotted an opportunity to cross that travel goal off of our list. But we didn’t want to just go swim with whale sharks while in Cancun, we wanted to make sure we did it right.
Similar to how we went scuba diving on the great barrier reef, we knew that just booking the standard “experience” wouldn’t satisfy our itch. We wanted to do it right. We wanted to have the freedom to explore, to take our time, to truly experience these massive and majestic creatures.
Choosing a Dive Operator
Okay, dive operator might not be the right term since it’s illegal to actually dive (as in scuba) with whale sharks in Mexico, but picking the right boat is essential. We had suspected this upfront from past experiences, but when we got there, we realized how important it was. Not only are there hundreds of boats that go out the the whale sharks off the coast of Cancun, but they are not all created equal. Some I would even question the seaworthiness of…
So for us, a boat that catered to scuba divers was where we started. We knew that would result in a good boat (that had shade available on it!), a good crew, and a good time. We ended up booking a private charter with Mexico Divers who is based on Isla Mujeres.
Now, before you stop reading because you saw “private charter,” let me explain why going private made sense. There were 4 of us who were planning on going for a swim with whale sharks. When comparing the total cost of a private charter against the total cost of buying a seat on one of the hundreds of boats going out to the sharks, it was only about 50% more per person. Later that afternoon we all agreed that, without a doubt, we made the right choice.
The Story on the Ground
After arriving in Cancun, it was clear that swimming with the whale sharks was a big industry. We saw many different offers for swimming with the whale sharks, some of which looked a bit sketchy. We were confident in our selection even though we were approached by many other opportunities to get out to the whale sharks.
Time to Swim with Whale Sharks!
The day of we woke up bright and early and headed to breakfast. Because we weren’t actually diving that day we all had a bloody marry with breakfast, along with a few churros. The outfitter we selected was scheduled to pick us up in the lobby of our hotel. We met them at 9:00am sharp and they drove us over to the marina just up the street. Walking into the marina we knew we were in good hands as every other captain that was hanging around stopped ours to say high. He joked that we could pick any boat in the marina if we’d like.
Most of the boats that were going out to where the whale sharks fed were smaller, open bow, boats that offered little cover from the sun. Ours was a flybridge dive boat named Vodkatonic that had ample shade and plenty of room. Our skipper took a picture of the four of us wearing life jackets and sent it to the harbor master (Mexico is weird like that), and then we took off.
Shortly after we left we realized why being on a boat with ample shade was so important. The whale sharks off the coast of Cancun are a protected species. Because of the shark’s protection, applying sunscreen is not allowed before you get into the water. Without having a good spot to hide from the Mexican sun, you’re definitely going to come back crispy.
First Whale Sharks Spotted
After about 45 minutes on the boat we saw quite a few other boats on the horizon. As we got closer we counted more than 50 of them. Our captain spotted 7 or 8 whale sharks from the fly bridge and posted up close to them. They were massive and majestic. We couldn’t wait to get into the water with them. We got into our wetsuits, strapped our fins on, and jumped right in.
The whale sharks were everywhere. We kept our heads on a swivel to ensure no whale sharks were missed. We even caught a glimpse of a Giant Manta Ray. Check it out:
Loosing our Lunch…
Our experience swimming with the whale sharks up until this point was largely undifferentiated from that of the other people staying at our resort. It wasn’t until we got out of the water where we really started realizing how good of a choice we made. And it started with nearly all of us loosing our lunch…
The seas weren’t too rough out by the whale sharks, but they were rolling. A few of us were a little sea sick on the way out and weren’t feeling to well. After getting out of the water with the sharks I took a look around at all of the other boats on the water. Every other boat I saw had someone leaning over the edge chumming for sharks. After about 15 minutes of bobbing around, I decided to join them. It was the first time I ever truly got sea sick, and I was not too proud about it.
If we were on one of the other boats I would have spent the next two hours in an undesirable state. Because we were the only ones on our boat, and everyone had two swims with the whale sharks, we decided to just leave. Our skipper knew of a protected island close by that would give us some relief from the rollers.
Visiting Isla Contoy
About 30 minutes later we arrived at a tiny island oasis called Isla Contoy. The waters around the island were completely calm and gin clear. We explored some of the different inlets of the island and spotted all kinds of birds, turtles, and rays.
The island itself is completely deserted. This was because the island is a national park and no one is allowed to live on it, except for birds. We cruised around for a little while and then jumped in to snorkel around. We were all feeling much better, and even got our appetites back.
The first mate threw one of the cushions from the boat into the water. He called us over to the boat and announced lunch was served. On the floating cushion he laid out a spread with the focal point being fresh ceviche. Paradise found.
The Long Drive Home
After finishing lunch and swimming around for a bit our skipper asked us how we wanted to head home. We could take the direct route and spend some time on Isla Mujeres, or we could take the scenic route and get dropped off at our hotel at Playa Mujeres. We were planning on heading to Isla Mujeres a few days later, so we opted for the scenic route.
It was a beautiful ride home. We rode back on the flybridge and surveyed the Caribbean like landscape of the Mexican coast. As we got closer to our hotel we asked if we could have a “wet drop off.” This being Mexico, the answer was, why not??
Our boat pulled up as close to the shore as it could get in front of our resort. The water was about 4 feet deep. We said our goodbyes to the crew and then climbed off the back of the boat to wade ashore with our bags over our head. The staff of the resort were definitely a bit surprised.
As we approached the shore, the beach concierge at the Excellence Playa Mujeres recognized us and came down to greet us. He mentioned that our preferred beach cabana was waiting for us. As soon as we sat down he returned with a tray full of cold beers. Not a bad way to end an epic day.