If you’re looking for a thrilling and unforgettable experience, swimming with whale sharks in Mexico is a must-do. These gentle giants can grow up to 40 feet long and are found in several locations along the Mexican coast. Here a guide to everything you need to know to have an incredible experience swimming with whale sharks in Cancun, Mexico.
Swimming with whale sharks in Cancun, Mexico is easily the best ocean experience I’ve had in my lifetime. I used to think swimming with whale sharks was a bucket-list experience reserved for only a few, but it’s actually affordable and accessible for anyone who can visit the Cancun area during whale shark season!
What Are Whale Sharks & Why Are They Special?
Here are eight fun whale shark facts:
- They’re endangered. Due to demand for their fins, meat and oil, the whale shark population is decreasing. All the more reason to learn about them and raise awareness to protect them!
- Whale sharks are the largest fish (and shark) on earth and can grow 60+ feet long. They get the “whale” term in their name solely because of size, not because they are mammals, like other whales.
- Whale sharks process more than 6,000 liters of water per hour!
- Whale sharks love travel! The longest recorded journey by a whale shark is more than 12,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean!
- The spot patterns on whale sharks are unique to each one, kind of like human fingerprints.
- Whale sharks can’t chew but they have approximately 3,000 teeth that help them eat plankton and other tiny sea organisms.
- Whale sharks live up to 100 years but only 10% of whale sharks born survive to adulthood (they start out really small).
- Whale sharks actually lay eggs but the eggs hatch inside the female’s body and she gives live birth to adorable, miniature whale sharks. Pretty cool right?
When Is the Best Time to Swim With Whale Sharks?
Every year, there’s a massive whale shark migration off the coast of Cancun from Mid-May to September, but peak whale shark season is July-August, and that’s when I recommend going. I went during the last week of July and there were whale sharks everywhere!
Mexico has professionally-trained tour boats that take you out to them so you can observe the largest fish in the world UP CLOSE!
Is Swimming With Whale Sharks Dangerous?
Whale sharks are gentle giants. They are completely safe to swim with because they are non-aggressive filter feeders. They won’t bite you or come after you. The only concern would be accidentally getting hit with their tail (because they are so huge) but you stay a certain distance away on the side of them to avoid that.
When you go during peak season, there are so many whale sharks around you keep your head on a swivel because they are “coming at you” with their mouths wide open. It’s awesome. Trust me.
Will I See Any Other Ocean Life on the Whale Shark Tour?
If you’re lucky, you’ll see manta rays. During my whale shark tour in July 2020, at least 5 huge manta rays came around. It was the highlight of the day for me!
Who Can Swim With Whale Sharks in Cancun?
Anyone who can swim and snorkel! When I was on the whale shark tour, I met people of all ages, including older people and children. It can feel pretty overwhelming the first time you get in because you want to see them before they swim too far away, but you’ll quickly adjust and have fun.
Each tour company likely has its own age restrictions, but be sure to ask if you are bringing small children!
What Is the Best Whale Shark Tour?
Playa del Carmen, commonly called “Playa”, is my favorite coastal city in Mexico and I strongly recommend staying there over Cancun. It’s about an hour from Cancun with amazing restaurants, diving, shopping and nightlife. Plus, there are tons of Airbnb, hotel and hostel accommodations available for every budget. It’s still a very touristy area, but it’s much less touristy than Cancun.
Whale Shark Tour With Amancay Freediving
Amancay Freediving is an amazing female-owned business with professional trainers. It’s where I do all my freediving training and I trust the staff with my life (literally). I’ve come to know the instructors over the years and they are the kindest people with true hearts for ocean conservation!
Your tour will start early in the morning when you meet at Amancay Headquarters, aka Hostel Sayab. From there, you’ll drive as a group to the port in Cancun where you’ll have a light breakfast and board the boat that takes you out to the whale sharks.
Most whale shark tours require you to wear life vests in the water with the whale sharks, but since we were certified freedivers in the group, we were able to get in without them and have a little more movement.
Whale Shark Tour With Good Vibes Diving
Good Vibes is a scuba diving school that operates out of the same Hostel Sayab as Amancay Freediving. The Good Vibes staff are easily the most fun and kind group of people I’ve ever met. Their scuba diving charters and training run so smoothly and the instructors and dive masters are top notch.
I didn’t do the whale shark tour with Good Vibes Diving yet, but I’ve done so many other excursions with them, like scuba diving with bull sharks.
Tips for Swimming With Whale Sharks Responsibly
The Mexican government heavily regulates eco-tourism and all companies offering whale shark tours have to get certifications and follow eco-tourism rules surrounding the endangered whale sharks. This is why it is so important to properly vet your whale shark tour operator!
Read reviews, ask the tour operator if they follow WWF guidelines and be sure not to touch the whale sharks or wear toxic sunscreen in the water.
How Much Is It to Swim With Whale Sharks?
Whale shark tours range from $150 to $250 at the time of this writing. I’m certain you’ll find tours outside that range but the most common tours that come with a light breakfast, lunch, transportation and a stop as Isla Mujeres are in this range. Amancay currently charges $220 and Good Vibes Diving charges $180.
Pretty affordable for one of the best experiences of your life, don’t you think?
How to Prepare for Your Whale Shark Adventure
The whale shark tour takes up most of your day—at least 5 hours. Plus, if you do a tour out of Playa del Carmen, there’s an hour ride to and from Cancun.
Prepare for Seasickness
It’s about an 1.5 hour ride out to the whale sharks and it could be bumpy—really bumpy. The last thing you want is to feel horrifically seasick before swimming with whale sharks.
You can decrease your chances of getting seasick by taking non-drowsy motion sickness/anti-nausea medication like Dramamine® Non-Drowsy or ginger tablets and having a little bit of food in your stomach before boarding the boat.
Word of advice: Mentally prepare to feel seasick before your whale shark tour. You never know if it’s going to happen to you and if you don’t set your goal to fully enjoy the whale shark experience, you may want to skip out because you feel so sick. Seasickness feels absolutely awful but one of the best ways to get relief is getting in the water.
So even if you feel the worst you’ve ever felt and you’re covered in throw up—get in that water and swim with the whale sharks! You’ll be SO happy you did and likely feel better.
Wear protective clothing like a hat and rash guard. Your boat will most likely have a covering so you’re not in direct sunlight, but you’ll still be exposed to the sun for hours.
If you wear sunscreen, make sure it is biodegradable and reef-friendly. The chemicals in sunscreen contaminate the water and kill off plankton—the main food source for whale sharks.
Your tour also includes a mask, snorkel, life vest and fins but if you have your own, bring them! You’ll be even more comfortable when you know your mask and fins fit.
You should absolutely bring your underwater camera with a full battery and empty memory card. And if your tour has a professional photographer, pay them for photos too. I made the mistake of not getting the photo package, but luckily I could pay the photographer for photos of me after the tour!
Cash for Tipping
Don’t forget to bring USD or Pesos for tipping your boat crew! Eco-tourism tour guides and crew work hard to give you an amazing experience and protect the stunning wildlife. Tip them $10 at a minimum!
Tips You Must Know for Swimming With Whale Sharks in Cancun
- Embrace the chaos. Once you get to the whale shark spot, your guides will probably rush you to get in the water when whale sharks are nearby and it can get pretty overwhelming. Prepare by not expecting a serene, peaceful experience. Prepare for an exhilarating, FUN experience.
- Swim. Hard. Even though the whale sharks swim pretty slowly, it’s really fast for a human to swim since one of their movements equal like 20 of ours. Be ready to swim parallel with them to enjoy the view longer and give up when they’ve clearly moved too far away.
- Savor every moment. It’s easy to feel rushed and exhausted when they come and go so fast and you can’t keep up. Try to just savor the moment and take in the full view instead of stressing.
- Keep your head on a swivel. If you’re lucky, there will be whale sharks everywhere! You may be so caught up looking at one then turn your head and realize another is heading right to you. It’s such a rush!
- Get in the water. No matter what! If you’re guides are giving you the go-ahead to get in the water, don’t let fear or seasickness hold you back! This is an experience of a lifetime and once you’ve trekked all the way out into the ocean, you’re getting in the water!
- Pray for manta rays. Sometimes manta rays show up during the whale shark tours and if you see them, you’ll likely forget all about the whale sharks because they are so otherworldly.
Lunch Stop at Isla Mujeres
Once you leave the whale sharks, you’ll anchor at beautiful Isla Mujeres for snorkeling and a fresh ceviche lunch. This is a great time to enjoy the clear water, tan on the boat and socialize with other whale shark lovers.
Before we headed back inland on my tour, we actually picked up the people from another tour boat that was having mechanical problems. It was one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever witnessed.
I think the group on that boat was heading to the airport after the tour, because they had all their luggage with them. We (and every other boat within range) watched as their crew threw heavy, full-sizes suitcases over the water into our boat captain’s arms—all while the desperate owners were watching on the edge of their seats.
Where Can You Swim With Whale Sharks? (Other Than Cancun)
Cancun has a strong and predictable whale shark migration every year, making it one of the best places to actually see whale sharks. However, there are many other places on earth you can swim with whale sharks!
- The Georgia Aquarium
- Cabo, Mexico
- La Paz, Mexico
- Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia