How to swim with Whale Sharks in Mexico

"Swim after shark!" "Swim after shark!"

It was only after the event that I considered how the 'whale' part of whale shark hadn't made it into the instructions. When your on a boat, scrambling to put on your flippers, adjust your mask and make sure your snorkel is the right way around, all you are focused on is getting into the water. The time is now, the whale shark is there, you have to be there too. As I landed in the middle of the deep blue of the Yucatan Peninsula, I dove straight under the surface and swam alongside the largest creature I had ever laid eyes upon. I like to think that he laid his eyes upon me also, mirroring my own feel of complete awe, but in reality he was simply cruising along, mouth wide open for passing plankton. I was merely a (non food) visitor for this giant vegetarian. As he swam languidly through the depths of the ocean, I pumped my legs to keep up swimming beside him. By the time I had surfaced and popped the water out of my snorkel, inhaled, and dove back under to rejoin him, his tail was already disappearing into the oceans darkness until it was a pinprick the size of his own eye, and then he was gone. 

Whale sharks (which are not whales, nor sharks, but the largest fish in the sea) are filter feeding creatures that, for their large size, have a remarkably docile quality. They are huge creatures, with no hint of aggression. They prefer warmer sea temperatures. So do I. We were able to drop into the middle of the ocean, two hours from shore with no land in sight, with only a spring suit on.

The season in Mexico is June-September although July to August is peak season. We went in July and had left earlier that morning from the small island of Isla de Mujeres. We shared the water with boats from both Holbox and Cancun, so it was our experience that no matter where you depart from, most boats will go to the same spots. If your lucky, your boat will be the first to spot the whale shark and you may get three minutes in the water with just your crew. After that more and more boats will appear and people will bomb into the water with varying force and skill.

Everyone is advised to stay away from the whale shark and avoid touching. At times, simply throw sheer absorption in the moment, you can find yourself startlingly close to this ten to twelve metre giant without realising it. You then have to back pedal your arms in an effort to reverse away from him as he will be either completely unfazed by your presence, or you'll be down by his tail and he won't be able to see you, which given the size of his tail, is a precarious place to be. Bottom line is that your the visitor. In a whole new liquid world that is humbling in its vastness and more than a little intimidating in its size. More than once I had to bat away the thought that if this environment can swallow up a creature of this size whole, what else is lurking around here that I can't see.

A lot, no doubt. But that day was all about the whale sharks. We saw three in total. Hitting the water in between each sighting was as much of a thrill as the first time. On the last dive I left the go-pro and the camera on board the boat. With hands free and no need to try and frame up the next best shot, I was left to simply enjoy the experience. It was beyond magical. I'd recommend this to anyone, even first time snorkellers, as happened to be the case in our crew. I'm not sure you'd ever be able to top that first time snorkel if it was with whale sharks, but snorkelling with stingrays, nurse sharks, turtles and manatees in nearby Belize should help.

 El tiburon ballena  (The Whaleshark)  Photo credit: Jade Ramaekers

 El tiburon ballena (The Whaleshark)  Photo credit: Jade Ramaekers

How to Swim with Whale Sharks from Isla de Mujeres, Mexico

Getting there: We took a ferry from Gran Puerto terminal in Cancun.  Arriving late in Cancun from Mexico City the night before, we had booked to stay Casa Mexicana (where we received an apartment upgrade, sea views included - bonus) which is pretty much next door to the ferry terminal. 

Accomodation: We stayed at Poc Na, a well known hostel that has great live music at night.

Dive Shop: We went through Seahawks which is a 2 minute walk from Poc Na (and past a great coffee shop that alongside good coffee has Air Con + Wi fi). We chose this dive shop as it has a good reputation and integrity. Our captain was vigilant about keeping the boat, and us, a respectable distance from the whale shark.

Choose: Between a life jacket + and wet suit to swim in, depending on your confidence in the water and snorkelling experience. A good deciding factor is do you want to be able to dive underneath the surface to swim alongside the whale shark? You can't do this in a life jacket. A life jacket commits you to the surface of the water. A wetsuit gives you the freedom to dive underneath. 

Diving: No can do with the whale sharks, you are only able to snorkel with them.

Food: Most dive shops offer fresh ceviche for lunch (raw fish marinated in citrus juice mixed with tomatoes, onion and capsicum - think protein + essential fatty acids), provide more than enough water and have snacks on board. Food is well catered for but double check if you have specific dietary requirements.

Time: We met at the dive shop at the not too early hour of 8am. We were back at our hostel sometime between 2 and 3pm.  

Take: All the usual suspects. Hat, sunglasses, and if you can natural sunscreen - it is better for the environment and the marine life in it. Go-pro + cameras of course!  A good friend of mine recommended taking a sarong traveling over a towel, as its lighter and easier to move around with. This works a treat on boats as they dry in minutes and double as a wrap. Brilliant.