Here’s one for the bucket list. Each year from mid-May through mid-September, the biggest fish on Earth - the whale shark - travels to the warm Caribbean waters in the Cancun area. Visitors come from all over the globe to swim with this immense creature.
Whale sharks, considered the gentle giants of the sea, live in all tropical seas, but each spring they migrate to the west coast of Australia and to the area just north of Cancun. This fish, which is not a whale at all but is actually a filter-feeding shark, can reach lengths of up to 40 feet or more. They feed on plankton and tiny fish only, which is why it is safe for humans to swim with them.
Whale sharks pose no danger to humans — Photo courtesy of Ron Herrman
The whale shark is a majestic creature with a flattened head and a very wide mouth. Its back and sides are gray with white spots and vertical and horizontal stripes, and its belly is white. Due to these markings, the whale shark has earned the nickname “domino” from local fishermen. It has two pectoral fins, two dorsal fins on its back and a caudal fin (tail). Its eyes are placed on the sides of its head.
Peak whale shark season includes the months of July and August. If you are staying in Cancun, it's easy to take the 20-minute ferry to Isla Mujeres ("Island of the Women") and take a whale shark tour with Carey Dive Center. The tour departs at 8 a.m. after coffee and juice.
It’s a bumpy one-hour ride out into open ocean, and it can be quite choppy at the snorkel site, so it's wise to take preventative motion sickness medicine.
Snorkels, masks and life vests are provided. Swimming with a wetsuit is much more comfortable than a life vest. (Wetsuits can be rented for 100 pesos at the dock.) Once the whale sharks are found, only two people may enter the water at once. A guide helps swimmers to spot and follow the whale sharks.
Boats accommodate a minimum of six people and a maximum of 10 people — Photo courtesy of Ron Herrman
It's difficult to describe the excitement of seeing the giant yet calm and docile whale sharks for the first time. It is literally something unforgettable, a thrilling experience. Generally, there's enough time for each swimmer to get in the water twice. Although they appear to be barely moving, the whale sharks can swim quite fast, so it may take some effort to keep up with them.
After everyone swims with the whale sharks, the boat will head back towards the island; the captain may point out sea turtles or dolphins. After a 30-minute stop for everyone on the boat to snorkel a reef, ceviche is served. The boat returns to the marina around 12 p.m., with plenty of time left in the day to sunbathe, swim, eat and drink on North Beach.
The whale shark is the biggest fish in the ocean — Photo courtesy of Ron Herrman
It is important to note that swimmers should never touch a whale shark or disturb it in any way. Photography is allowed. Wear biodegradable sun block or no sun block at all; these beautiful creatures must be respected and protected.
The price of the Carey Dive Center Whale Shark Tour is $125 USD per person, and it's worth every single penny.