by Sue Campbell for USA TODAY 10Best

Want to swim with whale sharks? Here are 10 things you should know

Whale shark tourism has exploded over the past few years, but even though snorkeling with them is surreal, you should do your homework before booking a tour. Here are 10 things to consider before taking the plunge.

1. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world

These behemoths can grow up to 40 feet long, can weigh up to 20 tons and can live to over 100 years old.

2. They are filter feeders

Probably the most common question asked about swimming with whale sharks is "Will they bite?" And the answer is no. Unlike most species of sharks, they are filter feeders, not hunters.

3. What do they eat?

As filter feeders, the whale shark's snack of choice is krill and plankton, and occasionally small fish that get scooped up into their gigantic mouths.

4. Where and when do they congregate?

Whale sharks are inherently solitary souls, only meeting up briefly to mate. The largest groups are found off eastern Mexico in the summer when the krill is bountiful. The season starts in May and runs to September.

5. How to choose a reputable tour operator

Stick with well-vetted operators that only take small groups and guarantee closely guided snorkels with the animals. Eight to ten passengers per boat is ideal, with one guide for every two swimmers in the water at a time.

6. Whale sharks think we stink

The chemicals from the shampoo, perfume, deodorant and sunscreen we use make their eyes sting. They are very sensitive to that, and will dive down deep to get away from you if you're wearing scents.

7. Some safety rules to observe

Whale shark tails can swipe a person pretty hard, so your guide will have you jump in as close to the head as possible and ask you to swim fast to keep up. And never ever try to touch one!

8. Are whale sharks endangered?

In 2016, these creatures were classified as an officially endangered species by the IUCN Red List. Scientists are beginning to track them with satellite tags, and non-profit groups are seeking ways to better protect them.

9. How you can help

Encourage responsible eco-tourism that promotes awareness. You can also virtually adopt a whale shark through organizations like the World Wildlife Federation and Wildbook.

10. There's even an Annual Whale Shark Festival

Isla Mujeres has an annual Whale Shark Festival each summer to celebrate these colossal creatures. It’s a fun, family-friendly five-day fest with lots of local cultural entertainment and exciting events.

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