At first glance, a whale shark can seem intimidating, with its large open mouth and fins protruding out of the water. It is sized like a whale at 20-30 feet long and is often swimming slowly along the surface of the water – but why is that? It turns out, whale sharks eat crill – or fish eggs. Their large open mouth doesn’t have the teeth of a great white, it has tiny teeth that are typical of a filter feeder. They open their giant mouths, suck in water and fish eggs during spawning season. The greatest threat to a human in swimming with whale sharks is getting hit by the large swinging tail fin, yet these gentle giants are careful to avoid swimming into humans when swimmers are in their field of vision.
Diann’s GoPro video of a Whale Shark:
Earlier this year we signed up for a trip with underwater photographer Chris Parsons. It was set during the Bonito spawning season in July which these sharks are known to frequent. We flew to Cancun then took a ferry out to Isla Mujeres – a small island just off the north end of Cancun. Since the sharks congregate about an hour offshore, Isla Mujeres was a better option just a little closer to the swimming location. A touristy island, it also offered many shopping and dining options nearby.
Ours was a multi-day photography oriented trip with mostly divers onboard, but there are also day trip tourist boats which leave from both Cancun and Isla Mujeres. Since SCUBA diving with whale sharks is illegal there, these are all snorkeling trips. Only two swimmers per boat are allowed out at a time with a guide. This is done to not overwhelm the sharks, as there are many boats in the area at peak times.
When the boats are scouting for whale sharks, they drive about 17 miles out to the known spots, look at the water and listen to the radio. When another boat captain yells “shark, shark, shark!” all boats converge on the scene. On a good day there can be more than 50 whale sharks in the area, so you will usually have ample opportunity to swim with one.
Unless a tourist is being particularly obnoxious, the whale sharks are very calm as they go about their business, paying the humans no mind. They are there for the crill and are fairly single minded in getting it. If you are lucky you will see “la bottea” or, “the bottle” – when the whale shark goes vertical at the surface to suck in as much crill as possible. Mostly they are horizontal or parallel to the surface.
Diann’s video of a whale shark at the surface:
While I can imagine that many tourists are disappointed at their 2 short swims per day trip which typically ends by noon, we had ample time to swim with them over several days. We were especially happy when the tourist boats left and it was just us. At one point there were so many whale sharks in the water you had to look around you in a 360 degree sweep periodically to make sure you didn’t collide with one by mistake. They were swimming all around me and even underneath me. We also saw manta rays and even sailfish in this location.
Swimming with whale sharks is definitely a bucket list-worthy experience which makes you feel at one with nature.