Are we even real travel bloggers if we haven’t gone swimming with whale sharks? But seriously, ever since we first visited Isla Mujeres we have wanted to swim with these gentle giants. We have been back to the area several times since then but the season never lines up. That’s why we were thrilled to be in Tulum for Grant’s birthday during whale shark season. What a perfect way to celebrate!
Where to go Swimming with Whale Sharks
Whale sharks migrate off the coast of Mexico and you are allowed to swim with them seasonally (May-September.) The best place to do this is from Isla Mujeres. You can book a whale shark tour in other places (Cancun, Cozumel, Tulum) but you end up taking a van then a boat past Isla Mujeres, making the already long journey even longer. If you are staying on Isla Mujeres you are closer to begin with. Plus we totally recommend visiting Isla Mujeres for more than one day.
Because we were already in Tulum and the airport is in Cancun, we tacked it on our last day in Mexico so we wouldn’t have to go from Tulum roundtrip. That’s right, we flew on the airplane with unbathed whale shark hair!
How to Book a Whale Shark Swim
There are tons of travel agencies and snorkel shops to book with. The price seemed to be pretty consistent as well. If you are coming from Tulum you will likely pay more because of the 4-hour transportation to get there and back. We booked with All About Tulum and paid $150 per person.
What to Expect on a Whale Shark Tour
Preparing for the Swim
Regardless of your starting point, it will likely be an early morning. We took a van from Tulum picking up others along the way and gathered at what appeared to be some condos with a pool near the marina. They separated us into groups and explained the rules as we snacked on the light breakfast that was provided. They explained that you either had to wear a life jacket or a wetsuit. Wearing only a bathing suit is not allowed. In true Mexico fashion the wetsuits cost a fee while the life jackets were free! We opted for wetsuits so we could swim down beside the whale shark underwater and to be honest, I was concerned about my vanity in wearing a bright orange lifevest in all of my GoPro pictures!
Boating out to Sea
We then took a small boat out into the open ocean. This is not for the seasick or the faint of heart. It was pretty stormy on the day we went and we were getting splashed by huge waves the entire time. There was even lightning in the distance but the show went on. The captain was radioing other boats to see where the whale sharks were located and finally they were spotted! We were on the boat for over 2 hours before arriving.
Swimming with Whale Sharks!
Once arriving it was pure chaos. There were tons of boats everywhere… Then I saw it, A HUGE fin poked out of the water. Boats surrounded the whale shark and everyone prepared to jump in. You are placed in groups of 2 and jump in as a pair on the count of 3. You are then instructed to swim as fast as you can with your mask down to see the whale shark. Your adrenaline is definitely pumping at this point.
It was so chaotic on the surface but once underwater it was very still and we were in awe of this gigantic yet peaceful creature. We snapped a few pictures and then we had to swim back to the boat so the next two people could jump in. We got two “jumps” or to go in twice and then we headed back to Isla Mujeres. The ride back was much smoother. We anchored the boat at Isla Mujeres for a quick lunch and swim before returning to Cancun.
Overall Experience Swimming with Whale Sharks
I absolutely LOVE snorkeling. We snorkeled every day in Galapagos and I was sure this was going to be my favorite moment ever. However, I was slightly disappointed. The thing I love about snorkeling is the freedom to swim beside animals in their natural, undisturbed habitat for hours. Being next to the whale sharks underwater was amazing but it was so short. We were probably underwater for 5 minutes total. Plus the people to whale shark ratio is crazy! I felt chaotic so I can’t even imagine how the whale shark felt.
But then again most snorkeling I do is from the shore and without going through a tour there really isn’t a way to get out to see the whale sharks. It was a really cool experience and if you’re interested you should go for it! It definitely makes you feel small and humbled in the presence of this giant fish.
Want more information to plan your whale shark tour? Check out the Isla Mujeres Lonely Planet here.