As we fantasized about spending a month on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, I immersed myself in research and was giddy with excitement when I discovered that our visit would coincide with the annual whale shark migration. During the summer months, whale sharks converge on the warm waters of the Yucatan to feed on the abundant plankton. The best months to witness this are July and August, but it can start as early as May and stretch into September.
As I mentioned in my Great White post, my love of sharks has stretched decades and whale sharks are the biggest of them all. According to my research, whale sharks can grow to over 40 feet long and weigh as much as 20 tons. To achieve and maintain this great size, they need to eat A LOT. Their jaws expand to over four feet, allowing about 1500 gallons of water an hour to be filtered through their huge gills, catching tiny plankton and crustaceans found near the surface of the ocean. Despite their huge size and preference for sticking near the surface, scientists have long been foiled in their attempts to track whale shark behavior. While they know the sharks gather in locations such as Mexico, the Galapagos, and the Philippines at certain times of year to feed, they don’t know where the solitary, nomadic sharks spend the rest of their time. They can’t answer how they breed, where or how they raise their young, or how they know when and where to group together to feast.
Due to their reliable gathering in large numbers at certain times of the year, people are able to observe them and even swim with them up close, though they are wild animals and there are no guarantees. Swimming with whale sharks in their habitat has been on my bucket list for years, so we decided to make this adventure a top priority during our visit to Playa del Carmen.
There are no shortage of tour companies and dive shops offering this trip. and I struggled to differentiate between them. Everywhere I searched had good reviews, offered lunch, equipment, round trip transportation, and were in the same ballpark pricewise, around $150 per person. We went out on a limb and booked with a person advertising a discounted trip through a “Playa del Carmen Locals” Facebook group. We were leary of getting ripped off, but after several back and forth emails felt comfortable enough to send a small deposit, paying in full when we arrived in Mexico. The woman I emailed is a dive shop employee who works with the captains directly to fill extra spots on the whale shark tour boats. We paid $99 per person and ended up on a boat with people who had paid twice as much for the same experience.
A van picked us up in Playa del Carmen before sunrise and drove us about an hour north to the port in Cancun. The driver offered us water, bananas, and granola bars and when we arrived, directed us to a tent in the parking lot that checked us in, gave us colored bracelets, and offered us a bag breakfast with a muffin, yogurt, and fruit, plus coffee or iced tea. There were scattered plastic chairs and trees for shade. Dozens of people were dropped off and gathered in groups around the parking lot. Each area seemed to serve several tour companies and travelers chatted, comparing their experiences and prices in booking the trip.
After a half hour, the captains arrived to claim their passengers. They led us down to the docks where we traded our shoes for life jackets and set off on a small boat to find some whale sharks. There were seven of us aboard the boat, plus a captain and first mate. They warned us that the ride would be choppy and wet and advised us to store our gear. When we asked how long the ride might be, they grinned and said “that’s up to the sharks”, but that it would be at least an hour. A hellish hour. Don’t get me wrong, there were cool parts. We were entranced by a pod of dolphins dancing around our prow, saw a green sea turtle come up for air nearby, and watched a school of flying fish shoot out of the water. The majority of the ride however, was spent riding over rough waves and getting slammed down into our seats again and again, thankful for the scopolamine patches our doctor had prescribed. We hung on to the seat beneath us, letting out screams now and then as the impact knocked the wind out of us. The next day we were black and blue and sore from this wild ride. The minutes ticked by and I had decided that we were nuts for doing this when the captain called out that a few whale sharks had been spotted ahead.
The procedure for snorkeling with them was unlike anything we had ever experienced. Many boats gather around the sharks once they are spotted, but only two people at a time can jump into the water from each boat, and they must always be escorted by a guide. Whale sharks move quickly through the water so the boat is constantly changing position. Our guide would point two people to the boat’s edge, instruct them to put on their fins, mask, and snorkel and when the captain got close enough would yell, “JUMP!” Our job was to launch from the still moving boat, and follow the guide toward the shark. Once you caught up you had to kick as hard as you could to stay even with the sharks head, getting close but not touching the shark, and being careful to avoid their massive tails. Once the shark moved out of range (because no matter how hard you swim, they do), you had to find your ship and hurry back on board so the process could start all over again with the next two people. We each had the chance to jump in two or three times and while it was absolutely incredible, it was rigorous exercise.
Now I knew that whale sharks are huge and had SCUBA dove with them in the Georgia Aquarium, but the experience of being eye to eye with them in the middle of the ocean was truly magnificent and awe inspiring. We are rule followers and were careful not to get too close, but the whale shark had other plans. Humans are so small and insignificant compared to these gentle giants, so when they wanted to shift directions and we happened to be in the way, we had no choice but to push off of their rough skin or swim over top of them. We were also lucky to encounter several manta rays sharing the fertile feeding ground with the whale sharks. Our boat crew told us that the day before, there were so many manta rays in the water that it was challenging to find a spot to jump in! Our friend Caroline joined us on this adventure and is an avid diver, traveler, and all around perfect person to have as part of our group. She also has mad GoPro skills and created this incredible video to capture our day.
After everyone had several turns in the water, we left our gigantic friends behind and headed to Isla Mujeres to drop anchor and enjoy lunch in the warm turquoise waters. After the terrible ride out, I was dreading the return and was pleasantly surprised by the smoother waters and shorter trip. Stopping at the island broke it up into more manageable chunks, and eating fresh seafood from a floating table makes everything better.
Our crew served us cervezas, soda, and water and encouraged us to go for swim and hang out in the waist deep water while they made lunch. They cut up fresh ceviche and served each of us a bowl, fresh tortilla chips, and a platter of fresh fruit floating on a long “table” made from one of the boat’s seat cushions. We gathered around enjoying our lunch and reliving our incredible encounters with the sharks and mantas. Since we were all in the water at different times, we each had slightly different experiences to share.
The trip back to Cancun’s port flew by and we all napped on the van ride back to Playa, exhausted by our day in the salt and sun. This experience fulfilled one of my dreams and ranks up there with one of the coolest things we’ve done. If you love sea life as much as we do, I highly recommend taking the plunge with the largest fish in the ocean.