Just a few weeks ago my 12-year-old daughter Kaylin made a bucket list based on the book, 1001 Places to See Before You Die. Among her “things she must do”: Eat gelato in Italy, walk on the Great Wall of China and swim with whale sharks in in Western Australia. When my family found out that we could snorkel with whale sharks on our vacation on Mexico’s Riviera Maya last week, my daughter told me that it would most definitely count as “checkmark” on her list. It was the “swim with the whale sharks” that really mattered — not so much where the swimming with whale sharks occurred. And it turns out, Mexico is a brilliant place to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime activity; no need for North Americans to fly halfway around the world!
I had never even heard of the possibility of snorkeling with whale sharks — but my husband Quent had, since he’d been researching the excursion for years. (Apparently it was on his “life list” too!) And he knew just where to swim with whale sharks in Mexico in the summer months: in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Cancun.
After my initial response of, “Are you crazy?” Quent and my 12-year-old explained that whale sharks are vegetarians (just like my daughter!), that feed on the plentiful plankton in the warm waters near the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. They both assured me I had nothing to fear — these “gentle giants,” which can reach up to 60 feet long (!), are nothing like their people-attacking counterpart, the great white shark. We had nothing to fear about getting in the ocean with the humongous plant-eating creatures.
When Quent realized we’d be in the Cancun area in the heart of the whale sharks’ summer feeding season of June through September, he immediately contacted his top choice of outfitters he’d been following online for years: Roddrigo — “The Whale Shark Daddy” — who owns Cancun Whale Shark Tours. Indeed, after our (well-traveled) extended family enjoyed a VIP Tour — 10 of us on our own big boat with our own private guide and captain — we agreed that swimming with whale sharks in Mexico is one of the best adventures we’d ever had, on land or on water.
This Cancun-area excursion starts early in the morning — especially if you aren’t vacationing in Cancun proper. Our group — the kids’ grandma, me and my husband, my brother in law and six children ranging in age from 10 to 16 – was in Playa del Carmen. Transportation is included in the VIP Tour, and our shuttle driver picked us up at our Playa del Carmen condo at 6:30 a.m. By 7:45 a.m. we’d arrived at Gran Puerto, a marina outside of Cancun, with a whole bunch of other clients of Cancun Whale Shark Tours, as well as other outfitters.
Since we had paid for our own boat — $1600 for up to 10 people — we got the VIP treatment, special plastic-chair seating away from the masses, and, perhaps most importantly, a key to the VIP bathroom (a.k.a. a locked porta potty). Oh yes, we had many giggles about the special throne (which, frankly, turned out to be a good thing, since our own port-a-potty was more pleasant than fighting the crowds at the public one in the marina).
Once on our spacious boat, our uber-friendly, athletic, 26-year-old guide Raul told the kids, they didn’t have to wear the life jackets we’d been issued for swimming with the whale sharks. Most of the children promptly situated themselves at the bow of the boat, legs dangling in the spray. The boat had a nice shade cover, plus a huge cooler filled with bottled water, Coke and Coronas, as well as sandwiches for lunch. An on-board toilet came in handy, too.
Raul let us know that sunshine brought the plankton to the surface of the ocean, so we’d have better luck seeing whale sharks if the clouds parted. The whale sharks simply skim the water’s surface, opening their huge mouths, to allow in the plankton, krill, fish eggs and algae; they “filter out” any fish that might make their way in.
Raul also warned us that we needed to be patient adventurers. That is, he said that we’d likely be boating for an hour or 90 minutes in the waters between Cabo Catoche and Isla Contoy before we’d spot any whale sharks. Cancun Whale Shark Tours — as well as other outfitters — have a number of boats out in the sea on any given morning we saw at least 30), and they all take on different quadrants of the ocean, then radio one another when whale sharks are spotted. Other spotters — by air and by sea — help locate the feeding sharks, too.
Alas, it took Raul and our boat four hours to come upon a couple dozen whale sharks. In that time, we’d passed two big groups of boats, whose clients were all following one or two whale sharks — it’s no fun fighting for a chance to swim next to the sharks, that’s for sure. So Raul bypassed those options — and we’re so glad he did. Even though we were at sea for a very long time, we were lucky enough to see a ginormous manta ray; it must have had at least an eight-foot wingspan, and our captain maneuvered out boat right next to it, so we could watch the graceful creature glide by in the ocean.
While at sea we also saw a few silver flying fish, which looked like birds, they remained in the air for so long. We spotted a couple of pods of dolphins. And the most amazing sight any of us had ever seen in the ocean — a jumping manta ray! Truly, we saw it launch itself in the air, and were only a few hundred feet from its underside when it leaped out of the water. Oh, how I wish I had my camera out to capture that amazing sight!
When we finally did come upon some boats that were circling around a bunch of whale sharks, we were so ready to swim with them! In pairs, we donned life jackets, masks, snorkels and fins (all provided), and got into the water with Raul. He told us exactly when to jump from the boat, and once in the water, he’d tell us where to swim next to and alongside the whale sharks.
Sometimes he’d suggest that we look at their mouths straight on (freaky!), and otherwise, he’d encourage us to “draft” the whale sharks. Indeed, when we got close to their pectoral fins and their giant gills, they would seemingly suck us into their wake. (My teenage nephews are water-polo players and strong swimmers, so they were particularly great at keeping up with the whale sharks.)
Because we were on a private tour, we were able to spend as much or as little time in the water as we wanted, which was wonderful. Some of us swam with the sharks three times — up to 15 minutes a stint; others went just once (which was plenty for them).
Our guide Raul was so much more than just a guy who helped us get up close and personal with whale sharks in the ocean. He actually filmed and took photos of our experience for us, too! All of the underwater photos you see above were captured with our GoPro camera (in the flat-lens Dive Housing), and he also took a ton of great video footage of us, too.
We are so appreciative of all of these digital memories — truly, it’s an amazing tour guide, who can not only help create such a wonderful travel and life experience for us, but also take the time and energy to capture it all digitally, too, for no extra fee. Check out Raul’s fabulous filming skills of us in this short video. If his photos and videos won’t convince you to book a whale-shark snorkeling excursion with Cancun Whale Shark Tours on your next trip to Cancun, Mexico, I don’t know what will! (Here’s a link to the video on YouTube.com, if you’d like to view it there: http://youtu.be/Tw5v9oBnSPo)
Once we’d gotten our fill of swimming with the whale sharks, our adventure continued at Isla Mujeres. It took us about an hour to reach the small island close to the coast of Cancun, where we docked for Raul and Omar to make us some fresh ceviche and guacamole. We were starving by mid afternoon, after working so hard in the water to keep up with the whale sharks. The snacks and cold beers were absolutely appreciated! We also snorkeled a bit in the clear waters around Isla Mujeres.
On the boat ride back to the marina, and our shuttle ride back to our Playa del Carmen, we were exhausted and salty and sweaty, but oh so happy to have shared this incredible adventure together. On your next vacation in the Cancun area, you simply can’t miss snorkeling with whale sharks. If you can’t fill a VIP boat with your own family and friends, I’d still recommend a public tour with Cancun Whale Shark Tours. I am certain Roddrigo and his friendly, skilled team of guides and boat captains will provide you with the adventure of a lifetime.