The Whale Shark Swim Experience

Last Updated Oct 18, 2023

What was the most giant animal that you have been next to? Neighbor’s dog? A cow? An elephant? A giraffe? They are all nothing in comparison to whale sharks.

What if I told you that it is possible to go on sea excursion to watch and swim with whale sharks during your vacation in Cancun? what would you say?

If you want to know how exact it is to compare whale sharks to school buses, where and when you can swim with them, and how to do it to come back safely home, keep reading.

Let’s dive into the magical world of whale sharks.

Infographic: The Whale Shark

A few words about the whale shark 🦈 🐋

Description of a gentle sea giant.

Would you like to watch whale sharks up close during your vacations in Cancun and the Riviera Maya? Here is some information to help you get to know these extraordinary animals better.



What family of sea animals does the whale shark belong to?

First, let me debunk some myths about these sea creatures. Whale sharks... are not whales! They won’t eat you. They won’t even bite you.

Whales Sharks are sharks called “whale” just because of their size and because they filter feed same as for example humpbacks. Still, they are technically sharks—fish—and not mammals like whales.

The whale shark, a magnificent fish

Whale sharks breathe with their gills and have cartilage instead of bone, making them true sharks. Saying this, they are the largest fish in the ocean! 😱

How big is the average whale shark?

A regular whale shark grows to 12 meters (40 feet) and weighs 11 tons (22,000 pounds) but some fully-grown individuals can be as big as 20 meters (65 feet) and weigh 20 tons (40,000 pounds).

Now, picture this yellow school bus that you know so well.

School buses range from 20 to 45 feet, so the biggest whale sharks can be bigger than the biggest school bus.

The biggest vehicle can carry up to 90 passengers and weigh 12.5 tons (25,000 pounds) when empty and 18 tons (36,000 pounds) when full. A whale shark is still heavier.

Their babies can be slightly bigger than human babies. When they’re born, they measure between 40 and 70 cm (16 - 27 inches) in length. Mummy sharks can give birth to around 300 hundred baby sharks and they will grow very fast in their first years to slow down later on.

How do you recognize a whale shark?

If you do this incredible activity of swimming with whale sharks during your vacations in Cancun and the Riviera Maya, you will recognize them immediately when you go underwater. In fact, due to their very particular stripes, they are easily distinguished from all the fish that inhabit the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea.

The unique skin of the whale shark

They have white spots and stripes on a dark bluish-grey background. Their bellies tend to be pale, with no markings. These colors and patterns let them blend into their environment.

Did you know that?

Their spots are unique like human fingerprints.

Are whale sharks dangerous to humans?

Whale sharks have extremely wide mouths, up to a meter across (3.3 feet) and there are over 3,000 small teeth in 300 rows. As scary as it may sound, there’s no need to worry.

Whale sharks are not a danger to humans. They are file feeders as only two other types of sharks are (the basking shark and the megamouth shark). They feed on planktonic organisms such as krill, jellyfish, and crab larvae which they strain from the water. Although they have teeth, they don’t bite, therefore you have absolutely nothing to worry about while swimming next to them.

If you are coming to Cancun for a family vacation, this activity is completely safe for all family members. However, always ask to your tour provider about the minimum age to snorkel with whale sharks.

swimming with a whale shark

Swimming with whale sharks = protect and respect 💙

An endangered species and a regulated activity

Threats to whale sharks

Remember that whale sharks are a threatened species although there are very few known predators to them, overfishing, global warming and tourist activity are the main causes of their disappearance.

👉 To learn more about: whale shark.

Unfortunately, humans are the biggest threat to them, as whale sharks swim slowly and close to the surface, making them easy prey for fishermen or victims of boat propeller accidents.

Their skin is very sensitive and gets easily injured, that’s why you absolutely mustn’t touch them.

In some countries, people still hunt them for their flesh, liver oil, cartilage, and large fins. Shark-fin soup is still a thing in China and Taiwan. 😢

Marine pollution is the other important factor in its decline. Flowing plastic and all types of rubbish is also a danger as it can get to the whale sharks’ mouths and cause injury and even death.

The actions put in place to preserve the species

Luckily, other countries have decided to protect these magnificent marine animals and ensure their conservation, in particular by enacting laws to regulate tourist activity around the discovery of this species.

In Mexico, where swimming with whale sharks is a big thing, people understand that having these animals safe and protected can bring more economic benefits to the local population.

Spotting a whale shark

Tour operators need to follow special codes of conduct and tourists are educated before diving into the water.

Whale shark swimming is regulated by the SEMARNAT (Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales - Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources) and the SECTUR (Secretaría de Turismo - Ministry of Tourism).

Odigoo tip:

To assure that your activity presents no harm to these animals, ask for SEMARNAT and SECTUR certifications while booking your tour.

Low prices should be a cause for suspicion. Tour operators need to pay a certain fee to the government on each tour to create a protection fund for these animals and can only take a small group (under ten) with a guide for every two swimmers. It cannot be cheap. If it is, run away.

Where To Swim With Whale Sharks in Cancún?

Whale sharks like warm, temperate seas. They feel comfortable both in deep and shallow waters and can be found near coasts, in lagoons of coral islets, and reefs.

They usually swim close to the surface where the water is warmer. Scientists have spotted whale sharks in all tropical oceans of the world.

If you want to swim with whale sharks in Mexico there are two places to consider: the Sea of Cortez and the Mexican Caribbean.

Let me tell you what destinations are the best to swim with these gentle giants while on vacation in Cancún and Riviera Maya. All these places can be reached from any hotel on the Mexican Caribbean.

Many tour operators can organize transportation from your lodging, no matter if you're staging in Cancún, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Puerto Morelos, or Tulum.

Here are the best places to swim with these gentle giants! 🤩

Let's go this way! 👇

Top 3 of the best places to swim with Whale Sharks in the Mexican Caribbean :

1. Isla Mujeres, Quintano Roo

It’s said that Isla Mujeres is the place where it’s the easiest to spot whale sharks.

You can combine the experience with many of the other activities available on this island. You can even stay overnight in one of the 60 hotels of this beautiful island.

👉 If you want to know more about Isla Mujeres, you can read our article about this majestic island.

2. Isla Holbox, Quintana Roo

Holbox is a bit further from Cancun, about a two-hour drive.
It is an amazing place to experience swimming with whale sharks.

Holbox is part of the Yum Balam Ecological Reserve. It’s one of my favorite places in Mexico and I’m sure you'll also easily fall in love with it.
To know more about Holbox, check this post.

If you can, stay in Holbox for a day or more to see all its attractions including bright flamingos, the bioluminescence phenomenon, and white-sand, spectacular beaches.


It’s a car-free island so bikes and golf carts will be your only option to move around.

3. Isla Contoy, Quintana Roo

Isla Contoy is located north of Isla Mujeres but it is not an inhabited island like the other islands in the Mexican Caribbean: Isla Mujeres, Cozumel and Holbox.

It is a sanctuary island, almost totally unspoiled. It is not possible to spend the night there.

However, you can descend from your boat and combine swimming with whale sharks with bird watching, as there are more than 200 bird species on the island.

📅 When to Swim With Whale Sharks in Quintana Roo?

In order to protect whale sharks, the legal season to swim with them is strictly controlled.

Tour operators can only offer this experience between June 15th and September 15th.

The greatest chances to spot whale sharks in the Mexican Caribbean are between mid-June and August.

Odgoo Tip:

Plan your vacation accordingly if swimming with whale sharks is high on your must-to-do list.

The rules even restrict the activity to certain hours, to leave the daylight hours free from humans.

Remember that there’s no guarantee that you will spot the whale sharks and most tour operators don’t return your money.

Weather is extremely important in this activity and boats will not go into the sea if not officially allowed.

Even with fair weather, the speedboat trip can get rough so if you’re not a water fan, make sure you take a bill beforehand not to get dizzy.

🌿 💚 Ecotourism: Comply with these rules while swimming with whale sharks

Reglas a seguir durante una excursión de este tipo

Sustainable tourism is possible and ecotourism in Mexico is growing in popularity. There are certain rules that you and your operators need to obey, to assure whale sharks’ protection and wellbeing.

Whale sharks are slow swimmers, remember? They swim at about 3 miles per hour, 1 more than humans so you shouldn’t have problems with keeping up with its pace for a few minutes.

Rules to swim with the whale shark

  • 1. Choose your tour operator wisely. Remember to check the certifications. The tour operator should know the rules about the number of boars in the area, the number of people in the boat, the guide-tourist ratio, and permissible months and hours.
  • 2. 🧴 ☠️ Don’t bring any chemicals on you. No makeup, no hairspray, or any other hair product. No creams, no sunscreens. Not even biodegradable sunscreens are safe for water animals so better opt for protective clothes. Apart from damage to the natural habitat, you’ll scare the whale sharks, they cannot stand the stand. Yes, you fish stink to them if you wear any.
  • 3. Always wear a life jacket. Wetsuits are allowed only without a weight belt. DIving under the water is not allowed. WHale sharks are afraid of air bubbles and will swim away if you dive and produce some.
  • 4. 🖐️ No touching is allowed. Whale Sharks have very sensitive skin and you can injure them easily. You can also produce a cut in your own skin, so take it into consideration.
  • 5. Swim always on the sides of the whale shark. The safest spot is between its eye and the tail base and you should keep your distance. Although they don’t bite, their tail could swat you if you get too close. Your guide should advise you on staying about 1 meter (3 feet) from the head and 3 meters (10 feet) from the tail.
  • 6. 📸 🚫 Photographs are allowed only without a flash. Still, water is usually murky as you’re in the plankton area and your photos can be far from your expectations. It’s better to enjoy the experience than worry about the Instagram trophy.

Now, dear readers, you are ready for a whale shark watching tour, respecting the animals and the environment!


💙 🐋 If you care about these giants and responsible ecotourism, you can virtually adopt whale sharks for about $60 and your money will go towards shark conservation.

Did you like this article? You can take a look to other posts on our blog at Odigoo Travel!

Check out our related articles:

Related Topics



Related Topics

Continue Exploring



Need help planning your stay in Cancun and Riviera Maya? Don't miss out on the destination's flagship activities! We tell you everything, right here!

Read more