I should preface this post by saying that swimming with the whale sharks in Mexico was an incredible experience. The opportunity to swim with these creatures was a big reason why Ash and I were so excited for Mexico, and although things didn’t turn out quite the way I had imagined, I don’t regret taking the whale shark tour. However, there are a few things I wish I had known before, so I could mentally prepare myself. We took the tour from Isla Holbox, so perhaps our experience was different from those who took the tour from Isla Mujeres or Cancun.
1. No Diving
You may hear people talking about ‘diving with whale sharks’ (myself included) but this is deceptive. You cannot dive with the whale sharks, and as they feed on the surface in any case, there is no need for scuba equipment. It wasn’t so much scuba diving I was expecting, as being able to free-dive.
You know all those photos you see on Instagram of a sleek human swimming underwater alongside a giant whale shark, sunlight glints through the surface, and photographer conveniently positioned somewhere below? Well, I doubt those photos were taken in Mexico. We had to use life jackets (very ignominious) and were told specifically NOT to dive. So, if all you’re after is a dope Insta pic, maybe go to Asia.
Confession: the whole whale shark experience was a bit rough for me, as I spent much of the time throwing up. (This was despite me having taken two seasickness pills and spent a month on boats in the Galapagos).
The whale sharks gathered in deep water – where there was ample swell – and while this is fine if the boat is moving, if you’re just bobbing there? Not so good. Be prepared to spent a lot of time waiting in the boat while the other passengers are in the water. If you’re prone to seasickness, make sure you have enough pills and ginger to get you through it. Sadly, my enjoyment of the experience was severely tainted by all the vomit. (And I was so miserable I didn’t take a single photo, so the photo credit for this post goes out to Ash!)
3. Swimming Time
Only two people are allowed in the water at a time, and although it was a surprise to me, it makes sense. You don’t want a shark to be so overwhelmed by 15 people splashing around that it cannot feed properly. Just be aware, however, that you will not actually spend much time swimming with these graceful creatures. Each boat sends two people into the water at a time, and you must be quick. Our captain gave us each 2-3 minutes before we had to return to the boat, and each pair was able to get in three times. The guide stays in the water the entire time, so allowing any more time per pair would be too exhausting for him. Unless you have a very small group, or a private guide, you will only spend about 10 minutes in the water in total, with much of that time being used to swim the distance between the shark and the boat.
4. Travel Time
Be prepared to spend a LOT of time traveling. The tour is about 5 or 6 hours, but much of that time can be spent traveling to wherever the whale sharks are. Obviously, this will differ each day, but for us about four hours were spent in transit and it was very rough, so we were soaked by the time we arrived. Make sure to bring a dry bag for your belongings, and store them under the seats.
5. Number of Whale Sharks
Mexico has the largest gathering of whale sharks in the world. I was awestruck by the number of whale sharks (and manta rays!) we saw. Be prepared to have your mind blown by how big and beautiful these animals are.
6. Boat Party Vibes
The atmosphere at the feeding site was intense. Honestly, it looked like a crazy ocean party: with dozens upon dozens of boat engines and splashing humans ripping up the surface; captains yelling at their passengers to get in or out of the boat; and unfortunate people like myself) retching into the water. All the while, the whale sharks and manta rays glided through the insanity, seemingly unfazed.
7. Other Activities
On our way back to Holbox, we stopped for two other activities. The first was a snorkel stop, and the second was a ceviche/go-for-a-walk-on-the-beach stop. They both felt like time-fillers, which I suppose they were, and by that stage everyone was just desperate to get home and shower. The ceviche was good though!
I look at my experience of swimming with whale sharks in Mexico as something I am grateful to have done, but hope to never do again. It was an exhausting day, and I felt like there wasn’t enough time or space in the water to appropriately enjoy the magnificence of the whale sharks. That having been said, if you are in the Yucutan Peninsula at the right time of year, why not? Swimming with whale sharks, even if it is only for 10 crazy minutes, is better than never swimming with them at all.