Disclosure: This was part of a media trip to Moon Palace Resort in Cancun, Mexico. I took the trip at no cost, but no additional compensation was provided.
If you’re looking for an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience, swimming with whale sharks in Cancun certainly qualifies. Whale sharks, despite being the largest fishes on earth, are gentle filter feeders. They feast primarily on plankton and other small sea creatures, making their 4,000 teeth fairly useless. They can grow to 40+ feet and live for more than 100 years. They have a beautiful checkerboard pattern with spots that are like zebra stripes in that each one is striking and distinctive.
Our whale shark swim was with Cancun dive experts, Solo Buceo. Solo Buceo, a Cancun-based dive company, provides excursions to swim with the whale sharks throughout the summer while the sharks feed in nearby waters. Trips depart at 6:45am and return by about 2pm. The price of the trip (roughly $165) includes your snorkeling gear, boat transport and guide, and a lunch of sandwiches, fruit, and beverages.
The trip to the feeding grounds takes about an hour and a half and is roughly 22 miles out to sea. It’s a rocky ride on a 40 MPH speed boat, so Dramamine is strongly recommend. On the way, enjoy viewing the Cancun hotel strip before heading out to open ocean. Once you’re in the deeper water, keep your eye out for marine life. We spotted a sea turtle and a pod of dolphins frolicking among the waves.
Although whale sharks are considered to be solitary creatures, they do congregate in places where food is plentiful. When we pulled up, there was a sea of shark fins circling the water! And, while they are relatively slow-moving, they gracefully sailed past and under our boat.
Swimming with whale sharks is strictly regulated as they are an endangered species. A representative from the World Wildlife Foundation gave us specific instructions for the trip. There is no touching, feeding, or otherwise disturbing the sharks. If a shark approaches you, you are to swim out of the way if you can. Despite their size and slow speed, they do have a habit of sneaking up on you in the darkness of the ocean.
Once geared up with a life vest (or wetsuit, for more experienced divers), flippers, mask, and snorkel, the guide takes two swimmers at a time. Be prepared to jump off the boat into the ocean and get to swimming. If you have an underwater camera, make sure to bring it along!
Solo Buceo calls this a family experience, but know your family. I wouldn’t recommend it for kids under the age of 10 unless they are experienced at snorkeling and are good at following directions. For kids from 10-13, it’s going to depend heavily on the child. It’s also a long boat ride (3 hours round trip) that is not conducive to doing much of anything other than taking in the sights.
Tips for a Successful Whale Shark Swimming Experience:
- Take Dramamine even if you never get seasick. Since it takes about an hour to start working, make sure to take it before departing your hotel. If you do get seasick, be prepared with a second dose since it’s a long trip.
- If you have never been snorkeling, try to get in some practice in your hotel pool or other calm water source. Learning to snorkel out in the ocean is nerve-wracking (from personal experience).
- Buy biodegradable sunscreen (required) in advance. It’s hard to find in stores in the United States, but you can buy it online or look for it in gift shops once in Cancun. Solo Buceo does not carry sunscreen. The biodegradable sunscreen helps protect marine life from the large numbers of tourists swimming with them each year.
- Wear a cover-up to provide extra sun protection. It’s also likely you’ll get wet on the ride there and back.
- Comfortable seating was limited on our boat. Be prepared to do some standing.
- Tipping is customary.