Swimming with Whale Sharks in Cancun, Mexico

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Swimming with whale sharks in Cancun, Mexico

As our boat skimmed across the tops of the blue-green water, the captain spotted the fin of the whale shark lazily moving side to side, like a horse’s tail swishing at flies.

“You two will be first,” said our guide Gilberto Juno from Aquaworld Cancun, simultaneously pointing his finger at me and zipping up his wet suit. The enormity of me, 5 feet, two inches tall, jumping in the water to swim next to a whale shark the size of 20 grown men was sinking into my brain. “You got this,” I whispered aloud to myself as a swung my legs over the side of the jet boat and prepared to jump, fins first.

I was paired with a gentleman visiting Cancun from Amsterdam. Like me, Rob was anxious to swim with the whale sharks. These gentle giants measure 18 to 32.8 feet long and weigh 50,000 pounds, but they eat plankton & krill, not people. We donned our snorkels and fins and flipped over the railing into the azure waters of the Mexican Caribbean Sea.

Like Noah’s Ark, our party of 10 would enter the water two by two

Like Noah’s Ark, our party of 10 would enter the water two by two for 15 minutes segments swimming with the whale sharks. Before our whale shark tour with Aquaworld we were instructed to swim fast and close to the whale shark, the largest fish in the ocean. We were warned not to touch this magnificant creature and if we did touch the whale shark, our swim would come to an abrupt halt.

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Travel Writer Nancy Brown on a whale shark swim

Each guest would have two chances to swim with the whale shark. On my first pass I was hesitant to swim so close to the whale shark that I could see it’s gills ripple and notice the parasite fish clinging along for a free ride on the whale shark. My second attempt to swim with the whale sharks I knew to pump my legs as fast as a sewing machine needle running through fabric. Like Dory, from the movie Finding Nemo, I would keep swimming until my time was up, or my legs gave out, whichever came first. My snorkel partner had a different experience swimming with the whale shark.

“I was very lucky today,” said Rob van Daalen from the Netherlands. “I have been snorkeling with whale sharks and heard that I was just in time, the age limit in Mexico for this tour is 60 and I am 58 years old. Secondly, I had three dives, instead of the usual two, and last but not least, I was touched by the tail of a fish. So it was not the hand of God, but still being touched by the tail of this whale shark and being brushed aside like a sardine was quite something. The gentle giant was swimming below me and I saw his endless body moving under me. The tail was much higher and brushed me aside. Swimming with these beautiful eight meter long creatures was an unforgettable experience.”

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Kids as young as 7 may swim with whale sharks. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

We were on board with a family from Mexico with teenage boys, a young couple from Cancun and the three of us; two ladies from California and Rob from Amsterdam. People on the boat assumed our trio was based on a long-standing friendship; in truth, we had only met each other that morning. We bonded over our love of swimming with whale sharks in the Caribbean Sea.

“I enjoyed the whale shark experience because it allowed me to see how BIG these beautiful animals are close up,” said Meghan McGarry of Southern California. “Our dive guide Gilbert helped make my experience memorable by making sure I was in the right position to see the whale shark! Swimming right next to them was a magical experience. Anyone who’s going to Cancun should experience this if they are able to.”

Let me add that your day will start early. An Aquaworld driver will pick you up at your hotel and drive you to Gran Puerto to meet the boat. Here, you will check-in, get your snorkel, mask, fins and life jacket and you will be assigned to your boat. There is plenty of water on board, however, if you are prone to motion sickness, take Dramamine, natural ginger or wear Sea Bands during the excursion. Our friend Meghan from San Bernardino took Dramamine and I wore the Sea Bands and we were both fine. The boyfriend of the Mexican couple got seasick, but still enjoyed his whale shark experience.

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Relax on a deserted island near Isla Mujeres. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

After swimming with whale sharks, we took the two jet boats to Punta Che, a secret spot that not many people know about. The strip of white sand, surrounded in layers of aqua blue water, was the ideal place to snap a selfie, relax with a beer or simply enjoy the natural beauty of the Mexican Caribbean Sea. It was also a planned stop to settle stomachs for anyone experiencing a bout of seasickness. It was a gorgeous, yet brief stop, before we motored on to Isla Mujeres for lunch.

The captain signaled all aboard and we were whisked to Playa Lancheron on Isla Mujeres for a buffet lunch of pork, white fish (grouper on our visit) rice, black beans and tortillas. Beer, water & soda were included with the price of the excursion, in addition to flan for dessert.

Fun fact (or fiction, as I was not able to verify this explanation), Isla Mujeres got its name from Cortes the explorer, who kept his women prisoners on the island as sex slaves. But back to swimming with whale sharks…

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Wear SPF swimwear when swimming with whale sharks

Need to know:
Whale sharks frequent the Mexican Caribbean Sea from the beginning of June until mid-September. If for some reason you don’t see whale sharks you may re-book with Aquaworld or select another activity at a discounted rate. I scheduled my whale shark swim on my first full day in Cancun in case I had to re-schedule the whale shark tour. My visit took place in August to coincide with the turtle release program at Westin Lagunamar.

The minimum age to participate in a whale shark swim is 7 years and you may not be older than 60 years of age. Obviously, you must know how to swim. You may not wear regular sunblock when you swim with the whale sharks. Biodegradable sunscreen is sometimes allowed, but it is best to wear SPF swimwear like swim pants and a rash guard. I wore Coolibar swim tights and a swim shirt under my life jacket so no sunblock necessary. I will confess that I forgot to re-apply lip balm and I burned my lips out on the water. I did remember to wear my Tilley hat in the boat. I love this hat because it blocks the sun, it’s breathable, lightweight, indestructable and it floats. This hat also comes with a chin strap; you’ll need that, as well as a good pair of polarized sunglasses.

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If you want to drink alcohol on the boat, after your swim with the whale sharks, there’s plenty of beer, water and soda (and a porta potty for the ladies.) Bring an underwater camera with a waterproof case; I used a Fuji xp, waterproof to 65 feet, and a Lifeproof case on my iPhone.

I had a wonderful experience with Aquaworld Cancun and would highly recommend this once-in-a-lifetime experience in Mexico. Thank you to the folks at Westin Lagunamar Cancun for making it possible for me to go swimming with whale sharks in Cancun, Mexico.

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Snorkeling in the Mexican Caribbean Sea. Photo © Nancy D. Brown

Insider Tip:
While it was suggested that you bring a bag with a towel and any other items you might need, I didn’t need access to my bag (which was securely stowed in a waterproof location under the seat cushions.) There is not time to shop in Isla Mujueres. You will only need access to your wallet at the end of the trip because you’ll want to tip your guide and captain generously. For additional insider tips follow luxury travel writer @Nancydbrown on Twitter or Instagram @Nancydbrown and @AquaworldCancun on Twitter and Instagram.

If You Go:
Aquaworld Cancun (866) 210-1236
Km 15.2 Blvd Kukulcan Cancun, Mexico

Cancun whale shark swim review, video and photography by travel writer Nancy D. Brown. Additional video and whale shark photos (taken on my camera) thanks to Aquaworld. As is typical in the industry, I received a complimentary excursion, however, all opinions are my own.