Not long after moving to Playa del Carmen, I got to experience the whale shark tour and it was such an amazing experience being just within reach of these giant creatures. I mean how many people can say that they have swam with sharks? Check! Read on for my swimming with whale sharks Playa del Carmen guide to find out what to expect and how to make the most of your tour experience.
Before moving to Mexico, I didn’t really know a thing about whale sharks. When a friend suggested we go on the tour, my immediate reaction was NO WAY NO HOW. Although it sounded exciting, my mind immediately flashed to the gory shark scenes from Jaws, Soul Surfer, The Shallows, etc. Not sure I could handle that!
But then a quick Google search led me to find out that whale sharks are not actually as terrifying as one might think and are actually considered “gentle giants”. So here’s a few of the basics on whale sharks that helped to ease my fears. Trust me they aren’t as scary as you think!
What are whale sharks?
Whale sharks are the largest fish species and contrary to its name, they are not actually whales but are classified as sharks. They are not predatory in nature and are considered to be “gentle giants”.
Whale sharks are gigantic in size with lengths ranging from 18-33 feet long and weighing up to 41,000 pounds. That’s comparable to the size of a school bus. Woah! Whale sharks are covered in white spots and each shark has their own unique spot pattern, similar to human fingerprints.
What do whale sharks eat?
Even though a whale shark’s mouth can be up to 5 feet wide and have over 300 teeth, they are filter feeders and primarily feed just on plankton and small fish. They migrate to tropical areas of the world that are rich in plankton. Their throats are only about the size of a quarter so it would be physically impossible for them to swallow a human.
Where can you swim with whale sharks?
Whales sharks populate in warm tropical waters and there are many parts of the world where you can swim with whale sharks. In Mexico, these include Isla Mujeres, Isla Holbox, Socorro Island, and La Paz. You can also swim with whale sharks in Belize, the Philippines, Indonesia, Tanzania, and Australia.
When is whale shark season in Isla Mujeres?
Isla Mujeres whale shark season is typically from May-September when the plankton blooms in the shallow waters off the shores of the island.
About the Whale Shark Tour
If you are staying in Playa del Carmen and want to swim with whale sharks, you’ll have to travel to Cancun and then over to Isla Mujeres by boat. The tour includes roundtrip transportation but the pickup is very early!
Whale Shark Tour Itinerary
The whale shark tour Playa del Carmen starts very early with a 6:30 AM pickup from your hotel or meeting point. The total duration of the tour is about 7 hours. Below is a detailed tour itinerary. Note times can vary depending on tour operator and group size.
|6:30 AM||Pickup from Playa del Carmen|
|7:30 AM||Arrive to Punta Sam Marina Cancun|
|8:30 AM||Depart Punta Sam Marina Cancun by boat|
|9:00 AM||Arrive offshore Isla Mujeres|
|9:00 AM||Swimming with whale sharks|
|11:00 AM||Lunch at Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres|
|12:00 PM||Boat ride back to Punta Sam Marina Cancun|
|12:30 PM||Return trip to Playa del Carmen|
|1:30 PM||Arrive Playa del Carmen|
Below is what is included in the whale shark tours from Playa del Carmen. Basically the only expense that is not included is tips for the tour guides.
- Roundtrip transportation from Playa del Carmen
- Continental breakfast
- Bilingual tour guides
- Snorkeling gear (mask, fins, and life jacket)
- Water and soft drinks
How to Book a Whale Sharks Playa del Carmen Tour
The easiest way to book the whale shark tour is by booking it online in advance. The price can vary depending on the month but we paid around $160 USD per person. It is one of the more expensive Playa del Carmen tours but it is definitely worth it! You can book the tour on Get Your Guide here. Remember the tour is only available during the months of May-September.
Whale Shark Tour Experience
Pickup in Playa del Carmen
The whale shark excursion from Playa del Carmen begins with a very early pickup around 6:30 AM from your hotel or designated meeting point. It’s an early start so you definitely don’t want to go out drinking the night before! Your pickup vehicle will vary depending on how many people are coming from Playa del Carmen but we were picked up in a comfortable sedan.
Stop 1: Punta Sam Marina Cancun
It takes about an hour to drive from Playa del Carmen to Cancun so I would recommend bringing some coffee along for the ride or it’s a great time to go back to sleep if you are able! Once you arrive to the marina, you’ll be treated to a light breakfast that includes coffee cake, fruit, sandwiches, and juice.
You’ll wait for the other tour goers to arrive and then everyone will board the speed boat to Isla Mujeres. Group sizes will vary but there were only about 10 other people on our tour. As you board the boat, you’ll be greeted by two tour guides and the boat captain who will quickly outfit everyone with life jackets, flippers, and snorkeling masks.
Stop 2: Offshore Isla Mujeres
From the Punta Sam Marina in Cancun you’ll head over to the island of Isla Mujeres, which takes less than 30 minutes and is a stunning ride through crystal clear turquoise water.
Rules for Swimming with Whale Sharks
During the boat ride, the tour guides will explain the guidelines and process for swimming with whale sharks. Basically it is a “search and find” type mission as they never know where the sharks will be that day. They also explained some important rules:
- Touching the whale sharks is prohibited
- The group will be divided into pairs and only 2 snorkelers will be allowed in the water at a time
- Regular sunscreen is prohibited – only reef-safe biodegradable sunscreen is allowed
Whale Sharks Drop Zone
Once we arrived to the whale sharks drop zone, we could see dorsal fins protruding out of the water almost everywhere we looked. I’m talking 60-70 whale sharks in sight and that was just in the area where our boat had stopped. Not all tours will get to see this many whale sharks but we were very lucky that day!
On top of seeing whale sharks, you might get to see other sea creatures as well. On our tour, the guides kept yelling, “Manta, Manta!” where we would spin around to find giant manta rays gliding through the water. Wait a minute, had I really willingly signed up to jump into these heavily shark invested waters?! Too late now!
The tour guides were excellent at explaining exactly what we needed to do. The group is divided into pairs and only two snorkelers plus one tour guide are allowed in the water at a time. Once it’s your turn, you will be instructed to sit on the side of the boat with your feet dangling off the edge. Then the captain precisely positions the boat at just the right spot next to a whale shark and then you wait to hear the guides say “Jump!”.
Whale Shark Snorkeling Experience
After you jump into the water, the tour guide will lead you and your partner in the right direction towards the whale shark. You’ll get to snorkel at the surface of the water within just a few feet of the sharks. At first sight underwater, the whale shark was truly a magnificent creature to observe. It’s so cool to see these ginormous creatures up close and personal and see their unique spot patterns along with their massive gaping mouth with thousands of tiny teeth.
You definitely have to turn off your tunnel vision and be mindful of your surroundings so as to not accidentally touch or kick one of the whale sharks with your flippers. Just as I was getting comfortable in the water, I turned around to see 2-3 more whale sharks in close proximity. It’s prohibited to touch the whale sharks so it is important to be extra cautious on every dive.
After a few minutes in the water, your guide will pull you back towards the boat. After that, the tour group will take turns jumping in the water. The number of times you get to jump will depend on the group size, but we got to jump 3 times each. On our last jump, we got to swim along a giant manta ray as well. ¡Que padre!
Stop 3: Isla Mujeres Playa Norte
After the excitement and exhilaration of swimming alongside the whale sharks, you’ll head closer to the shore of Isla Mujeres and anchor at Playa Norte, which is one of the best beaches in Riviera Maya. Once there, you’ll get to relax and enjoy a leisurely lunch of freshly made ceviche, guacamole, and cold beverages. Our group had a lot of fun laughing and joking about our shark encounters.
Stop 4: Punta Sam Marina Cancun
After about an hour at Playa Norte, you’ll head back on the boat to the Punta Sam Marina in Cancun. After getting off the boat, your ground transportation will be waiting to take you back to Playa del Carmen. Don’t forget to tip your tour guides before you leave!
What to Bring on the Whale Shark Tour
Below are some items I would recommend bringing on the whale shark tour. My number one recommendation is bringing a GoPro or waterproof camera. You really don’t want to miss out on all the cool footage of you swimming with some of the largest fish in the world! Plus the guides are really good at grabbing your camera and recording footage of you. Make sure your camera is fully charged and bring some backup batteries if you have some. I was using my GoPro so much my batteries drained pretty quickly.
Another really important item to bring is biodegradable sunscreen. Regular sunscreen is NOT permitted on the tour and the guides are pretty strict about this so you definitely need to bring your own. You can pick some up on Amazon here.
I would also recommend bringing a rash guard or swim shirt. I had to borrow one from a friend and was definitely wishing that I had my own. The sun can be very strong while you’re swimming with the whale sharks, as well during the leisurely stop at Playa Norte.
So what do you think? Are you ready to swim with whale sharks in Isla Mujeres Mexico? I had such a great experience and now swimming with sharks is one more thing I can cross off my bucket list! For more snorkeling Playa del Carmen tours, check out my guides to observing wild dolphins at Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and snorkeling with giant starfish at El Cielo in Cozumel.
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