Encountering the Giants of the Ocean
If you were to ask any diver what animal they’d want to see the most during a dive, chances are the whale shark is going to be a pretty common answer. Yes, swimming with turtles is amazing. Sure, swimming with sharks and rays is amazing. But what could possible compare to swimming with whale sharks? Except for maybe 2 of them. Or thirty, like I experienced near Isla Mujeres off the Quintanaroo coast of Mexico!
These gentle giants have been on my bucket list since before I even started diving and while this encounter wasn’t exactly the same circumstances as the one on my list, it was still pretty bloody cool.
I booked my tour from Scuba Mobile dive centre in Playa del Carmen for $160. It was definitely more expensive than the other whale shark tours around the place but it was sold to me that this company provided a better experience than all the other boats. In reality it was very much the same, with no extra time in the water with the whale sharks, but I’ll get to that later.
The day started with a pickup from my hostel and then a bit of a drive to a harbor in Cancun where we had breakfast waiting on the dock. Coffee, juice, fruit and some kind of breakfast cake (didn’t know that was a thing) was exactly what I needed before a 45 cruise out to the whale sharks.
Is It a Responsible Tour?
Now these big beauties aren’t fed or anything like that to keep them in the area, this tour is only available during the period from June to mid September which lines up with their migratory pattern – so there’s a tick in that box.
In terms of swimming with them there’s a few very strict rules that all boat captains and snorkelers must abide by. There’s a 10 customer limit per boat with only 2 customers in the water at one time (from each boat) for 10 minutes each go. Bad news for any companies who don’t follow this rule including loss of permits. Tick that box.
The only concern I had with this tour was the sheer number of boats that were puttering around the whale sharks. While there were plenty of them in the water for everyone (we had up to 30!), on a day where there might only be one or 2 this would become an absolute nightmare for the whale sharks. Considering the strict rules in place I would imagine there’s a plan for this situation.
As I mentioned before, this tour was advertised as offering as much time in the water as you like but unfortunately I was only able to get in the water three times. If I was to do it again I would book with the cheaper groups as there was no observable advantage to paying extra – everyone follows the same rules.
Overall I was pretty happy with the whole situation, although seeing 20-30 boats within a 100m radius kind of took the charm away.
As we pulled up to the whale sharks I finally saw how big these things actually are. There were a couple of them over 10m from nose to tail and they completely dwarfed anyone in the water. I couldn’t believe I was about to get in the water with these giants!
Sliding carefully over the side of the boat as not to disturb them, I immediately saw my first one swim right past me within two metres of my fins!! Naturally I missed capturing it on my GoPro because I was so in awe of its size, grace and power, but never fear! I managed to get some cool footage as I got up close and personal with these gentle giants!
If you want the hot tip when it comes to swimming alongside whale sharks – it’s to start swimming early. If you wait too long and start swimming as it already goes past you, you’ll be left behind faster than the slow kid at school. And don’t try to swim behind it, that massive tail will push so much water against you that you’ll feel like you’re swimming up a raging rapid.
Technically I still can’t cross this off my bucket list as I wasn’t diving and it wasn’t a ‘natural, out-of-the-blue’ (pun always intended) encounter, but it was still brilliant to be able to swim next to one of the most recognisable creatures in the ocean.