Snorkeling with Whale Sharks in Mexico
Updated: Jul 6
Meet the largest fish in the world in the Caribbean: The Whale Shark
Many destinations worldwide offer the possibility to see Whale Sharks (Rhincodon typus) in a the wild, such as Australia, Indonesia, the Maldives, Philippines, Thailand, Madagascar and Ecuador.
The Gulf of Mexico is one of the best locations in the world to take the great opportunity to dive and swim with Whale Sharks. It is a really impressive sight but don’t panic, these gentle giants are harmless for humans because of their diet. Each year the Whale Shark migrates in warm tropical oceans in search of food.
Filter feeders, these solitary creatures can be found off the coast near Cancun due to the abundant supply of plankton and krill. Whale Sharks are migratory, and can only be found around the Yucatan Peninsula from June to Septembre as they constantly traveling thousands of kilometers following the movement of their food source. Indeed, their enormous size requires a the constant intake of a large volume of plankton. They can reach up to 18 meters long and weigh up to 20 tonnes, but in the Gulf of Mexico the average length is around 12 meters.
They feed themselves by trying to catch as many plankton as possible: opening their mouth wide to collect a lot of water and the small animals alive in it. The water is then filtered out through the gills leaving the lifeforms to be swallowed by the whale shark. Their small teeth therefore have no role to play in the way they eat. These docile fish are predators only of miniature, surface breeding creatures like plankton and krill, and they arent't hunted by any of the ocean's largest creatures. Their only predators are humans.
Everything about the whale shark is big, including their mouth, which can measure up to 1.5 meters - this allows it to filter 2000 tonnes of water per hour! Whale sharks have a similar lifespan to humans, growing little by little over the years, reaching an age of 80 to 130 years for the lucky ones.
If you are one of the few lucky people to swim with them, you will notice that whale sharks like to follow their path without paying attention to you and they won’t be disturbed by your presence if you keep to the respectful distance while in the water. Because they have no natural predators, nor do they eat large fish or marine mammals, they simply swim by us without taking any notice.
Did you know ?
Whale sharks are pelagic fish which means they live in the open sea but not in the deepest depths of the ocean. Most of the time they stay close to the surface and their shape can be easily seen from a boat, swimming slowly as they surface to feed, then dive and circle around as they repeatedly approach the huge schools of plankton and krill (which are virtually invisible to us).
These graceful creatures were named for their great size and the way they feed, but aside from these similarities they are in no way related to whales. Whale sharks are fish and not mammals, they are part of the shark family; physiologically, the skeletal structure is made of cartilage as opposed to bones. Unlike whales, they do not need to surface to breathe as they get their oxygen from the water via their gills just like other fish.
Like most sharks, whale sharks breed slowly. Fun fact: scientists don’t know how whale sharks reproduce. Although still a mystery, some hypotheses assume that the gestation period and birth take place in deep waters.
You can easily recognize them by the unique pattern of dotted white spots and stripes on their grayish or bluish skin, which gives them their local nickname in the Yucatan: ‘Domino’. Each whale shark has its own individual pattern of dots, a natural identification just like our fingerprints that scientists use to identify them. They have five clearly visible vertical gills positioned above each pectoral fin which are used in their respiratory system and to filter water out of the mouth so they can swallow their food.
The conservation of these creatures is very important for us. It is imperative to educate and be aware of the codes of good conduct to adopt when diving and swimming with whale sharks. It is also essential to understand that they are wild animals. You will have to adapt to their swimming direction and feeding pattern and respect the rules of safe distance, maintaining a minimum of 3-4 meters from them at all times. Always respect their environment and snorkel slowly and calmly. If you are in its direct path, the whale shark will always adjust its course so as not to touch you, so there is never a need to panic. The goal is not to touch them or feed them, but to take advantage of this privileged moment that you share with this magnificent creature.
Discover, learn, and observe marine life and their natural habitat.
Also, try to avoid sunscreen, wear a long-sleeved shirt so that you participate actively in preserving all forms of ocean life.
We are fortunate to be part of their migration route, so be responsible and enjoy this whale shark swimming experience!
The whale shark is an endangered species and we must act according to our best ability to protect its life and environment.
If you are interested in the protection and conservation of whale sharks and want to act for this cause, act now to join and support associations that seek to preserve these beautiful marine animals too.