Sunny and warm year round, the tropical seas of Cancun, Mexico are a favorite haunt for whale sharks, the biggest sharks in Cancun. Actually, whale sharks are the biggest sharks, period, and they’re also the biggest fish in the sea.

Whale sharks can reach a length of 40 feet and weigh over 20 tons. They have a long lifespan of up to 150 years, and they’re found in all of the world’s temperate and tropical oceans. There was a time when whale sharks were hunted for their fins, liver oils, and skins, but once governments around the world caught on that these docile behemoths are worth more money alive and thrilling tourists than in soup and lipstick, steps were taken to protect them.

Nowadays, one of the biggest industries in Cancun is the ubiquitous whale shark tour. You can head out on a boat to watch them swim, or you can join a snorkeling excursion and actually join them in the water. Swimming with whale sharks is safe, and it’s an event you’ll never forget.

Some Fascinating Facts About Whale Sharks

Whale sharks are called “gentle giants” because their size is astonishing and they’re curious, sweet creatures who wouldn’t dream of purposefully harming a human.

Although whale sharks sport thousands of tiny teeth in their four-foot wide mouths, they don’t use them to bite or chew. That’s because they’re filter feeders. Whale sharks have a device called a “gill raker,” which traps microscopic plankton and other tiny plants and animals on which the sharks subsist. About 1,500 gallons of water move through the gill rakers every hour.

Whale sharks are curious, and they often approach boats and swimmers to see what’s going on. Each whale shark sports a unique pattern of pale yellow spots and stripes on its skin, which can be as thick as 3.9 inches.

It’s estimated that only around 10 percent of whale shark pups survive to adulthood. These sharks are ovoviviparous, which means that the eggs hatch inside the mother, who then gives birth to live pups. Once they’re born, the mother promptly abandons them and they’re left to fend for themselves.

Whale sharks are listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN’s Red List, and several countries, including the Philippines, Taiwan, and India prohibit the commercial fishing and selling of these sharks.

Swimming with Whale Sharks

Most governments regulate the whale shark tourism industry, and the Mexican government is no different. Laws are strictly enforced and apply to everybody. Some of the Mexican laws and regulations surrounding whale shark tourism include a limit of 10 passengers per excursion (not including the boat crew) and a five-person limit when swimming with the sharks, which must be done under the supervision of a guide. Only licensed captains with special permits can allow you to swim with the sharks.

You are not allowed to touch the sharks for their own protection, and you should stay at least 10 feet away from the sharks at all times. Only wear biodegradable lotions and sunscreens, and don’t use a flash when you’re photographing the sharks.

The best time to head out on a whale shark viewing or swimming trip is between May and September, with the peak whale shark action happening in July and August. August 30th is officially the Mexican Day of the Whale Shark.

Finding a Reputable Tour Guide

Everywhere you turn in Cancun, you’ll find a whale shark tour operator who will take you out to watch or swim with the sharks. But not all tour operators are reputable, and choosing the right one is essential for your and the sharks’ safety.

Properly licensed and reputable tour operators will ensure that the crew and tour guides have the necessary training and permits required for guiding viewing and swimming excursions. They will be certified to perform CPR, and they will have taken a required whale shark biology course.

For several reasons, it’s best to choose a local tour operator rather than a large company. Supporting the local economy anywhere you travel is always important, and locals tend to know the best spots, have the best stories, and be the most welcoming.

Many tour operators participate in whale shark research or actively work to promote the conservation of these and other marine animals, either through activism, research, or donating a percentage of the tour proceeds to organizations that work to protect the sharks. Finding an environmentally responsible tour operator is essential for ensuring the continued protection of whale sharks.

Avoid tour operators that offer to let you break the rules or whose tours are extremely inexpensive – they’re probably charging less than the legal standard and may not adhere to essential regulations, such as not using boats operated by diesel fuel, which harms the whales, and disobeying speed and proximity laws. For this reason, don’t join a tour guide who tells you that he or she will get you closer to the whales than any other tour operator. That may be true, but it’s not in the sharks’ best interest.

Protect the Ocean and the Sharks

Never litter in the ocean or take anything that belongs in it out of it. Protecting the ocean environment is essential for protecting the whale shark species, and considering that there are hundreds of tourists swimming with the sharks every day, it’s important that everyone adheres to the rules and best practices.

When a whale shark approaches you, relax! Enjoy being close to the shark, but don’t give into the urge to touch it or hitch a ride on it. Doing so can harm the sharks and get you in a lot of trouble with the law. Try not to block the shark’s path, and of course, don’t try to feed it!

Whale Shark Infographic 2