Category Archives: Whale Sharks

swimming with whale sharks off Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Learn about my trip each summer to visit the aggregation of whale sharks. Underwater photography and techniques discussed

A Guide to Photographing Whale Sharks in Mexico

A Whale Shark & Manta Photography Guide

 

swim with whale sharks in Mexico

Photography & Video tips, Equipment, Techniques, and Best Settings

Useful for photographers with DSLR, Mirrorless, Compact, and GoPro Cameras

Whale Sharks are the biggest fish in the sea and likely the largest living thing you have ever shared the water with.  Even knowing how big they are and seeing them from the surface before getting in does not prepare you for the underwater experience: what is on the surface is only the tip (or fin) of the iceberg.  Their casual effort at swimming and their tenacious feeding effort is an awesome experience and you will want to capture all of this plus your emotional response to their size in your photos.  This guide will give you some pre-travel advise on how to prepare.

This guide is written based on my experiences with whale sharks in the Cancun region of Mexico at Isla Mujeres.

Join one of my Snorkel with Whale Sharks Trips

Divers, free divers, and snorkelers can also swim with whale sharks all over the world including Sea of Cortez Mexico, Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, Honduras’ Utila, Cebu in the Philippines’, and Indonesia’s Cenderawasih Bay.

I have had many seasons of swimming with whale sharks to experiment and perfect techniques.  I have changed techniques over the years as my cameras have evolved and my creative goals changed from year to year.  With the addition of video to my DSLR camera and the rise of GoPros, I have allocated more in water time to  video.

Photography Equipment for Photographing Whale Sharks

Safety equipment

A wetsuit is required by the regulations. It also keeps the sun off  and protects somewhat from marine creatures.

Consider a hood or lifeguard beanie for sun protection – a colored beanies is also a great safety device which will help the crew keep you in view if you get further afield.

Sunscreen, sunglasses, and coverups for on the boat.

Don’t forget a protective bag and sun coverup for your camera

Purchase a Cinebags Here 

Use a Fisheye Lens

Whale sharks are huge and it is possible to get close to the subject. Using a fisheye lens will let you get the whole fish in the image and capture some detail

DSLR 

Select the widest lens you have – ideally a fisheye prime or fisheye zoom lens: both will give you up to a 180-degree field of view with a reduced minimum focus distance.  When you get as close the shark as you can (without violating any regulations) you will get the whole thing in.  Compared to photographing other moving subjects like dolphins and sailfish, the drag caused by your large dome port will not be a huge factor. Whale sharks are moving, but more at a walking pace than a running pace.

Fisheye lenses like  a 10 – 17mm will be the most popular, especially on crop sensor cameras. Full frame shooters can use the lenses such as  the Sigma 15mm or the Canon 8-15 circular fisheye.

Mirrorless

Underwater photographers using Olympus E-PL and OM-D cameras will opt for the popular 8mm fisheye lenses.

Private charter for whale sharks
Our boat captains are good at dropping us ahead of the moving whale sharks so as to get the front on shots
Compact Camera

Compact camera users will need to use a fisheye wet lens on top of their camera’s built-in lens.

The wet lens increases the field of view (up to 165 degrees).  Without a wide lens, compact users will not be able to get the whole shark in the photo or be too far away: the wide angle lens reduces the minimum focal distance so the photographer can get much closer and still fit the subject into the frame.

Wet lenses require the user to check for and release bubbles around the wet lens each time you get in the water.

A compact camera or phone camera is a great addition for shooting fun shots, cultural features around town,  and people. You can then leave your DSLR in the housing without worry about resetting o-rings and seals.

GoPro

GoPro shooters should be able to record great underwater photo and video of whale sharks without any additional lenses. The shallow depth and natural light mean that you will not need to add a red filter. You might want a polarizer for on the surface though. Using a handle or mount to hold the GoPro can help steady the shot, but beware of rules governing the use of “selfie sticks” – it is prohibited to use a stick to go closer to the animal than the rules allow and rules may have changed to prohibit them altogether.

Strobes

When snorkeling or freediving with whale sharks, strobes are often unnecessary given the amount of available light at the surface. It’s also against local regulations to use strobes in these situations for fear of startling or harming the animal. Make sure to ask your dive guide about the local rules.

The bulk of the strobes can hinder your swimming and the movement may make it difficult to keep them aimed properly with little time to fix them once you are face to face with the large subject that is coming straight at you.

You may wish to have a strobe for topside shots

whale shark mural
One of the colorful murals in Isla Mujeres honoring the whale sharks
Settings
Exposure

DSLR, Mirrorless and Compact shooters have a number of shooting mode options to choose from.

My method is to start with some manual settings and change them as the daylight changes.  Most of my images are at ISO400  with some ranging from ISO320 to ISO640 on cloudy days or when I go deeper under the surface (such as for mantas)

My shutter speed stays at 1/250sec  or more . You must be able to shoot at a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the action.

Mostly I shoot manual adjusting the aperture to suit the conditions.  Shutter Priority would be a 2nd choice to full manual

My Canon 5D IV has very good options for pattern metering mode.

Using the Ambient Light

I try to pick my subjects based on not shooting directly into the sun. This is not always successful, but if I can get a whale shark with the sun to my back it improves the chances for a great shot.

When swimming with whale sharks, you will want to be as mobile and nimble as possible. Since the whale sharks are feeding at the surface you can shoot entirely with ambient light.  As stated before, strobes are not permitted and would slow you down anyway.

Shooting Techniques

The whale sharks are swimming they could change direction at any moment, so pay very close attention to their movement to avoid touching them or being run over.

When using the wide angle lenses such as those with 180 degree coverage, watch that your fins do not get in the shot!

You do not need great freediving skills, but being able to stay underwater at 2 – 10 feet will give you a shooting angle of slightly upward and can help mitigate the effects of very bright and direct light.

Practice before your trip to increase your underwater time and clearing your ears. Even breath holding exercises on land can help you be prepared for the day.

Being able to freedive to 20 feet will give you the options of silhouettes and sun burst shots.

Types of Images to Try
Behavior

 Catching the wide open mouth during feeding either from the front, side, or ¾ angle

whale shark gills
Close up of whale shark gills

Whale Shark
Whale Shark, Mexico

Add drama to the feeding image by getting details of the water flowing into the mouth

Whale Shark
Whale shark feeding on the same food that the sardines enjoy

Position yourself ahead of the shark and wait for it to approach. While photographing, move off to the side to get ¾ angle as it goes by. If it is too late to move, quickly submerge and swim to the side letting it pass over you.  You do not want to get “bonked” – those fins are hard and rough.

One of the most dramatic images you can take of a whale shark is with its mouth wide open in the middle of feeding. This is common in Isla Mujeres, where the sharks shift into a vertical position to feed, called a “botella.” You will use every bit of your wide lens to capture this. The good part is that they are not moving while in this position.

Above and Below

When photographing the whale shark near the surface, try capturing a split shot with the fish underneath and the topside scene above. In some cases, the above subject might be boring: Just clouds or sky. But in other locations, you may be able to capture unique interaction with fishermen, either in a boat or on a floating platform.

swimming with whale sharks in the gulf of Mexico
Make a Complete and Varied Portfolio

Make sure to thoroughly describe your subject in both shape & form and behavior.

Check list:  Front, ¾, side, below, above, tail shot

snorkel with whale sharks in mexico
A whale shark feeding just below the surface
whale shark at the surface
A whale shark swims to our boat as it feeds with other whale sharks on a giant patch of plankton
whale shark bottle feeding
A whale shark goes vertical to do what they call “bottle feed” by pumping massive amounts of water into its mouth while staying stationary

You will get chances to get a tail shot as the whale shark swims past you into the distance.

Getting lower in the water, looking up that the subject adds variety and drama to your image collection.

If a whale shark is below the surface, get an image of its back from above. The spots are one of the most interesting features of the whale shark.

Shoot Silhouettes

Shooting up at the whale sharks creates a beautiful image. A whale shark is a unique shape (negative space) which makes a very interesting from above or from below shot.  To capture a sunburst, make sure to stop down your aperture (f8 on compact, f18 on mirrorless, f22 on DSLR) and use a fast  shutter speed to trim the amount of light getting in.

Take images with people as part of the composition

Remove distracting elements such as other people in water by moving off to a whale shark with no other people around it.  There are usually enough sharks around for everyone to get their own without getting too far from the boat.

Use a person for a sense of scale, but be careful to have them isolated against the water, not positioned between you and the whale shark so as to cover part of the subject. The best compositions will have the whale shark with a person below and behind or in front of the approaching whale shark.

Try adding a person to a silhouette. This will take some consultation with your model and a plan with signals and most likely several tries to get it right.

whale shark private charters for photographers
I free dive deep to get the entire whale shark framed into the shot
Whale Sharks are easily accessible and comparatively easy large marine subjects to photograph

The techniques are easily practiced and perfected while on my Whale Shark Photography Workshop.  With 4 days on the water we can experience all light conditions and move around to find the best areas of the aggregation and even search for mantas feeding on the same food patches. Back at the hotel, photographers have time and a safe place to download and review photos.  Shots missed can be attempted the next day and successes shared with others to inspire their next days shooting.  The little amount of equipment needed and streamlined snorkel kit make this trip easy to pack for. Abundant wildlife and the welcoming and fun nature of Isla Mujeres make this trip a must do for all underwater photographers.

Information about my Whale Shark and Manta Trips (and all of my photography trips) can be found on www.GregorySweeney.com

 

swim with giant manta rays

 

Whale Sharks 2017 – Amazing Encounters at Isla Mujeres Mexico

Whale Sharks Season 2017

My whale shark season started down in Xcalak, Mexico just south of Cancun  where I did something really unique: got in the shallow water with American Crocodiles.!  We survived and some of us came back north to Isla Mujeres for an opposite experience swimming with gentle giants in the open water.

( interested in the Crocodiles for next year?)

swim with whale sharks in Mexico
My 1st group of excited guests ready to swim with whale sharks

A Very Good Season

Isla Mujeres is fun as always with some new restaurants to try and all the old favorites.  It seems like there is a new whale shark or marine conservation themed mural going up each year.

whale shark mural
One of the colorful murals in Isla Mujeres honoring the whale sharks
Isla Mujeres, Mexico
A view of the northern end of the Isla Mujeres. We stay at a hotel just down the beach from the pyramid shaped one

The weather was settled with clear skies and beautiful water conditions for photography.  Each morning we would board the boat and head out to where the captains estimated the aggregation would be – it can move overnight depending on wind, currents, and activity of the plankton food mass.   We had no trouble finding them in short order.

whale shark at the surface
A whale shark swims to our boat as it feeds with other whale sharks on a giant patch of plankton

This year I photographed with my Canon 5D IV and EF 15mm Fisheye f2.5

whale shark at the surface
A whale shark slowly swims while feeding at the surface

We would have several good “drops” into the water by mid morning.  Often we could follow one individual and when they got ahead of us just stay in place because another whale shark or two was on its way straight to us.  If none where nearby, the captain would come pick us up and take us back into the action and drop us again.

 

Occasionally we would get into an area with other boats of guests taking turns at swimming.  No matter, because we could take a break while they had their chance then soon packed up to return to the mainland.  We were out early and would stay late so we had plenty of time.  By mid afternoon we were usually the only boat remaining.  Some private time!

private charter for Whale Sharks
One of our boats ready to take us out
A sign at the docks explaining the rules and feeding of the whale shark

Giant Manta Rays

We would keep watch for mantas and would devote some time to looking for them either on our way to and from or when we needed a break form the whale sharks.  We found them several times and had a good in water session with one of the groups of mantas.  It is always harder to find mantas since they do not always feed on the surface and they do not have the large fins showing above water like the whale sharks to give them away.

swim with manta ray Isla mujeres
A lucky encounter with a giant manta ray

A Great Trip Out of the Water Too

We would return to the island in the late afternoon.  It was great to relax in or by the pool before changing and having a bit of technology time.  We had so many nice places to choose from for meals, all a short walk from the hotel.

The pool at our beachside hotel
whale shark bottle feeding
A whale shark goes vertical to do what they call “bottle feed” by pumping massive amounts of water into its mouth while staying stationary

The food and atmosphere on Isla Mujeres is wonderful and really makes this a great getaway.  It all ended too soon:  this was exceptional season for the whale sharks.

I want to thank all of the wonderful and interesting people who were my guests this year.  They made it so much fun and I enjoyed conversations with them and helping them with their photography.

Swim with whale shark small group charter
My 2nd group of guests for the whale shark swim

I always leave looking forward to next visit

see my dates for next year

Trip Reports from my other Photography Trips in Mexico

Whale Sharks 2016

Swim with Sailfish and Baitballs at Isla Mujeres

American Crocodiles in Mexico

Swim with Whale Sharks in Mexico – Great Things About Isla Mujeres

Private charter for whale sharks
Our boat captains are good at dropping us ahead of the moving whale sharks so as to get the front on shots

Isla Mujeres is a great base for your Whale Shark Adventure

After a day out on the water with the Whale Sharks and Mantas, it is great to relax and dry out with a walk around through the streets of Isla Mujeres.  Lined with fun shops and great restaurants, it is safe and full of the festive feeling of Mexico.

Great Places to Eat

After many years of leading Sailfish and Whale Shark trips to Isla Mujeres, I have found some really great restaurants both formal and hole in the wall.  I think I can say I have never had a bad meal here and in fact had many great ones and all at a great or reasonable value.

Here is a few of my favorites:

  • Olivia (Mediterranean and Vegetarian)
  • Pita Amore
  • Jax
  • La Lamida
  • Rooster
  • Rolandi

 

Count the Whale Shark Murals

In the last few years, murals of whale sharks, sailfish, and mantas have sprouted up all over town.  It is a great street photography outing to find and photograph the best all over town.

whale shark mural
One of the colorful murals in Isla Mujeres honoring the whale sharks

Unique Shopping – Bazaar and High End

The colorful shops are full of handmade Mexican items ideal for souvenirs and gifts to take home.

Relaxation Opportunities

For a day off, there are beaches perfect for swimming and sunning: there might even be a hammock with your name on it.  Picture a pool with a view of the beach.  A ride to the south of the island takes you to a park and ruins.  Numerous dive shops will give you opportunities for diving around the island.  The Underwater Statue Museum is a unique experience.

The pool at our beachside hotel
Most come for the unequalled marine wildlife encounters, but Isla Mujeres is a holiday destination by itself.

 

Get details about the trip on our website  My next Whale Shark & Manta Trip
See my whale shark images on my Gallery Website

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whale Sharks and Mantas 2016

This season was full of whale sharks, some mantas and nice clear water and good weather.

Here is a collect of some of my images from this year

(See dates for my latest trip at http://www.PhotographWhaleSharks.com)

swim with whale sharks
On of my guests swims with a whale shark and takes video
whale sharks in Isla Mujeres
A whale shark vacuums up plankton at the surface
swim with whale sharks
Whale shark front view
whale shark mouth wide open
Getting in front of a whale shark as they feed
giant manta ray swimming
A manta swims at the surface in a school of fish
manta ray swimming
Giant manta ray swimming
Whale shark charter isla mujeres
Close up of a whale shark feeding at the surface
swim with whale sharks Mexico
a guest swims next to a whale shark with it mouth open
whale shark private charter Mexico
Whale Shark spots

See all of my underwater trips for 2018

Sailfish Hunting Bait Balls Mexico

 

What is a Basking Shark?

Basking Sharks (Cetorhinus maximus)

Basking Shark
Basking Shark

 

Basking Sharks are the 2nd biggest fish in the ocean. (whale sharks are the biggest)

A basking shark can grow to over 10m (33 ft) long and weight several tons. Their mouth can open 1 metre wide for feeding on plankton. They filter fed on the plankton by sieving out the minuscule animals from the water column using special gill rakers. These rakers are specially adapted bone which sit in the sharks gills and act in a similar fashion as baleen in fliter-feeding whales. They are efficient and can filter up to 1.5 million litres of water her hour.

shaaark cartoon
Shaark cartoon by Phil Watson Shaaark.com

See more shark cartoons  

Scotland has some of the richest cold waters in the world and every spring the oceanic and weather cycles create optimal conditions for explosive blooms of plankton. The sharks migrate from their winter feeding grounds to feast on the plankton and for mating.

 

We will be looking for basking sharks and snorkeling with them this July 2016.  Join our Basking Shark Snorkel

 

Historically basking sharks have been a staple of fisheries because of their size, (former) abundance, and slow movement. Today basking sharks are still hunted all over the world for their livers containing a vast amount of oil. The oil is used in cosmetics, perfume and lubricants. Synthetics and conservation efforts have stopped the hunting in some places and they are now protected. They are also victims of the shark fin trade.

historic image of Shark cartoon

 

Basking Sharks are a cosmopolitan migratory species, found in all of the world’s temperate oceans. In additon they prefer to swim close the shore and also enjoy swimming near the water’s surface swimming at a slow pace while they filter. They travel through the Mediterranean Sea, Pacific and Atlantic ocean, sea of Japan, New Zealand, and Southern Australia. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are great places to spot them as well. At times they travel in groups of about 100 but also are most often seen traveling alone.

Range of Basking Sharks around the world
Range of Basking Sharks around the world

Basking sharkLike many sharks, ovoviviparous basking sharks develop embryos which first rely on a yolk sac with no placental connection and develop inside the female. Gestation is unknown but might be a year or more. The small young are born fully developed at 1.5 – 2m. From the only pregnant mother ever caught we learned that the brood can be six pups. The lifespan is not known. Experts estimate about 50 years.

 

More about Basking Shark Conservation Efforts

SharkTrust.org

 

Cage Diving with Shortfin Mako Sharks in the Gulf of Mexico off Isla Mujeres, Mexico

This article appeared in Issue #87 of Underwater Photographer Magazine  UWPMag.com

Mako Shark from inside the cage
Using one of the two ports in the cage, I get a clear water shot as the mako circles around me

Northeast off the coast of Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico lies the small island of Isla Mujeres. The island is approximately five miles long and one half mile at is widest point. Just a short ferry ride from Cancun, the island offers beaches, scuba diving, and a relaxing place to shop and dine. In the summer months the island plays host to guests drawn in by the whale shark ecotourism trips. Guests travel out into the Gulf of Mexico and snorkel with the gentle giants. If they are lucky they also may encounter giant manta rays.

Captain Anthony
Captain Anthony Mendillo has many years of experience with both the mako sharks and sailfish in this area

 

Shark Cage
Side view of the cage. The floats keep the top of the cage above water for air breathing the top and sides are stainless steel bars.

Isla Mujeres is best known for wintertime fishing and game fishing of sailfish. The sailfish attract many fishermen, but also underwater photographers. Watching the great coordinated predation of the bait balls is a thrill and photographing it underwater is challenging but rewarding. The sailfish work together as a fast moving team to keep the baitfish tightly packed in the bait ball. Being in the water to witness during this action is as exciting as catching a sailfish on the rod.

breaching mako
A mako makes a dramatic strike on the trolling bait
A mako shark takes the bait.
A mako shark takes the bait.

Adding to the adventure of Isla Mujeres is the chance to see shortfin mako sharks up close. Captain Anthony Mendillo is now offering this opportunity to photographers and shark fans during the winter season.

GS_40177_150411

Captain Anthony was the pioneer of the sailfish freediving experience. Also he was involved in early efforts too preserve the sailfishing industry. The fishermen of Isla Mujeres all agreed to a Code of Conduct that only allows traditional fishing methods.

Make Shark
The mako charges toward me and I take cover behind the bullet proof acrylic panel while he devours the bait
deploying the shark cage
The cage is placed in the water and tethered a few meters away. The hooka lines for the air supply are also secured to the boat

 

The same spirit of sustainability and responsible tourism extends to the whale shark trip and to the mako cage dives.

 

The Keen M is a powerful and fast fishboat usually used for sailfish but it has been modified to carry the mako shark cage
The Keen M is a powerful and fast fishboat usually used for sailfish but it has been modified to carry the mako shark cage

 

Capt Anthony and crew have worked with Guy Harvey Research Institute to catch, tag, and release Makos, which are then tracked to add valuable and previously unknown details about the timing and long distance migratory movements of this vulnerable species. This experience has added greatly to the knowledge of the Mexico shortfin mako population and their overlap with other populations tracked by the Guy Harvey Research Institute. Close interaction with the makos has also taught the crew the secrets of location, behaviors, bait preference, and seasonality. This know-how leads to a 70% success rate for attracting makos to the boat.

GS_40154_150411

The makos in this area of the Caribbean are large compared to those in some other locations. Average sizes for shortfin makos are 3.2 m (10ft) in length and 60 – 135 kg (132 – 298lb). The Isla Mujeres population averages in the top of that range at 114 kg (250lb). Shortfin makos are a beautiful and photogenic fish in brilliant metallic blue and a white underside. They inhabit offshore temperate and tropical seas worldwide and this pelagic species can be found from the surface to depths of 150m (490ft) normally far from land, though occasionally around islands or inlets. Makos are seldom found in waters colder than 16’c (61’F)

Makos are curious and feel and taste everything with their mouth including the cages, floats, transom, and midwater bait or other targets. Their prey is cephalopods and bony fish including bonitos and swordfish. They hunt by lunging vertically up and tearing off chunks of flank or fins. Makos swim below their prey and have a high probability of reaching prey before it is alerted due to their high velocity. Makos are the fastest species of shark. This speed and hunting method makes Makos one of only a few shark species to accomplish a full breach out of the water as part of its predatory attack. Captain Anthony has observed makos of all sizes doing this full breach behavior and he has developed methods to allow guests to see and photograph the breaches.

Our boat is the very comfortable Keen M , a 41 ft custom Michael Fitz Sportfish with a 580 hp diesel. We leave the dock on Isla Mujeres in the early morning and head to the waters North of the island. The cage is mounted on the back. Once we reached the deep 400 ft water, the trolling lines are baited. No hooks are used so as not to hurt the shark. It did not take long to attract a shark. When it hit the bait its whole body launched out of the water like a rocket and with tail flapping did a nearly complete flip smacking back into the water on its side with it prize in mouth.

 

Mako Shark
Mako shark grabs the bait right in front of the cage

 

I have my camera set to burst mode with a fast shutter of 1/1250 sec. I will only get a few frames per leap and it happens with little warning. A shout comes from a crewmember and I press my shutter capturing the full breach.

With a confirmed shark in the area, bait crates are set around the boat and scum scent slick started behind the boat. Now it is time to deploy cage in the water.

 

 

 

The cage adds a safety factor for the guests and piece of mind for the captain. This area is subject to wind, current and the boat is constantly drifting. Using the cage eliminates the worry that guests will drift too far from the boat or let go of the line drifting quickly out of sight of the boat and crew. Without the worry of where the guests are, the crew can concentrate on keeping the makos close to the boat and interested; coaxing them into the best position for observation and photos.

 

Shark Cage
The cage fits 2 people with a hooka air supply located in the boat. It has Lexan polycarbinate panels on the sides and one large one in the front with 2 open ports facing front.

Engineered to be similar to the cages used in South Africa for great white shark encounters, this one has room enough for 2 people. It sports bars of stainless steel and aluminum with a solid floor and a top protected with bars. The cage floats a bit above the surface of the water to enable communication with the boat if needed. At eye level on the sides and front are clear panels made of Lexan polycarbonate sheet. The front has two open ports for cameras.

 

Captain Mendillo has experimented with different ways to rig the air supply to the cage: They tried bottles in the cage, but now opt to leave the bottles in the boat and run hookah lines to the people in the cage. This allows monitoring of the air supply and leaves more room in the cage for the guests.

 

Using a tether, the cage is floated 2m away from boat so the shark can do a complete 360’ around the cage.

 

In the cage I am able to see the makos up close and swimming very calm and curious right in front of me. They come to the bait floating nearby first to investigate then to strike.   They even investigate the cage on a few passes. As the large eye connects with me I feel secure in this strong cage.

 

 

The makos will stay with the boat and cage for extended periods. Some encounters have been 3 hours long with the same shark staying with the boat feeding and circling. Our mako stayed for almost an hour doing many passes by the cage and boat. I am able to get great shots of the full shark passing by either the side or the front of the cage. As the mako comes close to check out the cage I get some close up and front opportunities. Later back on the boat it is still circling and I get some topside shots of attacks on the bait to add to my breaching shot. Capt Anthony has seen guests achieve great images with everything from professional cameras and video rigs to GoPros on a stick.

 

Hunting for and photographing shortfin mako was a fun and productive day. I returned with great underwater images from the cage and spectacular breaching shots from the boat. The cage experience is exciting: the sharks come close and stay close making many passes and allowing time to get a variety of images and angles.  The encounters are very engaging and guests can get a great experience even if they stay in the boat and forego the cage. It is a good feeling to know that a sustainable tourism activity is being built around this vulnerable sport fish. Since the season overlaps with sailfish season it is possible to get both of these exciting large fish on the same holiday using the same crew. It is thrilling enough to appeal to both photographers and fishermen.

 

Join my next Sailfish Adventure

 

 

Whale Sharks in Mexico 2015 Trip Report

Private charter for whale sharks
Our boat captains are good at dropping us ahead of the moving whale sharks so as to get the front on shots

The 2015 whale shark season is not yet over, but I have returned from 2 great weeks with my guests and their whale shark experience.  We had great weather (one of the reasons I choose July) and whale shark encounters each day including several days with manta rays.

Isla-Mujeres-Mexico-3

 

whale shark private charters for photographers
I free dive deep to get the entire whale shark framed into the shot
A large whale shark
A large whale shark

Our first few days the whale sharks were feeding just under the water.  Over the next few days they were again feeding on the surface and easy to spot from in the water.  This also facilitated some great topside images.  The water color and clarity was variable as we tried different areas hoping to find mantas and whale sharks feeding on the surface. On occasion it was more blue-green and on other days we had crystal clear blue water.

A remora temporarily detached from its host
A remora temporarily detached from its host
snorkel with whale sharks in mexico
A whale shark feeding just below the surface

Being in the water with whale sharks teaches you much about their life and role in the environment.  One afternoon we witnessed schools of tevelli fish swimming close to the whale sharks; by their fins and mouths and even cowering underneath.  The reason because clear when I heard dolphin squeaks underwater.  A pod of 4 small but fast Atlantic spotted dolphin charged up to me, did 2 complete circles around me then raced on to confront the whale sharks.  I saw a few fish meet their demise.

Small fish take shelter from predators around and under the whale sharks
Small fish take shelter from predators around and under the whale sharks
Dolphins hunt for fish hiding among the feeding whale sharks
Dolphins hunt for fish hiding among the feeding whale sharks
swim with giant manta rays
A giant manta swims by feeding

The giant mantas are my favorite to photograph.  We would see the tell tale signs in the form of wingtips above the surface.  When we dove in they were coming from all directions feeding at about 1.5m below the surface.  Some had formed a convoy of 4 to 5 individuals all slowly flapping and scooping in food.  A few times I was present to photograph their looping up and down feeding.

giant manta rays
Mantas were swimming in groups and in line making large circles feeding

Each manta has a unique pattern on the underbelly.  I donate all images I can get of these identification markers to the Manta Trust so they might add to their Caribbean database.  It would be wonderful if some images from this season match individuals from last season.

Read my post about the Manta Trust Conservation and Caribbean Project 

whale shark gills
Close up of whale shark gills
Whale shark charters
Whale shark feeds at the surface around our boat
Whale shark charters for photographers
Keeping pace with a whale shark feeding is challenging but possible

Each day we left the dock in the morning and then returned in the mid afternoon around 3 or 4pm.  While on boat we had comfortable space, shade, sandwiches and snacks.  We could enjoy ourselves while the captain and crew placed us in the best areas for whale sharks and mantas.  All boat cooperate to take care of the wildlife by limiting numbers of boats and people in the water around each group of whale sharks.  At the conclusion of our swimming each day we enjoyed freshly ceviche specially prepared by the first mate before embarking back to Isla Mujeres.

Isla-Mujeres-Mexico-4 Isla-Mujeres-Mexico-5 Isla-Mujeres-Mexico-6

 

When not on the boat we had comfortable hotel rooms with plenty of public spaces for relaxing and connecting with wifi. Restaurants are plentiful and very good and most are very affordable.  We had many very excellent meals and the shopping was fun and diverse.

At the opposite end of the island is a part to explore and take in the rough coastline.

Isla-Mujeres-Mexico-1 Isla-Mujeres-Mexico-2

I will be hosting Whale Shark Trips again next year.  I have again secured great boats and crew and rooms at the Playa Media Luna.  Our boats are limited to 6 guests  so space is limited

Contact us   or Get More Information on my website

Swimming with & Photographing Whale Sharks

 

Manta Trust Launches Mexican Caribbean Project

The Manta Trust works to conserve manta rays through research, awareness and education.

They work all over the world to study and identify manta ray populations

Anyone who has photographed a manta anywhere in the world  can contribute directly to their global research and conservation by submitting images and sighting encounters though a portal on their website:  Contribute your Manta Images

They need images that best show the spots on the underside of the manta ray – this is how they identify individuals.  With a growing database of individuals it is becoming possible to give you feedback about your sighting and a history of the individual.

The Manta Trust recently contacted me about a video compilation I posted featuring whale sharks and manta rays filmed off Isla Mujeres,  Mexico.  This lead to me submitting several dozen images  of mantas from my collect to add to their research and database.

manta id card close up of giant manta ray

Karen Fuentes, Project Leader for Mexico, was so pleased with my images that she awarded me a Manta Certificate.  I get to name one of the mantas I encountered in Mexico.

 

My manta is a Male and I chose the name Atarau – the New Zealand Maori word for Moonlight

mantas swimming

manta Trust database file
Atarau the manta is now in the Manta Trust Database

Here is information about their project in Mexico:

http://www.mantatrust.org/in-the-field/mexico-caribbean/

I will be encouraging  my guests on the whale shark trip to take manta id photos if we are so lucky as to find them again this year!

I will be posting my results from Mexico starting July 13th  so please follow my social media

photographing manta rays GS_4796_130727-Edit

More of my manta and whale shark images  Image Gallery

manta ray dance

Related Posts

Magical Mantas and Whale Sharks

Swim with Whales Sharks and Giant Manta Rays in Mexico 2015

New Swimming with Whale Sharks Video

My newest whale shark video

I created with from videos gathered over the last 2 seasons with the whale sharks and manta rays.

Join our next Whale Shark Photography Trip – details

 

I used Adobe Premiere Pro and my beginner/intermediate video editing skills to put this together.

 

 

 

Music is by Allen Myers who sells digital music on Sound Cloud

Swim with Whale Sharks in Isla Mujeres, Mexico – What you need to Know

Swimming with and Photographing Whale Sharks & Giant Manta Rays  in Isla Mujeres,  Mexico

What you need to know

 

Whale sharks can be found in all tropical and warm-temperate waters. These fish are largely pelagic, staying in the open ocean. Thus, chance encounters with whale sharks in most diving locations are possible, but extremely rare.  Whale sharks are not well studied and there is much we do not know about them.  To have a chance to swim with and photograph whale sharks in an area already welcoming to tourists and divers is an opportunity not to miss.

When asked to describe what it is like in the water with whale sharks, I keep coming back to the image of standing in the street with a bus coming at me.  It is thrilling and humbling to be in the water as an observer of a day in the life of a whale shark.

See details about my next Whale Shark Trip

My Guide to photographing Whale Sharks

Here are some things you might want to know about Snorkeling with Whale Sharks in Mexico before you sign up for my special Whale Shark Charter.

Restaurant in Isla Mujeres
One of the colorful restaurants in town
Why Cancun, Mexico Area

The best opportunity to  photograph whale sharks is  when they predictably come to sites to feed. Some locations are more reliable for encounters than others: each summer countless whale sharks and manta rays converge in the Gulf of Mexico to feast on the eggs of spawning fish. The Cancun area of Mexico is perhaps the top destination for whale sharks because of the easy of travel and accessibility of the aggregation.

Originally reported by fisherman from Isla Holbox, the shallow water feeding area quickly became a remote tourist destination. A second congregation has been found in the deeper waters of the Gulf about 20 to 30 miles out from Isla Mujeres just northeast of Cancun as the whale sharks converge on these nutrient-rich patches.

From June  to early September, whale sharks supply a significant tourist attraction for Mexico: Boats from Playa del Carmen, Cancun, and Isla Mujeres travel on a daily basis so that tourists can snorkel with these animals. In order to protect the sharks, the Mexican government in coordination with local biologists, has set up specific viewing regulations. We charter boats from the people who were instrumental in establishing both the regulations and the responsible tourist practices regarding whale sharks and sailfish in Isla Mujeres waters.

private charter for Whale Sharks
One of our boats ready to take us out
Typical Day on my Charter

I schedule my Whale Shark Photography Workshops in early July at the peak of the aggregation season. It is hot and sunny and typically before the most active tropical weather season. The island of Isla Mujeres is active, but not as busy as in the winter months.

We stay in a comfortable hotel on the beach at the north end of the island, walking distance to town.

Our boats leave from the town docks. We set a time to leave with our captain, typically 7am and pile on the golf carts or into a taxi with our camera gear: much of our snorkel gear we leave on the boat each evening so we don’t have to transport it.

The 10 passenger boats are comfortable for our groups of 6 or 7 and they are fast, provide shade and storage, and smooth while cruising. We set a time to leave with our captain, typically 7am.

Sailfish Group Trip

Our boat captain and crew were excellent at finding whale sharks each day, sometimes just a short 40 minute boat ride. Sandwiches and snacks are on the boat with us so we are set to spend most of the day at sea. Regulations require we depart the whale sharks after 2pm, but this gives us plenty of time to enjoy our swimming. Throughout the day we may reposition the boat or try different areas to perhaps find manta rays.

After long day on the water we would head back to Isla Mujeres but not before eating some ceviche freshly prepared while we were busy with the whale sharks. Once back at the hotel, we have a relaxing late afternoon time in the hotel pool , then get back to the photography business of a cleanup and download. We meet in the lobby to walk to a delicious dinner out in town at one of many great restauants. After years of hosting this trip, I know the best places to eat.

Whale Shark
Whale shark feeding on the same food that the sardines enjoy

What is it Like in the Water with them?

First you will see the whale sharks from on the boat: a dorsal fin and the tip of their tail making a wandering sweep on the surface.  As it approaches the boat you may see the upper lip of the wide open mouth with water spilling in.  When you get in the water  it may take a bit to get adjusted to seeing them. You will see they coming on the surface before you can see the underwater portion.  The captain and guests on the boat will help direct you where to look and start swimming.

This is open ocean with no land in sight and no bottom visible.  The water is usually very calm or there might be light wave action.  The visibility can be very good with sight down to 20 meters. The whale sharks are here for the food so you may see the eggs  in the water or even get some on you.  There will be other boats around with snorkelers. Typically each boat has its own patch and we tend to stay away from others, but at times you may encounter people from other boats.  Make sure you can recognize your boat so when it comes by you know it is the right boat.

We get in the water by maneuvering ahead of a whale shark. Snorkelers and a guide enter the water and if all works out, the whale sharks shortly thereafter comes straight at you.  If there are other whale sharks in the area swimmers can stay in the water swimming with an individual until breaking off and then following another.

It is possible to encounter giant manta rays with the whale sharks since they eat the same food.  We also have witnessed dolphins hunting the small fish that also feed on the bonito eggs.

Whale sharks – when to go, rules to follow

Regulations are reviewed each year and boats apply for and are issued a limited number of permits. Boats have to have guides with regulated numbers of snorkelers per boat. Flotation devices have to be worn; a wet suit is considered a flotation device. No scuba is allowed. Underwater photography without flash is permitted. Touching the animals is prohibited.

The coast guard has the authority to restrict boats to the docks if high winds or waves are a threat.

manta ray isla mujeres
Things to Bring – not an exhaustive list but some things you might not have thought about
  • Sunscreen and cover up clothing
  • You may also wish to have in water cover up such as dive skins, hoods, or a beanie.
  • Sunglasses
  • Reusable water bottle – the hotel provides drinking water
  • Sea sick tabs – though water is usually calm, you may need them unexpectedly
  • Swim towel squeegee  to dry off yourself and equipment
  • A bag to carry your camera and gear to and from the boat
  • Mask
  • Snorkel
  • Wetsuit – short or with long sleeve/legs
  • Hood or beanie for in the water
  • Fins – either open heel with boots or full foot. Long fins are not necessary
whale shark private charters for photographers
I free dive deep to get the entire whale shark framed into the shot
Underwater photography and Swimming Technique

I have written Whale Shark Photography Guide which you can find HERE

In short, you will want a wide angle lens to get this large subject in the frame without being too far away.

No flash or strobes are permitted . Slightly overcast days seem to be the best; the water is darker and the colors really come out.

Photographing on the surface takes some practice and diving down a bit helps. Adding a weight belt with light weights and a bit of swimming motion will stabilize your shots and make looking in the view finder more comfortable.  Keep the sun to your back will make a better photo and eliminate backscatter.

The whale sharks will be coming from all angles and they are said to travel at about 3 mph.  It is possible to keep up with them for a while, but then it is best to stop and look around and maneuver to intercept the next individual.  Look to the boat for help spotting from the captain or indicate you want a pickup. As the swimmers loose the group of whale sharks, the captain will pick you up and deposit you back in the center of action.

The tourist boats  with higher capacity are not well suited for photography. They are only out for a short period of time so each person does not get much time in the water. Often they must wear life preservers and most will not want to cooperate to let you get good photos.

Since we stay out all day for 4 days, you get loads of time in the water and multiple chances to get the shot right. If there are too many people in the area, we have the luxury of time to wait until they have had their ½ hour in the water and return to the mainland leaving just us and a few other serious photographer boats out there.

Traveling to Isla Mujeres

Guests should travel to Cancun (CUN).  From the airport you take a taxi to the ferry dock. There are many taxis and it is possible to book one ahead or just grab one on the spot. The ferry runs every half hour for most of the day then has a reduced schedule after dark. The ferry takes about 30 minutes and often has a live musician on board to entertain. Once on Isla Mujeres our hotel is 1km walk if you have little luggage, or grab a cheap and short taxi ride.

There are opportunities to do “dry land” sight seeing before or after the Whale Shark portion of you trip. Playa Del Carmin has great diving and is also a good base for in water exploration of the cenotes. Day trips to Mayan sights can happen from Cancun.  Isla Mujeres is a great place to take a scuba course or have extra beach days as part of your trip.

Pool at our hotelStaying on Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres is ringed with beaches and has a park and historic sight at its south end.  The town has a few grocery stores as well as loads of tourist shops selling high end and hand made crafts with everything in between.  All the colors and culture of Mexico can be found here.  The restaurants are excellent and varied from street vendors to find dining. Many have indoor and outdoor settings and live music.

A Whale Shark Photography Workshop is an excellent trip for anyone who is a scuba diver  and also great for older children and those who love the water.  You don’t have to be a photographer, but the challenge and special encounters are something you will want to record.

Contact me at info@gregorysweeney.com  if you are ready to book or see more trip details and all my adventures at http://www.GregorySweeney.com