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

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

My dates for 2017 are July 8 – 13 & July 13 – 18

 

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 2017  

Sailfish Hunting Mexico

Whale Sharks 2015 Trip Report

 

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 cyles create optimal conditon ofr 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 unknow 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.

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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.

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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

Whale Shark and Manta Trip Log 2014  

 

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

Magical Whale Sharks and Manta Rays in Isla Mujeres, Mexico

I just returned from a magical two weeks in Isla Mujeres, Mexico swimming with whale sharks and our special guests, the giant manta rays.

Our groups of 6 guests each had abundant whale shark encounters and we had no problem finding them each day: usually we were the first boat to get to the aggregation and the one of the last to leave in the afternoons.

whale shark aggregation

 

The water was clear and warm so our pictures were really sharp. photograph whale sharks

The many whale sharks swim at a constant rate feeding on the krill at the surface while we swim alongside. They don’t dive down or even seem to know we are there.  snorkel with giant manta rays

On a few days we found giant mantas and swam with them as they do loops up and down from from the surface. swim with giant manta rays

When not in the water we had fun and great conversation on the boat. Our crew provided lunch and a special ceviche treat in the afternoon.

Each evening after relaxing by the pool, showering, and downloading our photos, we headed out for a fun and delicious meal at the local restaurants.   We enjoyed great music and some soccer action.

 

Ceviche served on the boat daily
Each day on the boat our crew prepared fresh ceviche for us to enjoy after our day of swimming with whale sharks

 

marine wildlife of Isla Mujeres
our search for the whale shark aggregation brought us close to an island known for turtle nesting

 

fun family trips
Sunny days, flat water, and a relaxed day of snorkeling with whale sharks

We chartered from the Keen M group who have the best captains & crew and multiple comfortable boats perfect for this trip (ps I use them for the sailfish and sardine trip with is a bit more hardcore)

Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Isla Mujeres is a fun and safe town full of great cantinas and restaurants

 

whale sharks of isla mujeres
we rode our golf cart to the end of end of the island to see the park at the point

 

Hope you will consider joining me next year for all of the fun and magical whale sharks

July 13 – 18  and July 18 – 23 2015

Swim with Whale Sharks in Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Booking Now! – Swim with Whale Sharks & Giant Mantas in Mexico July 2016

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

 

Spend 4 days snorkeling off share of Isla Mujeres, Mexico. We charter a private boat and join the hundreds of whale sharks and manta rays as they drift and feed on plankton.  We stay all day for long and productive photography opportunities. The whale sharks are patient and large subjects that swim right at the surface.

This trip sells out early each year so reserve your spaces early!  Contact us to get first dibs!

photographing manta rays

Limit of 6 Guests per trip

July  3 – 8th  2016

July  8 – 13rd   2016

get details about the trip on our website  2015 Whale Shark & Manta Trip

See my whale shark images on my Gallery Website

whale shark aggregation

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Experience great food and festive Mexican  atmosphere each evening back at Isla Mujeres, our small town home for this trip.   Add a dive in the cenote caves before or after this trip .

GS_0155_120811 Local cafe Isla Mujeres

sailfish-11

Whale Shark Full Moon Magic

Full moon was yesterday bringing a lot of krill into the water, attracting large numbers of whale sharks and giant mantas.

swim with whale sharks mexico-5 swim with whale sharks mexico-3 swim with whale sharks mexico-2

My 2nd Week guests spent 6+ hours in the water their first day out enjoying and photographing all the action.

On our second day we  moved the boat to a private (secret) location away  from the other boats to enjoy blue water with great visibility, all group members were able to get great photos.