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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Staying 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.