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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

 

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