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Whale Sharks 2019 Trip Report

The annual aggregation of hundreds of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) off the coast of Isla Mujeres, a tiny little island near Cancun, Mexico has been a must – do event among underwater photographers and marine wildlife lovers. I have been sharing this great event with guests and underwater photography for over 10  years now and still find it a thrill and a grand opportunity for close up wildlife encounters. This year was another great year with numerous whale sharks and some giant mantas.

See Trip Details

swim with whale sharks

I had two group trips this year: one in July and one in mid August. Both groups were treated to many encounters, good weather and water conditions. I want to thank all of this year’s guests for being such great participants: it was a joy to host you.

whale shark season Isla Mujeres

My first group was a family of wonderfully fun, positive, and active people. It was a first visit for most of them and it was exciting to see them experience the magic for the first time.

My 2nd Whale Shark  trip was combined with Crocodiles in Xcalak.  We enjoyed  superb diving on pristine reefs in their marine reserve and 2 nights in the remote fishing hut at the Chichorro Atoll with 3 days of in water encounters with the crocodiles. The group then transferred back up to Cancun and Isla Mujeres for the whale sharks. 

Isla mujeres Playa Media Luna
Our Hotel with pool and beach, easy walk to all the shops and restaurants

Many of these guests had joined my whale shark trip in the past: they came back because they love the atmosphere, relaxing days on the boat, the fresh ceviche, all the great food and sites on Isla Mujeres. The first time guests were excited to see so many whale sharks in one place and without the burden of scuba gear.

swim with whale sharks Mexico

I schedule our trips at the peak of the season. In both July and August the weather was great with smooth water, great visibility and hundreds of whale sharks which were easy to find each day. For both our first and second week of guests, the water was clear and flat. Not even one day of bad weather or cloudy water! Very special.

At least one day with each group the  crew were able to find schools of mantas. Most times there were no whale sharks in the area, just the mantas, but one of the encounters had the mantas right with the whale sharks. This was a wonderful chance to get a manta and whale shark together in a single image.  

Isla Mujeres has many shops full of hand crafts

Like most days, we had this encounter to ourselves with no other boats near us. The mantas did their ballet of loops and plunges before moving off out of our range. It was time to return to shore so we came home very happy and content.

swim with giant manta ray cancun mexico

Photo gear

Canon 5D MKIIII

15mm fisheye lens

17 – 40mm Lens

Other camas

Go Pro in underwater housing with short grip handle

iPhone or Panasonic for topside and island photos

whale shark trip isla mujeres mexico
Whale Shark feeding in the vertical position

I use a Canon 5D MKIIII in an Nexus housing for my underwater work. It is full frame and I like the quality video capabilities. Due to the size of the whale sharks I am using a Canon 15mm f2.8 fisheye lens. I visited the crocodiles before the whale sharks, so I also had a 17 – 40mm lens, but I prefer working the results of the fisheye for whale sharks.

I looked at my shooting data in Lightroom from my 10 years of whale shark images and most  fall into the below settings ranges.

Typical Settings Using full Manual Mode
ISO 500 typically but ranging between 400 –  640
Aperture F8 – F9
Shutter Speed 1/200 sec
Snorkel with whale sharks

 I like to photograph the feeding motion of the mouth from a 3/4 profile angle. The idea here is to capture the turbulence of the water as it flows into the mouth. The whale sharks have a natural behavior where they hang vertical in the water and feed on the krill at the surface. We call this “botilla – bottle feeding”.  It makes for a great portrait aspect ratio photo and the action usually lasts several minutes; so the photographer does not need to swim to keep up, rather move around the WS to get different sides.

How this Trip Works

The whale sharks arrive in large numbers every summer to feed on the abundant supply of plankton and bonito eggs. For me it was an incredible experience to be in the warm blue water with these beautiful and graceful creatures. On several peak days hundred whale sharks would congregate in the space of a couple soccer fields. I have photographed whale sharks in locations around the world (Honduras, Mozambique, Western Australia), but never had the experience of being in the water with such a large aggregation and the large individuals who seemed unfazed by my presence.

whale shark workshop in Cancun

Our boats leave from Isla Mujeres, just a short walk or golf cart ride from our beachfront hotel. 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. 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 between  2pm – 3pm, but this gives us plenty of time to enjoy our swimming. 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 time in the hotel pool , a cleanup and download , and a delicious dinner out in town at one of many great restauants.

One afternoon we took the golf carts to the opposite end of the island where they have a zipline, a scenic park, and iguanas. There are many shops to pick up snacks and drinks. Each night we had a delicious meal at restaurants ranging from Mexican tacos to pizza, Mediterranean, and Cuban. After our 4 days on the whale shark boat, some of the guests returned to Cancun and did scuba dives in the Mayan cenotes and toured some of the ruins.

Another Magical Season Wraps Up

Swimming in this aggregation in the Gulf of Mexico was not like other times I have encountered whale sharks in other waters: we would hold in an area where there were 4 -5 visible then wait until they passed close and get in the water with them. They did not seem too agitated by our presence or the splash of our fins.  This is an event that delivers a great guest experience and images year after year.  If you love being in the water and have not experienced this, you must do it.  I have many guests who return year after year for the awesome whale sharks, but also for the fun of Isla Mujeres, great food, and friendly people and guests. 

I will be returning next year:  Check my website for dates and available spaces.

See details and Contact Me through my website

More Links to my Whale Sharks Blog Posts

   Great things about Isla Mujeres

Whale Shark   Photography Guide

  What you need to know about Whale Shark Trips in Cancun, Mexico

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