The once elusive whale sharks are now notorious on social media due to a relatively recent rise in whale shark tourism. For years I marveled at these photographs and followed their migration from Australia, to South East Asia, to Belize and finally encountered them nestled between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.
This post covers my own experience swimming with whale sharks off the coast of Isla Holbox, offers ways you can responsibly swim with whale sharks around the world, and addresses the ethics behind whale shark encounters in Mexico.
Some Background on Whale Sharks
These gentle giants are the world’s largest fish, growing up to 40 feet long, and can weigh more than 20 tons. Whale sharks belong to the shark family and are considered harmless to humans. They are filter feeders, with diets mostly consisting of plankton, krill and fish eggs. Each creature has a unique spot pattern, kind of like a human fingerprint. They can also live to be about 80-years-old!
Unfortunately, whale sharks became classified as an endangered species in August of 2016 by the IUCN who reported that “growing human pressure on Whale Sharks has put the species at an increased risk of extinction.”
Despite the fact that whale sharks now have legal protection in most countries, poaching is still prevalent since one shark can be worth up to $30,000 when sold for meat, fins
In addition to whale shark slaughterhouses in China, microplastics pose a big threat to filter feeders like whale sharks. Around 8 million metric tons of plastic are
One simple thing you can do to reduce the plastic that ends up in the ocean is switching to reusable grocery bags. Check out my Plastic free lets marine life be – tote bags. A portion of the profits goes to marine life conservation!
The good news is that the escalation in whale sharks vulnerable status sparked conservation efforts and protected marine zones for whale sharks around the world. It also dramatically increased the number of whale shark tours in regions where they congregate seasonally to feed on massive amounts of Plankton. Whale shark tourism can be beneficial for raising awareness about the animals’ vulnerability and offer alternative local jobs that discourage poaching and overfishing
Swimming With Whale Sharks in Isla Holbox
Isla Holbox is a small carless island that is a part of the Yum Balam Nature Reserve. It is located between the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico near Cancun. Getting to Isla Holbox is a bit of a journey, and I recommend you spend at least two nights on the island to make it worth it. I personally took a 30-minute ferry from Chiquila (the closest town). The Travel Leaf talks more about how to get there and what else there is to do on the island.
The island itself was lovely and offered delicious seafood and scenic beaches, but as you may have guessed, I came for the whale shark tour.
The Whale Shark Tours in the Gulf of Mexico run from June 1st- September 15th during their feeding season off the coast of the Yucatan. Tours can be easily booked (at least a day in advance) over the phone or in person through the countless companies with small information stands scattered around Isla Holbox.
Whale shark tours off the coast of Isla Holbox average at $150 USD/person.
What To Expect
The tour runs for about 5 hours and also includes snorkeling with various marine life at Yalahau Lagoon and a lunch stop at Isla Pasión where we saw flamingos. The boat ride is typically 1-2 hours one way and I highly recommend taking a non-drowsy motion sickness pill beforehand.
The whale shark portion of the small group tour (6-12 people) includes one to two separate 3-5 minute encounters per person (depending on time and how many people are on board) and is carried out with two snorkelers and one guide in the water at a time.
The tours from Isla Holbox almost guarantee that you will see whale sharks because they take you to their seasonal feeding spot (I saw 10 in early August of 2018). However, if your tour operator is ethical and not feeding the whale sharks, then they can’t guarantee a sighting.
I had attempted to swim with whale sharks in 4 countries before finally encountering them in Mexico. Each time before, the endangered creatures decided not to show up, and I respected that. So when the time finally came, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for being in the presence of these giants. At the same time, I felt uneasy about the questionable way the tours were carried out (discussed further below).
The creatures themselves were beyond magnificent. White polka dots freckle their smooth grey exterior and fragments of light bounce off their body, dancing in the salty water as they glide from side to side with their massive tails propelling them. As we swam together through the open ocean, everything else momentarily faded away.
Things to bring on your tour
- Reef safe sunscreen
- Quick-dry towel
- Non-drowsy motion sickness medicine
- Waterproof camera
- Waterproof dry bag
- Sunglasses and/or hat
How To Responsibly Swim With Whale Sharks
Since whale sharks are endangered and their habitats and food sources are vulnerable, it is important to make sure you are encountering these gentle giants responsibly.
Sustainable Guidelines for Swimming with Whale Sharks
- NO FEEDING
- NO TOUCHING
- NO SUNSCREEN
- NO BLOCKING THEIR PATH
- KEEP A SAFE DISTANCE (5m/16ft)
- NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY
You should also choose a tour company who follows the WWF’s whale shark encounter best practices below. Swimming with them in Mexico vs. the Philippines is most likely going to be a more ethical and sustainable experience since WWF has been working with local fisherman to develop the guidelines below in the Yucatan region.
Finally, you can upload pictures of the whale sharks you encounter to help scientists learn more about these mysterious creatures.
Ethics of Whale Shark Tours on Isla Holbox
I would rank my personal tour through Turistica Moguel and all those that I witnessed on my excursion from Isla Holbox, a 7 out of 10 on the ethics scale (10 being extremely ethical).
In many ways, the tour operators were trying to run a responsible excursion and they followed most of the WWF whale shark guidelines
They take you to a natural whale shark feeding location in the open ocean and they don’t feed the sharks (which creates unnatural behavior and diets and dissuades them from their natural migration). The guides advised us not to wear sunscreen (unless it’s eco-friendly, Manda’s Organic Sun Creme is my favorite) because the chemicals in regular sunscreen destroy the microorganisms that the whale sharks feed on. They also had us wear lifejackets, enter the water two at a time with a guide, and didn’t allow tourists to touch the fish or take flash photography.
Despite their best efforts to be responsible, here is where they fell short:
None of the tour companies I personally witnessed followed the 32 ft boat distance established by the WWF guidelines. The problem is that while it may be fun for tourists to get so close to these creatures, it puts the whale sharks at risk from getting cut by the tour boat’s propellers.
When it was time for each person’s 3-5 minute encounter, the guides would tell you to jump off the side of the boat quickly which is noisy and disturbing, rather than entering the water slowly as recommended by the WWF.
My other issue is that the chaotic scene basically consisted of 25 different tour company’s boats with up to 12 snorkelers each, jumping in 2 people and a guide at a time. Which resulted in 75 people and 25 boats swarming about 10 whale sharks in a relatively confined area, which felt like harassment to me. Especially because as soon as two people got back on the boat, the boat would turn on its engine and drive closer to wherever a whale shark had relocated.
I also saw the guides feeding sea turtles and reef sharks when we got to our second snorkeling stop. This creates an unnatural diet and behavior for the marine life in the reefs as well as damages the environment.
We then received a ceviche dish that was prepared on board, which tasted like gasoline due to the boat fumes. I’m not a scientist, but if the fish we consumed for lunch had been contaminated by gasoline fumes, I can only imagine how polluted all the plankton the whale sharks are feeding on has become due to the nonstop tour boats circling their feeding area.
Basically, I left feeling uncomfortable with the fact that I got to “swim with whale sharks” at what felt like the expense of their well-being.
I understand that these tours are a livelihood for locals and that the tour I experienced in Mexico was relatively responsible as far as animal tourism goes.
That being said, I believe that whale shark tours need to become more sustainable, or we won’t have any more whale sharks left to swim with and the whale shark tour industry won’t even be a potential livelihood for locals.
As tourists, I believe it is up to us to demand (in a culturally sensitive way) more responsible tourism practices and put our tourism dollars where our ethics are
My advice is to also try to find an eco-tour that uses non-motorized boats to avoid the harassment of the giants, polluting their food source, and risk of cutting the whale sharks with boat propellers. If non-motorized boats are not an option, please politely discourage your guide from getting so close to the creatures.
Alternative Ethical Whale Shark Tours
Beard and Curly provide great resources on Ethically Swimming with Whale Sharks in The Philippines.
Don’t Forget to Move also provides some great information about other responsible whale shark encounters around the world.
All the underwater shots in this post were taken with a waterproof GoPro Hero 5 Black camera.
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