Swim with whale sharks in Cancun Mexico

One of the most memorable excursions in Cancun for my family was to swim with whale sharks. These harmless giants can be found in the open water approximately 20 miles off the coast of Cancun (past Isla Mujeres) from May to September, and if you’re visiting the Riviera Maya area during this time period with older kids and teens, it’s definitely an activity to consider.

swim with whale sharks

Who to book with:

We booked our swim with whale shark excursion with Solo Buceo, a dive and snorkel operation located in Dreams Cancun. The dive shop is located in the heart of the Cancun hotel zone across the street from the hotel (right on the water) and is easy to reach via taxi from most area resorts.

We liked that Solo Buceo departs directly from their shop for the whale shark areas, so there’s no shuttle transfers to waste any time. The shop is scenic in itself, set against the bay with plenty of thatch roof cabanas to sit under while getting ready, signing waivers, and the like. The staff was all very friendly during our visit, and very efficient. Our reservation was listed on a dry erase board behind the counter with our guide already assigned to us before we even approached the counter. Our guide Santiago was fluently bilingual, and the whole experience was very professional.

At Solo Buceo, whale shark excursions leave early in the morning. Our boat departed promptly at 7 am, which meant a 5 am wake up call at our Puerto Morelos hotel room. It’s not fun to get up so early on vacation, but the early departure had a purpose: we were the first boat to set out in search of the whale sharks, and when we arrived at the snorkel site, only one additional boat had beat us there. By the time we left, we were surrounded by a dozen or more boats, with more arriving by the minute. A whale shark excursion is not cheap, so we appreciated this added touch of a semi-private experience.

solo buceo

What to expect:

Our guide Santiago explained some of what we should expect before we got on the boat: whale sharks are gentle and harmless, but they’re also wild animals…it may take time to find them, and there’s no guarantee of a sighting. The boat ride out to the open water where they swim takes approximately an hour, and snacks and drinks are provided. The small boats hold about 10 passengers max.

What we were not told: the ride through the open water can be very choppy, and it’s very easy to get seasick. I had read reviews suggesting a motion-sickness remedy, so we did have sea-bands on, but they were of little help. While we didn’t get too sick on the ride out, our stomachs were queasy enough that once in the water, a few of us felt quite sick. Remember, this is open ocean, so it’s not possible to see the bottom of the ocean floor: once you have a mask on and are looking down, you’re bobbing on the water (with some significant waves) without the aid of a horizon to orient yourself. This combination makes seasickness more likely. I was not surprised to feel seasick, as I succumb to motion sickness easily, but even the more hearty in our group were affected, as well as several additional people on our boat. The remedy: lose your breakfast in the ocean, not the boat, please!

Swim with whale sharks:

Seasick or not, swimming with the whale sharks was an amazing experience. About an hour out into open ocean, we spotted a group of about 30-40 sharks and entered the water. Our guide went with us and was invaluable in his help pointing out where the sharks were (look down!, under you!, over you!) and keeping kids (and adults) out of their way. Swimmers may not touch the sharks (doing so purposefully will get you a seat back on the boat), but it’s sometimes hard to get out of their way! By avoiding the tail, we got the hang of it eventually.

We spent approximately 1 hour in the water, taking breaks in the boat as needed, allowing the whale sharks to swim under us, around us, and even over us. When in a lucky position, it was possible to see their huge, gaping mouths open to eat the baleen they feast on, and we even spotted manta rays as well. We were given life jackets to wear (it’s optional to upgrade to wet suits at an additional cost), so even the youngest among us (age 8) had no trouble on the open water. We appreciated that all the child equipment fit well (not always the case) and that all our masks and snorkels were in great working order. Younger children might be afraid given the open ocean and depth (not to mention the huge animals) but once we’d taken the plunge, all our worries were put to rest. These whale sharks are truly peaceful to swim with, and our guide in the water was very attentive, helping to keep kids close.

On the return trip to Cancun, sandwiches and sodas or waters were handed out to those of us who could keep a lunch down, and we stopped for 15-20 minutes just off Isla Mujeres to take a warm-water dip in the crystal clear, shallow water off the island. For those of us who had felt ill, this swim was very refreshing.

swim with whale sharks

When we arrived back into the bay, we could still see boats departing for the whale shark area, and were so glad to have spent time with these giants solo. Expect to spend about four hours total from the time you depart the bay to the time you return.

Tip: Bring an underwater camera, and wear biodegradable sun screen. For some reason, sun screen cannot be applied in the boat, so remember to apply while still on the dock. It’s easy to burn in the morning sun.

Date last visited:

August 2013

Cost:

$119 for adults, $89 for kids

Directions:

Any taxi can take you to Dreams Cancun, where the doorman or bell services staff can point out Solo Buceo. From Puerto Morelos, the ride was $40 US (though this rate had to be negotiated ahead of time…when we made the mistake of asking only at the end of our drive, the rate had climbed to $90).

Disclaimer: we experienced swimming with whale sharks as guests of Solo Buceo, for the purpose of review. All opinions are our own.

About the author

Amy Whitley AUTHOR: Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids and content editor of Trekaroo. She writes on staff monthly as a family travel expert at Go Green Travel Green and Practical Travel Gear, and contributes to Outdoors NW as an outdoor adventure traveler. Find Amy at Google.

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