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15 Things to Know BEFORE Swimming with Whale Sharks in Cancun

15 Things to Know BEFORE Swimming with Whale Sharks in Cancun

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Swimming with whale sharks in Cancun, Mexico is the ultimate aquatic adventure.

Cancun has a reputation as a big party destination, but there is so much more to this tropical paradise. Swimming with whale sharks is an amazing way to go beyond the bustling nightlife, take in the beauty of nature, and learn all about these amazing creatures – it’s one of the best day trips in Cancun!

The tropical waters around the Riviera Maya area of Mexico are home to an abundance of whale sharks, making Cancun the perfect place to safely observe and swim with these majestic creatures.

To swim with whale sharks here, you’ll need to take a tour in Cancun, and there is no shortage of options available – but not all whale shark tours are created equal. We’ve put together a guide with everything you need to know about swimming with whale sharks in Cancun, Mexico, so that you’re prepared for the best experience possible.

Here are 15 things you should know before taking the plunge to try one of the most epic things to do in Mexico!

Don’t have time to read the full article? Having the opportunity to swim with whale sharks is such a unique experience, that we recommend it to anyone looking for a new bucket list item. If you’re one of those people, we absolutely love this small group snorkeling tour which includes hotel transportation, an expert captain, and a scrumptious lunch on the beach to round out your trip.

1. About Whale Sharks

A person swims near a whale shark off the coast of Cancun, Mexico
This was so cool!

Whale sharks are gentle giants, and they can’t bite – they’re actually very large filter-feeder fish that swim slowly and peacefully at around 3 miles (5 kilometers) per hour. This means that it’s super safe and easy to swim alongside them. They also have remarkably long lives, living up to 150 years!

On average, whale sharks grow to be between 5.5-10 meters (18 – 33 feet) long and weigh around 18 metric tonnes, making them the world’s largest fish. Their backs are covered in a mosaic pattern of white spots and stripes, which are unique to each individual – kind of like a fingerprint!

Whale sharks can process up to 6,000 liters of water per hour through their gills. To eat, they draw in large gulps of water, trapping plankton and other small creatures in the filter pads inside their wide mouths.

Whale sharks are also sadly endangered, with a global population that’s thought to be between 200,000-240,000. It’s important to protect them by choosing an environmentally-friendly tour operator in Cancun (more on our fabotes below!) and respecting the rules when you’re in the water.

Related Read: In Australia, swimming with Whale sharks is popular in Exmouth, too.

2. When is whale shark season in Cancun?

Whale shark swims near a group of people snorkeling off the coast of Cancun, Mexico
Can you spot both the Whale Sharks?

Whale sharks are not around all year round. So, if you want to swim with whale sharks while in Cancun, you need to plan your trip during “whale shark season.”

Whale shark season in Cancun usually starts in May, and lasts until mid-September. Tours tend to start running in either mid-May or early June, but this varies from company to company and year to year. Nature doesn’t always run like clockwork!

The peak of the season is in July and August, so this is the best time to swim with whale sharks to maximize your chances of spotting them and seeing a higher volume of these amazing creatures.

In terms of the best time of day to see whale sharks, most tours leave early in the morning.

Related Read: If you missed whale shark season, another way to get on the water for a fun day out is aboard a catamaran cruise from Cancun to Isla Mujeres!

3. Where do you go to swim with whale sharks in Cancun?

Tour group on a Whale shark tour off the coast of Cancun, Mexico-2
Off we go!

Most whale sharks in Cancun are found in the waters surrounding Isla Mujeres, Isla Contoy, and Isla Holbox, all of which are small islands just off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Whale sharks love deep waters, and can dive over 500 meters (1640 feet) deep, so boat tours tend to go pretty far out into the ocean.

Isla Mujeres is around 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from Cancun, while Isla Contoy is 37.5 kilometers (23.3 miles) away, and Isla Holbox is around 60 kilometers (37 miles) away. It usually takes around an hour to get to your first swimming spot.

When you book a tour to swim with whale sharks in Cancun, almost all tours include pick up and drop off from hotels in the Cancun Hotel Zone. If you need transport from the airport, you’ll want to read our guide on getting from Cancun Airport to the Hotel Zone first!

4. What are the best whale shark tours in Cancun?

Tourists snorkel next to Whale Shark off the coast of Cancun, Mexico
They are so big!

With so many different whale shark tours available in Cancun, it can be hard to know which one to choose! Below, we have outlined our personal favorites and those with the best reviews so you can easily pick the best tour.

Small group Whale Shark tour (Lunch only)

This eco-friendly, small group tour is limited to 10 people, so you get a more personalized experience with plenty of space to swim and observe the whale sharks. Plus, lunch is included, and you’ll eat either it on the boat off the coast of Isla Mujeres, enjoying the beautiful views of the shore (some of the best beaches near Cancun), or on the island’s northern beach.

You’ll get at least two jumps from the boat, and possibly more if time allows. This tour doesn’t guarantee that you will see whale sharks, and you’ll need to bring $15 USD in cash with you to pay the environmental and dock use taxes on the day.

With that said, it’s one of the cheapest whale share tours available in Cancun, and it has rave reviews!

This tour costs $144 USD per person, and for an extra fee, you can be picked up from and dropped off at any hotel or AirBnb around Cancun, Tulum, or Playa del Carmen. You should book this tour online here in advance!

Related Read: If you are staying in Tulum, there are also some whale shark tours that depart from Tulum, too!

Group Whale Shark Tour from Cancun (Breakfast and Lunch)

This whale shark tour is available from May to September, and includes a picnic breakfast on the pier, snacks, soft drinks, and delicious ceviche on the beach at Isla Mujeres, although vegetarian options are available upon request.

You’ll spend up to 3 hours snorkeling around Cancun and swimming alongside whale sharks, and also have a chance to spot other amazing marine creatures like dolphins and manta rays. You’ll also snorkel coral reefs on your way back to Cancun, which are home to a variety of colorful fish.

This tour costs $209 USD per person, plus the $15 USD taxes which are payable in cash on the day. Hotel pickup and drop-off from Cancun is $10 USD extra, and you can select this option when booking the tour.

The boat is pretty small, which can make the ride feel bumpier, but the guides are super friendly and helpful. There’s no bathroom on the boat, so make sure you use the facilities before departing.

Because it is such a small group, be sure to book this tour online in advance to avoid missing out.

Private Whale shark Ecofriendly tour from Cancun

This private tour is the most expensive one on our list at $745 USD per group, but you can take up to 10 travelers with you, so it can actually be a very cost-effective option if you’re traveling in a large group. Or, if you just have room in your budget and want a completely personalized experience, this is the perfect choice.

You’ll be guided by a biologist who will give you a brief introduction to whale sharks, their habitats, and behavior. Plus, a full lunch is included both on the boat, as well as water and soft drinks. Round trip transportation from your accommodation is also included in the price of this tour.

You can book this private whale shark tour online here.

Whale Shark Swimming & Isla Mujeres Beach Visit

This tour offers premium snorkeling equipment, breakfast and lunch, and a visit to Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres, which is generally considered to be the island’s best beach. Group sizes are limited to 10 people per boat, and you’ll get 2-3 swims alongside the whale sharks throughout the day.

This tour starts pretty early in the morning with hotel pickup around 5.30 am, and then you’ll be back by around 2 pm. The price is $179 USD per person with pickup and drop-off from Cancun. Again, you’ll need to bring the dock fee with you, which is $15 USD in cash.

This is easily one of the best tours in the Yucatan Peninsula and you should book it well in advance to secure your spot.

Why We Book Tours with Viator

Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! We almost always book our tours using Viator for a couple of reasons:

  • Free cancellation on most tours – Most of the tours on Viator allow you to cancel and get a full refund up to 24 hours in advance. This is handy in case plans change, or if booking an outdoor activity, the weather forecast is looking grim.
  • Reserve now and pay later – You can secure your spot on some of the most popular tours well in advance and not pay until closer to the day of the tour.
  • Pay in your chosen currency – Avoid costly international transaction fees by choosing to pay in your home currency.
  • Peace of mind – When booking with tour operators you find in person on the street or in small booking offices, you are often promised one thing and given another. This online platform holds tour operators accountable with a written description of inclusions as well as the opportunity for customers to leave reviews.

Check out the Viator website here! Or, read our complete Viator review to learn more about what we think about Viator.

Related Read: Swimming with whale sharks in Playa del Carmen is also one of the best day trips from that area!

5. What does it cost to swim with whale sharks in Cancun?

A few people swim with a whale shark in Cancun, Mexico as seen from a drone
Despite the name, they are almost harmless!

Tour prices range between $140-$210 USD per person for a small group tour, or for a private boat you’re looking at around $750 USD. The latter option can actually be cheaper overall if you’re traveling with a big group.

For the group tours, the prices vary according to what’s included. Tours that include breakfast beforehand tend to cost more, and for some tours, you may have to pay extra for transport from and back to your accommodation. Generally speaking, if you’re coming from Playa del Carmen or Tulum, your transfer will be more expensive than if you’re staying in Cancun.

You’ll also need to bring around $15 USD in cash for all tours, as this is the dock fee that you’ll need to pay on the day.

6. Is it safe to swim with Whale Sharks?

Whale shark swimming off the coast of Cancun
It’s very safe!

Yes, it’s very safe to swim with whale sharks, as long as you follow the instructions of your tour guide. The animals are incredibly gentle and placid, and they won’t harm you in any way. They also don’t have large teeth because they’re filter-feeders.

Of course, with any activity where you’re going out on a boat and snorkeling in open water, there are always some risks. That’s why it’s important to listen carefully to all safety instructions given by your tour guide, wear a life jacket when on the boat, and choose a reputable tour with good reviews.

Related Read: One of the other best experiences from Cancun are tours to Chichen Itza – read about the ones!

7. What is included on most Whale Shark tours in Cancun?

Two people take a selfie on a Whale shark tour off the coast of Cancun, Mexico
My mum and brother loved the tour!

Most whale shark tours in Cancun include all of your snorkeling equipment and lunch, which usually consists of ceviche on the beach at Isla Mujeres. Some tours also include a continental breakfast before you set sail.

Hotel pickup and drop-off is almost always available on whale shark tours, but sometimes it costs extra, depending on where you’re staying.

Unlike whale shark tours in some parts of the world, tours in Cancun don’t usually include a guarantee that you’ll actually see whale sharks. With that being said, your chances of spotting some are very high during whale shark season and you can expect to be swimming with them within an hour or two of setting sail.

8. How far in advance should you book a Whale Shark tour in Cancun?

Cancun gets pretty busy during the summer months and swimming with whale sharks is a really popular activity, so it’s best to book a few weeks in advance if possible. 

The great thing about booking through Viator is that you can change your booking up to 24 hours before most tours, so if your plans do change, you can always select another date. You can also cancel and get a full refund!

9. Is it guaranteed that you’ll see whale sharks?

Whale shark swimming through the water
A go pro is a must!

No, whale shark tours in Cancun generally don’t guarantee that you’ll see whale sharks. Unlike whale spotting in Exmouth, Australia, tour operators in Cancun don’t use spotter planes to find the whale sharks and they don’t have any control over wild animals.

That said, you can usually expect to see whale sharks on most tours, as the tour operators have plenty of experience and know the best places to look. Plus, tours only run during whale shark season, so your chances of seeing them are pretty high – especially if you’re taking a tour during July or August, which is the peak of whale shark season in Cancun!

10. What should you bring on a tour to swim with whale sharks?

Tour group on a whale shark tour off the coast of Cancun, Mexico (2)
You don’t need much!

You’ll be in and out of the water all day, so you’ll need to wear a swimsuit and bring a towel. It’s a good idea to bring a light beach coverup to protect you from the sun while you’re onboard or chilling on the shore.

Sunglasses, a hat, and reef-friendly sunscreen are also essential. In fact, some tour companies will only let you bring sunscreen on board if it’s reef friendly, so make sure to buy a reputable brand. Remember to choose SPF 30 or above and to reapply frequently.

Flip flops or sandals are also a good idea, as you’ll be walking on the shore at some points during the tour. Plus, the floor of the boat can also get hot in the sun, so you may not want to be barefoot between swims.

It’s a great idea to bring an underwater camera or GoPro if you have one to capture photos and videos of the whale sharks.

If you require a prescription snorkel mask, then you’ll need to bring this with you as tour companies in Cancun don’t usually offer this. You are also free to bring your own snorkel equipment if you prefer, but it’s not necessary.

A dry bag for your valuables, like your phone and wallet, is also a good idea as you may get splashed while on board.

You’ll also need to bring $15 USD in cash for the dock fee, as you can only pay this on the day – it’s outside of the tour companies’ control. It’s also a good idea to bring some cash for gratuities and souvenirs.

11. Will you get seasick on whale shark tours in Cancun?

A person feels sick on a whale shark tour in Cancun, Mexico
Some people on our tour didn’t feel too good!

Many travelers do experience seasickness on whale shark tours in Cancun, as the boats tend to be small which means that they can be quite rocky in choppy waters.

If you’re not sure about how prone to seasickness you are, then it’s always better to be safe than sorry – I learned this the hard way! Take some motion sickness tablets 30-60 minutes before you set sail, and keep some with you throughout the day.

Dramamine is one of the most popular motion sickness tablet brands and it’s readily available in pharmacies in Cancun, so we highly recommend picking some up the day before your whale shark tour and taking it in the morning.

12. How long do Whale Shark tours in Cancun typically last?

Whale shark tours in Cancun tend to last for around 7-8 hours. You’ll usually be picked up from your hotel early in the morning, around 5-6.30 am to head out onto the water, and then return in the early afternoon. 

You’ll usually spend about 5 hours on the boat, and then transfers can last up to an hour or more each way, depending on where you’re staying.

It’s definitely best not to go out partying in Cancun the night before a whale shark tour – save that for another day!

Related Read: While in the area, check out the best restaurants in Cancun!

13. Can kids/families swim with whale sharks in Cancun?

A child and father swims beside a whale shark in Cancun, Mexico
The kids on our tour loved it!

Age requirements for whale shark tours in Cancun do vary between companies. This tour, for example, has a minimum age of 3 years, while this one requires all participants to be at least 8 years old.

Kids don’t necessarily have to get in the water and swim, but an adult will need to remain with them on the boat at all times.

Since many travelers do get seasick on these tours, you will need to think about your children’s age and tolerance for choppy waters before booking.

Overall, however, swimming with whale sharks is a great activity for families in Cancun. Children will love the experience and it’s a great way to get out on the water and spend quality time together.

14. Do you need to be a strong swimmer on Whale Shark tours in Cancun?

To get the most out of a whale shark tour, it’s best to have a decent swimming ability, but you can remain on the boat the whole time and be an observer if you prefer. 

The guides on these tours are usually super friendly and won’t pressure you to get in the water if you don’t want to. You can still enjoy spotting whale sharks from the boat, and relaxing on the beach at Isla Mujeres too, of course!

15. Is swimming with whale sharks in Cancun worth it?

Whale shark swims past me with my camera off the coast of Cancun, Mexico
Yes!

Yes, totally!

Whale sharks are amazing, beautiful creatures and the chance to swim alongside them is really too good to pass up while you’re in Cancun. A whale shark tour is also a great way to explore the Caribbean Sea and visit the beautiful Isla Mujeres.

So if you’re looking for a unique experience while you’re in Cancun, swimming with whale sharks should be at the top of your list of things to do!

Related Read: Be sure to check out some of the best beaches in all of Mexico while you’re here!

Other Activities to do While You’re in Cancun

Bailey and Daniel look at a Sting Ray at the MUSA dive site in Cancun
A stingray at MUSA!
Bailey looks out the window of the Cancun Scenic Tower in Cancun, Mexico
Views for days at the Cancun Scenic Tower!

Don’t let swimming with whale sharks be the only adventure you take in Cancun! I’ve been coming to Cancun since I was a kid and I never get tired of visiting. There are so many fun things to do in Cancun, that will make for an amazing vacay. So if you’re looking for even more activities, check out some of my favorites below!

  • Cancun Scenic Tower – As if Cancun wasn’t scenic enough, there’s another way to enjoy the views here! The Cancun Scenic Tower gives you amazing views of the Caribbean! The entire viewing deck lifts up, so you won’t even need to climb any stairs to get this view.
  • Eat, eat eat! – Calories don’t count on vacation right? The restaurants in Cancun deliver on amazing food – especially the Mexican restaurants of course. Mextreme has the best tacos and I always order the Aztec soup! If you want to try a bunch of different dishes in an evening – this taco and beer food tour will take you to five popular spots for a fun night you’ll want to arrive hungry for!

Where to Stay in Cancun

Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun
Photo credit: Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun

If you’re going to be swimming with whale sharks in Cancun, then you’ll need a place to stay! Below are some of the best hotels (for every budget) in the Cancun Hotel Zone.

For budget travelers, the Selina Cancun Laguna Hotel Zone is a great choice. It doesn’t have the greatest reviews, but I really enjoyed my stay and for the price and fun atmosphere, you can’t go wrong! You can book this hostel on Hostelword or Booking.com.

If you prefer something a little nicer, I love the JW Marriott Cancun Resort. It’s not all-inclusive, which I enjoy because there are so many delicious restaurants in Cancun! The hotel is located right on the beach and has a huge pool. Rooms are typically $300-$500 USD depending on the time of year.

Of course, we all love a luxury all-inclusive stay and for that, I always book either the Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun or the Le Blanc Spa Resort Cancun Adults Only. Both are not cheap but are equally as luxurious with fantastic oceanfront locations, delicious food, quality alcohol, and more.

More of a luxury traveler? Learn about the absolute best resorts in Cancun!

Thanks for reading!

Daniel and Bailey take a selfie with beers in Cancun, Mexico
Thanks for reading!

Now you know everything there is to know about swimming with whale sharks in Cancun. Hopefully, this blog has helped prepare you for what surely will be one of the most memorable experiences of your life!

We have a ton of other blogs about Mexico to help plan your trip including a couple related reads below:

Guide to Visiting Chichen Itza

12 Things to KNOW Before Going Scuba Diving in Cancun

The BEST Mexican Restaurants in Cancun

The BEST Day Trips from Tulum

V

Wednesday 7th of June 2023

Very useful FAQ! Thank you so much! What specific tour is the one your pictures show!This boat seems larger than the other tour boats we are seeing and would prefer this as we have some older people in our group.

destinationlesstravel

Wednesday 7th of June 2023

Hey V,

Unfortunately, the boat we went with the first time (larger boat) is no longer operating. The photos you are seeing are from two trips to swim with the whale sharks. I also loved the larger boat, but there are much stricter rules on the size of the boats allowed near the whale sharks these days.

Thanks Daniel