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Playa del Carmen is a fun coastal town – home to white sand beaches, lively nightlife, and heaps of exciting activities. And topping the list of the best activities in this world-renowned tourist destination is swimming with whale sharks. It allows you to immerse yourself in the amazing underwater world close to Playa del Carmen, swim alongside these “giants of the sea” as they’re also known, and see lots of other marine life like dolphins and manta rays. In fact, we can’t think of a better day trip from Playa del Carmen!
You’ll need to book a tour to swim with whale sharks in Playa del Carmen, and thankfully there are plenty of choices – from a reasonably priced small group tour to one that comes with premium snorkeling equipment and includes a visit to Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres.
To help you choose the perfect whale shark tour for you, we’ve put together this detailed guide on everything you need to know about swimming with whale sharks in Playa del Carmen! There are no less than 15 helpful tips to prepare you for one of the most memorable things to do in Mexico!
1. About whale sharks
Whale sharks are not, in fact, whales but filter-feeding sharks and are more commonly known as the “gentle giants of the sea!” A full-grown whale shark can range from 5.5-10 meters (18-33 feet) in length and weigh approximately 18 metric tonnes. But their teeth are so small that they can only eat plankton, small fish, and shrimp.
These beautiful, giant creatures process over 6,000 liters (1,585 gallons) of water through their gills every hour. They eat by sucking in large gulps of water and trapping the small fish, shrimp, and plankton in the filter pads inside their enormous mouths.
Their tiny teeth also mean they can’t bite, and because they swim super-slowly (approximately 3 miles/5 kilometers per hour), they are very safe to swim alongside.
The world’s largest fish lead incredibly long lives – would you believe they can live to be 150 years old? Interestingly, their backs are covered in a mosaic pattern of stripes and white spots, which are unique to each whale shark – a tad similar to a fingerprint!
Sadly, whale sharks are considered an endangered species, and their worldwide population stands between 200,000-240,000. Therefore, it’s super-important to protect them by choosing an environmentally-friendly tour operator in Playa del Carmen (we’ll detail our favorites below!) and respecting the rules your guide tells you.
2. When is whale shark season in Playa del Carmen?
The whale shark season in Playa del Carmen is not year-round, so if swimming with whale sharks is on your Playa del Carmen bucket list, you will need to book your vacation for between mid-May and mid-September as this is “whale shark season!”
Tours typically start operating from mid-May or early June at the latest, but keep in mind that this varies by year and company. As we all know, nature and marine life aren’t always predictable.
Peak season is July and August, so if you book a Playa del Carmen whale shark tour during these months, your chances of seeing them are much greater. During this time of the year, there are more whale sharks about, so you may even see a couple on your tour!
As for the best time of day to see whale sharks – that’s early in the day. Therefore, most tours depart Playa del Carmen early in the morning.
Related Read: If these dates don’t line up with your trip, the whale shark season is from October to April if you want to swim with whale sharks around Cabo San Lucas!
3. Where do you go to swim with whale sharks in Playa del Carmen?
Isla Mujeres is around 85 kilometers (53 miles) from Playa del Carmen, while Isla Contoy is 100 kilometers (62 miles) away, and Isla Holbox is around 103 kilometers (64 miles) away. It usually takes approximately 2 hours (including the bus from Playa del Carmen to the boat’s departure point) to reach your first swimming spot.
So, plan to be on the water for an hour to your first swimming spot. That’s because whale sharks love deep waters and can dive over 500 meters (1,640 feet) deep, so boat tours have to travel far out into the ocean.
When you book a tour to swim with whale sharks in Playa del Carmen, almost all tours include hotel pick up and drop off.
Related Read: Whale shark tours are also extremely popular from nearby Cancun! Read about the things you should know before booking a Cancun whale shark tour here!
4. What are the best whale shark tours in Playa del Carmen?
With so many different whale shark tours available in Playa del Carmen, it can be hard to know what to book! So to help you decide, we’ve outlined three of our favorite and well-rated tours – that way, you know you’ll have a great experience!
Small group whale shark tour (Lunch included)
This eco-friendly, small group tour is one of the cheapest whale shark tours in Playa del Carmen (costing just $144 USD per person, without hotel pickup), and not only that, it has excellent reviews. Plus, because numbers are limited to just 20 people per tour, you’re assured of a more personalized experience. Although the tour doesn’t guarantee a whale shark sighting, you’ll get to visit at least two swimming spots so your chances are increased!
Lunch is included in the price, and depending on the weather/how you’re doing for time, you’ll either get to enjoy said lunch on a beach on Isla Mujeres (it’s one of the best beaches near Cancun) or on the boat taking in the beautiful views of the island from there.
What’s not included, though, are the environmental and dock use taxes, so you will need to pay an additional $15 USD in cash on the day!
As I said, this tour costs $144 USD per person without transportation. You can be picked up from and dropped off at any hotel around Playa del Carmen for $185 USD per person. And it’s the same price to be picked up from hotels in Cancun or hotels in Tulum. You should book this tour online here in advance!
Group whale shark tour from Playa del Carmen (Breakfast and lunch included)
This whale shark tour can be done between May and September. It includes a picnic breakfast on the pier, soft drinks, snacks, and a delicious treat of ceviche served on Isla Mujeres beach. If you’re vegetarian or have other dietary requirements, this can be catered for, too. Just be sure to let them know in advance.
On this tour you’ll have around 3 hours in the water and as well as swimming next to the whale sharks you may be lucky enough to see manta rays and dolphins too. You’ll also snorkel coral reefs around Playa del Carmen on your way back where you can spy heaps of colorful fish.
This tour costs $209 USD per person, but note that hotel pickup and drop-off from Playa del Carmen is $10 USD extra, and you can choose this option when booking the tour. You will be collected from your accommodation in Playa del Carmen between 5:30-6:30 am. If you don’t choose hotel pick-up, you will need to make your own way to the meeting point at Flamingos, outside of Cancun. You will also need to pay the $15 USD natural reserve fee in cash on the day.
We should add that this is a pretty small boat, so the ride can feel bumpy at times. Also, there’s no bathroom onboard, so use the restrooms at the pier before hopping on board. Because it is such a small group (a maximum of 10 people), be sure to book this tour online in advance to avoid missing out.
Whale shark swimming and Isla Mujeres beach visit
This particular tour is of great value, too, as it includes breakfast, lunch, premium snorkeling equipment, and a stop at Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres, regarded by many as the best beach on the island! It’s another small group tour with numbers capped at 20 people per boat. It costs from $169 USD (which is the price without hotel transfers!).
Between 2 and 3 swimming stop-offs are included, which increases your chances of seeing and swimming with the whale sharks!
This tour begins bright and early, with hotel pickup around 6 am, and the tour is around 4-5 hours long. The price is $199 USD per person with pickup and drop-off from most hotels in Playa del Carmen. Again, you’ll need to bring the dock fee with you, which is $15 USD in cash.
We highly recommend booking it well in advance to secure your spot.
Related Read: Swimming with whale sharks is also one of the best day trips from Playa del Carmen!
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!
5. What does it cost to swim with whale sharks in Playa del Carmen?
Tour prices range between $185-$209 USD per person for a small group tour, including pick-up and drop-off from most accommodations in Playa del Carmen. If you’ve hired a rental car for your time in Mexico and can make your own way to the company’s meeting point, you can get a tour for as cheap as $144 USD per person.
As you have read, the prices vary according to what’s included. For example, the tours that include breakfast cost more.
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?
Yes, it’s completely safe to swim with whale sharks. They’re not nicknamed the “gentle giants of the sea” for no reason. They are very gentle-natured, and they also have tiny teeth, so they can’t bite. Also, they’re filter feeders meaning they can only eat small fish, shrimp, and plankton.
It goes without saying that, as with any boating activity, especially when swimming in open water, there is some risk involved. So, be sure to listen to all the safety instructions given by your guide, wear a life jacket onboard, and pick a reputable well-rated tour company.
7. What is included on most whale shark tours in Playa del Carmen?
The majority of whale shark tours in Playa del Carmen include lunch and all snorkeling equipment. Some tours include a continental breakfast on the pier before the boat departs, and some even include delicious ceviche served on a beach on Isla Mujeres!
Hotel pick-up and drop-off are available on all the tours I’ve listed above, but note that it’s an extra charge on some tours.
Unlike whale shark tours in other countries, tours in Playa del Carmen don’t usually guarantee that you’ll see the whale sharks. However, your chances of seeing these majestic creatures are very high during “whale shark season” which is typically from mid-May to mid-September. On your tour from Playa del Carmen, expect to be swimming with whale sharks within 1-2 hours of setting sail!
8. How far in advance should you book a whale shark tour in Playa del Carmen?
You may know this already, but Playa del Carmen is a very popular tourist destination, especially during the summer. And because the summer season coincides with whale shark season, swimming with whale sharks is one of the most sought-after tours in Playa del Carmen for June, July, and August! Therefore, booking your whale shark tour in Playa del Carmen is highly recommended to avoid disappointment!
What’s great is that if you book through Viator, you can change your booking up to 24 hours beforehand, so if your plans change, you can always choose another date. If needed you can cancel up to 24 hours in advance and receive a full refund!
9. Is it guaranteed that you’ll see whale sharks?
No, whale shark tours in Playa del Carmen don’t typically guarantee that you’ll see whale sharks. Because, as we know, wildlife is unpredictable. Tour operators in Playa del Carmen don’t use spotter planes to spot the whale sharks, unlike in Exmouth, Australia.
In saying that, though, you will likely see whale sharks on most tours as the guides know where to find them. Also, the tours only operate in whale shark season, so your chances of spotting them at this time are pretty high, especially in peak season, which is July and August.
10. What should you bring on a tour to swim with whale sharks?
Because you’ll be in and out of the water during your tour, you must wear a swimsuit and pack a towel. There are no changing facilities on board the boat, so it’s best to have your swimsuit on before you’re picked up. Having a light beach coverup is also a great idea to protect you from the sun while you’re onboard or relaxing on the beach.
Other essentials to protect you from the sun include sunglasses, a hat, and reef-friendly sunscreen. In fact, some of the tour operators in Playa del Carmen will only allow you to bring reef-friendly sunscreen on board. It’s important to have SPF 30 or higher as the sun is strong in Mexico and to reapply regularly!
You should also take flip-flops or sandals with you because you’ll be walking on the shore during the tour. As well as that, on hot days, the boat floor will be hot and uncomfortable to walk on, so being barefoot onboard is not advised.
If you want to take some awesome photos or videos of whale sharks and other marine life, you will need to take a GoPro or underwater camera in the water with you.
If you require a prescription snorkel mask, then you’ll need to bring this with you, as tour companies in Playa del Carmen don’t typically provide them. You may also bring your own snorkel equipment with you, but it’s unnecessary.
We also recommend bringing a dry bag for your valuables, like your wallet and phone, as they may get wet while on board.
And finally, you’ll need to have $15 USD in cash for the dock fee (aka natural reserve fee). Maybe bring some more cash with you for souvenirs on Isla Mujeres and gratuities for your guide/driver, etc.
11. Will you get seasick on whale shark tours in Playa del Carmen?
Many travelers get seasick on whale shark tours in Playa del Carmen because the boats are small and can be rocky in choppy waters.
If you’re unsure whether you’re prone to seasickness, we say it’s better to be safe than sorry, as, unfortunately, I learned the hard way and didn’t take seasickness tablets and felt a little ill during our tour.
Dramamine is one of the most popular motion sickness tablet brands, and it’s readily available in pharmacies in Playa del Carmen, so we strongly advise purchasing these the day before your whale shark tour and taking them 30-60 minutes before you set sail.
12. How long do whale shark tours in Playa del Carmen typically last?
Whale shark tours in Playa del Carmen usually last between 7 and 8 hours. If you’ve booked transport, you’ll be picked up from your hotel super-early in the morning, around 5:30-6 am, to head to the pier, where you’ll hop on your boat. You will return to the pier in the early afternoon (around 1 pm) before being transferred back to your hotel.
If you have a rental car and can make your own way to the meeting point, you will need to be there around 7:30 am, but that varies slightly depending on the tour company.
You’ll typically be on the boat for 5 hours, and then transfers will be around 1.5 hours each way, depending on where you’re staying.
Related Read: While you’re visiting this fun coastal town, why not, check out the best restaurants in Playa del Carmen!
13. Can kids/families swim with whale sharks in Playa del Carmen?
Age requirements for whale shark tours in Playa del Carmen vary by company. For example, this tour has a minimum age requirement of 3 years, but this particular tour needs all guests to be at least 8 years old!
It’s worth remembering that if you do want to bring your kids with you, they don’t have to get in the water during the tour, but if they’re staying on the boat, an adult will need to stay with them. Also, I mentioned seasickness above, so consider your child’s age and tolerance for rocky waters before booking.
Despite this, we think swimming with whale sharks is a fantastic family-friendly activity in Playa del Carmen! And the whole family is sure to remember this bucket-list-worthy experience for years to come.
Related Read: Adventurous families can also go scuba diving around Playa del Carmen!
14. Do you need to be a strong swimmer on whale shark tours in Playa del Carmen?
To ensure you have the best possible experience on your whale shark tour in Playa del Carmen, it’s advisable to be a confident swimmer. There’s quite a lot of swimming involved in seeing the whale sharks. If you prefer, you can stay on the boat and watch while staying dry.
There’s no pressure to get in the water if you’re not comfortable. Luckily, you will likely still see the whale sharks from the boat! Plus, you’ll get the chance to relax on a beautiful beach on Isla Mujeres as part of the tour.
Related Read: For another awesome experience, consider visiting Chichen Itza from Playa del Carmen.
15. Is swimming with whale sharks in Playa del Carmen worth it?
Yes, yes, and yes!
Swimming with whale sharks is the ultimate bucket list activity in Playa del Carmen. Getting the chance to see these majestic creatures up close and swim next to them is something you’ll remember forever.
Plus, when you consider that most tours include a delicious breakfast on the pier and a visit to a stunning beach on Isla Mujeres – the experience is unbeatable for the price. In fact, it was one of our favorite tours we did on the Yucatan Peninsula!
Related Read: Be sure to check out some of the best beaches on the Yucatan Peninsuala while you’re here!
Travel Insurance is more important than ever right now!
If you’re traveling during these uncertain times, be sure that you have travel insurance!
SafetyWing is our go-to insurance when we are going on longer trips. They offer travel medical insurance that’s super affordable (only $45 USD per 4 weeks!) and even have coverage in case you get that dreaded c-word. The only thing to note is that the insurance must be purchased once you’ve left your home country – we typically buy it as soon as we land at the airport.
We’ve personally used SafetyWing for many different trips, and we’ve been reimbursed for countless expenses when we’ve fallen ill. SafetyWing even covered our flights back to Canada in full when the pandemic first happened (when last-minute flights before the borders closed were super expensive!)
It’s safe to say that travel insurance has saved us thousands over the years!
Renting a Car in Mexico
Undoubtedly, one of the best ways to get around Mexico is in a rental car.
I struggled to get around by bus and taxi for the longest time. But after renting a car in Cancun in 2019, I never looked back. It allowed me to explore the country without worrying about tours or taxis. It was why I fell in love with Mexico and eventually decided to live here periodically.
I refuse to use local services whenever I rent a car in Mexico. The truth is they sometimes can’t be trusted or come with hidden fees (or costly insurance that doesn’t make sense.) There are even rental car scams! So instead, I use Discover Cars, the company most experienced travelers or ex-pats in Mexico recommend.
The rates on Discover Cars are cheap, too, with the average rental costing around $25 USD per day. Full coverage insurance can be added for an extra $10 USD a day too.
Driving in Mexico also only requires a driver’s license using the Roman alphabet. If yours uses another like Japan and China, you simply need an international driving permit.
Insurance is required, but if you book with Discover Cars and get the full coverage, that’s all you need! Oh, and being over 18 is required, and if you’re over 25, your rental will be much cheaper!
Thanks for reading!
Now that you’ve read all there is to know about swimming with whale sharks in Playa del Carmen, I bet you’re just itching to experience this bucket-list-worthy tour! As I said, it is one of our favorite ever tours on the Riviera Maya, and when we return, we will definitely do another tour!
For more, check out our Mexico page and other blogs like getting from the Cancun Airport to Playa del Carmen. Or maybe at a glance, you’ll find some of these related guides helpful too!