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15 Things to KNOW Before Swimming with Whale Sharks in Tulum

15 Things to KNOW Before Swimming with Whale Sharks in Tulum

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The bohemian coastal paradise of Tulum is home to more than just pristine beaches and Mayan ruins – it’s also one of the top places in the world to swim with whale sharks – aka the world’s biggest fish! 

Swimming with whale sharks in the wild off the coast of Tulum is an unforgettable, bucket-list-worthy experience that we certainly won’t forget in a hurry. In fact, if you’re a wildlife lover, this activity HAS to be added to your Tulum itinerary!

As I mentioned above, the waters off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula (where Tulum is located) are home to one of the world’s biggest populations of whale sharks. What’s great, too, is that most whale shark tours in Tulum are eco-friendly in that they respect the whale sharks’ migration patterns and natural habitat. So, as you can guess, swimming with whale sharks is one of the most popular things to do in Tulum!

So, if you plan to visit Tulum during whale shark season (which runs from mid-May to mid-September), you may be wondering about the best whale shark tours, what you need to bring with you on the tour, and how much they cost. We’ll cover that and more in this guide on everything you need to know about swimming with whale sharks in Tulum, Mexico! 

Don’t have time to read the full article? If swimming alongside the third biggest creature in the ocean is on your to-do list, we highly recommend booking this whale shark tour which includes expert guides and a delicious ceviche lunch on Isla Mujeres following your snorkeling adventure.

1. About whale sharks

Tourists snorkel next to Whale Shark off the coast of Tulum, Mexico
They are majestic creatures!

Also known as “the gentle giants of the ocean” due to their docile nature, whale sharks are, in fact, filter-feeding sharks and not whales, as you may have previously believed.

These huge creatures weigh around 18 metric tonnes and can typically grow to be between 5.5-10 meters (18-33 feet) long. They take the crown of the world’s biggest shark! Despite their size and scary-sounding name, whale sharks can’t bite and can only eat small fish, shrimp, and plankton because their teeth are teeny-tiny!

Plus, they only swim at a very slow speed of 3 miles/5 kilometers per hour, so they are safe to swim alongside. 

They are filter-feeding creatures, which means that they eat by sucking in big gulps of water, thus, trapping the small fish, plankton, etc., in the filter pads in their mouths. Would you believe whale sharks process upwards of 6,000 liters (1,585 gallons) of water through their gills hourly? 

Whale sharks are one of the longest-living fish in the world, and they can live to be 150 years old! On our whale shark tour in Tulum, our guide told us a very interesting fact – the whale sharks’ backs are covered in a mosaic pattern of white spots and stripes, which are unique to each whale shark – a little bit like a fingerprint!

Unfortunately, whale sharks are regarded as endangered, and their numbers now stand between 200,000 and 240,000. Therefore, it’s super-important to protect them by choosing an environmentally-friendly tour operator in Tulum (we’ve listed our favorite ones below!) and respecting your guide’s rules. 

2. When is whale shark season in Tulum?

A few people swim with a whale shark in Tulum, Mexico as seen from a drone
They are huge!

You can swim with whale sharks in Tulum between mid-May and mid-September. This is classed as “whale shark season,” so if swimming with whale sharks is a non-negotiable for your vacation in Tulum, ensure you visit during this timeframe!

Whale shark tours from Tulum usually start operating in mid-May or early June at the latest, but note that this may change each year, and each company will likely have a different start date.

The peak season for swimming with whale sharks is July and August, as the warmer waters attract more whale sharks to the area. That means your chances of seeing them on a tour greatly increase during these months!

The best time of day to see whale sharks is in the morning, which is why most tours leave Tulum early in the morning.

Related Read: If your trip doesn’t line up with whale shark season, you can still take a tour from Cancun to Tulum to see ancient ruins and swim in cenotes!

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

Tour group on a whale shark tour off the coast of Tulum, Mexico
Tour group on a whale shark tour off the coast of Tulum, Mexico

Most whale sharks tend to “hang out” around Isla Holbox, Isla Contoy, and Isla Mujeres (one of the best day trips from Tulum.) These small islands off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, are not too far from Tulum. 

Isla Holbox is approximately 154 km (96 miles) from Tulum, Island Contoy is 159 km (99 miles) away, and Isla Mujeres is around 147 kilometers (91 miles) from Tulum. Note it will typically take approximately 2.5 hours (including the bus from Tulum to where your boat departs) to reach your first swimming spot.

The reason it takes so long to get to where the whale sharks are is that it’s around a 1.5-hour bus journey from most parts of Tulum to the boat departure point, and then, you’ll be on the water for an hour to get to the deep waters where the whale sharks are located. These giant creatures love deep water, and you may need to dive over 500 meters (1,640 feet) to see them. 

When you book a tour to swim with whale sharks in Tulum, almost all tours include hotel transfers. However, if you’re flying into Cancun first, make sure to check out our guide on getting from the Cancun Airport to Tulum!

Related Read: Whale shark tours are also extremely popular from nearby Playa del Carmen! Read about swimming with whales sharks in Playa del Carmen here!

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

Whale shark swims near a group of people snorkeling off the coast of Tulum, Mexico
So cool!

There are lots of whale shark tours available from Tulum, and deciding which one is right for you is no easy task. This is where we come in; we’ve done the tours and completed the research, and below, you’ll see three of the best (and most highly rated) whale shark tours in Tulum!

Group whale shark tour from Tulum (Breakfast and lunch included)

This whale shark tour is only offered in whale shark season, so between May and September. It’s a small group tour, meaning a maximum of 10 guests per trip, allowing a more personalized experience. 

The price includes a picnic breakfast on the pier, snacks, soft drinks, and some delicious ceviche on a stunning beach on Isla Mujeres. If you have dietary requirements, no problem – just be sure to let them know in advance! 

All in, you’ll be in the water for around 3 hours, giving you ample time to swim with whale sharks, and you may even spot a few dolphins, manta rays, and colorful fish too. You’ll also have the chance to snorkel some coral reefs on your way back to the pier. 

This tour costs $209 USD per person, but note that hotel pick-up and drop-off from Tulum are $20 USD extra, and you can choose this option when booking the tour. You will be collected from your accommodation in Tulum super-early (between 4:30-5:30 am!). If you don’t choose hotel pick-up, you must make your way to the meeting point at Flamingos, outside of Cancun. 

You must also pay a $15 USD natural reserve fee in cash on the day.  We should add that because this is a small boat, the ride can sometimes feel bumpy. Also, there’s no bathroom onboard, so use the restrooms at the pier beforehand.  

Small group whale shark tour (Lunch included)

This eco-friendly, small group tour is one of the cheapest Tulum whale shark tours (costing just $144 USD per person, not including hotel pickup). The boat isn’t as small as the first option, meaning it’s less bumpy, and numbers are limited to 20 people per tour. This highly-rated tour doesn’t guarantee a whale shark sighting, but you’ll get to dive in at least two swimming spots, increasing your chances of seeing these majestic fish!

Lunch will be provided on the day, and it will either be served up on a beach on Isla Mujeres or on the boat, depending on the weather and how you’re doing for time. 

As I said, this tour costs $144 USD per person without hotel transfers. You can be picked up from and dropped off at any hotel around Tulum for $185 USD per person. And it’s the same price to be picked up from Cancun hotels or Playa del Carmen hotels. The natural reserve fee is not included in the price, so you will need to pay an additional $15 USD in cash on the day!

We highly recommend you book this tour online here in advance!

Whale shark swimming and Isla Mujeres beach visit

This particular tour includes breakfast, lunch, premium snorkeling equipment, and a stop at Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres, regarded by many as one of the best beaches on the Yucatan Peninsula! Numbers are capped at 20 people per boat, making for a more personalized experience. It costs $240 USD per person, and hotel pick-up from Tulum is not offered. Instead, you will need to meet at the Super Aki supermarket in Tulum. 

Between two and three swimming stop-offs are included, which increases your chances of seeing and swimming with the whale sharks! 

This tour begins bright and early at 5 am, and as I mentioned above, you will need to make your own way to Súper Aki supermarket on the main road in Tulum, and the tour is around 4-5 hours long. Again, you’ll need to bring cash to pay the dock fee of $15 USD.

We highly recommend booking it well in advance to secure your spot. After all, we believe it’s one of the best tours on the Yucatan Peninsula!

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.
  • Lowest price guarantee – If you happen to find the same tour at a lower price elsewhere, Viator will refund you the price difference.
  • 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, for more info, read our detailed review about Viator here.

5. What does swimming with whale sharks in Tulum cost?

Whale shark swims past me with my camera off the coast of Tulum, Mexico
It’s not the cheapest tour but it’s so worth it!

Whale shark tours in Tulum range in price from $185-$240 USD per person. Most include pick-up and drop-off from hotels and hostels in Tulum, but some tours require you to meet at a central meeting point. 

Tours work out a lot cheaper if you don’t require transfers to the pier (where the boat departs from) – so if you have a rental car for your time in Mexico, you can get a tour for as little as $144 USD per person.

Prices vary according to what’s included. For example, the tours that include breakfast cost more.

You’ll also need to have $15 USD in cash handy to pay the dock fee on the day and more cash if you plan to tip your guide/ drivers. 

6. What is included on most whale shark tours in Tulum?

Daniel brother relaxes on the boat on his whale shark tour off the coast of Tulum, Mexico
My brother loved the tour!

Most whale shark tours in Tulum include your snorkeling equipment and lunch. Some tours have the added bonus of a continental breakfast on the pier before you hop on the boat, and some even include a snack of ceviche on the beach on Isla Mujeres!

Hotel pick-up and drop-off are available on two of the tours I’ve listed above, but note that it’s an extra charge. One tour doesn’t include hotel transfers, so you must make your way to a central meeting point.

Unlike whale shark tours worldwide, tours in Tulum can’t offer a guarantee that you’ll see whale sharks. However, your chances of seeing these majestic creatures are very high in July and August.

On your tour from Tulum, expect to swim with whale sharks within 1-2 hours of setting sail!

Note: Whale shark tours are typically snorkeling tours, but if you want to go scuba diving in Tulum, there are plenty of options for that in the reefs and cenotes!

7. Is it safe to swim with whale sharks?

Whale shark swimming off the coast of Tulum, Mexico
Whale shark swimming off the coast of Tulum, Mexico

Swimming with whale sharks is one of the safest activities you can do from Tulum. That’s because these docile “giants of the sea” swim super-slowly and can’t bite due to their tiny teeth!

But, as with any activity that involves swimming in open water, there is some risk involved. So, it’s important you listen carefully to the safety instructions your guide instructs of you, wear a life jacket at all times, and book with a highly-rated reputable tour company!

Related Read: For another fun activity, consider joining one of the Chichen Itza tours from Tulum!

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

A person swims near a whale shark off the coast of Tulum, Mexico
In the season, you have great chances!

No, it’s unlikely that whale shark tour operators in Tulum will guarantee whale shark sightings. After all, wildlife is very unpredictable, and unlike the whale shark tour we did in Exmouth, Australia, the tour operators here don’t use spotter planes to find the exact location of the whale sharks. 

Despite this, it’s still very likely you’ll get to see or swim with whale sharks on the tours I’ve listed above because the local guides are super-knowledgable and know exactly where to find these giants of the sea. Also, if you plan to do a tour during the “peak” months of July and August, your chances of spotting whale sharks are very high!

9. How far in advance should you book a whale shark tour in Tulum?

Tulum’s status as one of the most popular tourist spots in Mexico has firmly been cemented of late. Yep, this bohemian coastal resort is buzzing throughout the year but especially in the summer months, and this also happens to be whale shark season (as I said, whale shark season here is from mid-May to mid-September!). Therefore, as you can probably guess, whale shark tours in Tulum tend to book up quickly. 

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!

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

Epic views of the crystal clear waters from our Cancun Catamaran Cruise
You don’t need much!

First up, and the most obvious thing to pack is a swimsuit and a towel. In fact, we recommend putting on your swimsuit before being picked up, as there are no changing facilities on the boat. A light beach coverup or something loose-fitting (like a t-shirt) is a good idea to pack, too, so that you can throw it on to protect yourself from the sun when you’re not in the water.

Other hot weather essentials you should bring with you (as I said, these tours only take place in the summer) include a sun hat, sunglasses, and reef-friendly sunscreen. Not only is this an environmentally-friendly choice, but some tour operators in Tulum will also only allow their guests to wear reef-friendly sunscreen. As you’ll learn, the sun is strong here, so having SPF 30 or higher is important!

Also, pack a pair of flip-flops or sandals for walking on the beach and for comfortably walking around the boat – the boat’s floor can get very hot on a sunny day!

A dry bag is also a great idea to have handy so that you can keep your valuables dry on the boat.

If you’re into underwater photography (like me), pack an underwater camera or GoPro to snap some incredibly underwater snaps of whale sharks and other marine life. I managed to get some incredible photos on our tour!

If you require a prescription snorkel mask, you’ll need to bring it with you, as most Tulum tour companies don’t provide it. You may also bring your own snorkel equipment with you, but it’s not necessary.

Lastly, you’ll need to take cash with you to pay the natural reserve fee, which is $15 USD, and additional cash for gratuities or to buy souvenirs on Isla Mujeres!

11. How long do whale shark tours in Tulum last for?

Whale shark tours in Tulum typically last around 8 hours. If you’ve booked transport, you’ll be picked up from your hotel (or at the meeting point) very early, around 4:30-5:30 am. You will return to the pier in the early afternoon (around 1 pm) before being transferred back to your hotel, meaning you should return to your Tulum accommodation around 3 pm. So, be prepared for a long day!

If you have a rental car and can drive to the meeting point (near Cancun), you must get there before 7:30 am. Expect to spend around 5 hours on the boat and approximately 2 hours each way on a bus.  

Related Read: While you’re staying in this bohemian town, why not, check out the best restaurants in Tulum!

12. Will you get seasick on whale shark tours in Tulum?

A person feels sick on a whale shark tour in Tulum, Mexico
Some people got seasick on our tour!

The short answer is yes, you may get seasick on whale shark tours in Tulum. That’s because the boats are small and can be rocky in rough waters.

If you’re not sure if you suffer from seasickness, it’s best to be prepared by having motion sickness tablets at hand. Unfortunately, I didn’t pack any and felt sick during our tour.

Dramamine is one of the most popular motion sickness tablet brands, and it can be bought in most pharmacies in Tulum, so we strongly suggest buying these the day before your whale shark tour. For them to be effective, you will need to take the suggested dose 30-60 minutes before setting sail.

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

A child and father swims beside a whale shark in Tulum, Mexico
Kids love the tour!

Yes, kids can join whale shark tours in Tulum but keep in mind there is an age limit, which varies by tour company. For example, this tour has an age requirement of 8 years old, but for this particular tour, kids can be as young as 3 years old to join in the fun!

Kids can remain on the boat (and not get into the water) if they so wish, but remember that an adult will need to stay on board with them. It’s also worth considering if your child suffers from seasickness before booking.

We saw lots of families on our whale tour in Tulum, and they had a fantastic time. Swimming with whale sharks is a very family-friendly activity, and your kids are sure to talk about this incredible experience for years to come.

14. Do you need to be a strong swimmer on whale shark tours in Tulum?

Yes, because there’s quite a lot of swimming involved, we recommend that all guests are confident swimmers. We want you to have an amazing time on your whale shark tour in Tulum, and if you’re not confident in the water, it’s best to sit this one out and watch from the boat. In saying that, if you’re not the best swimmer and still want to give it a try, your guides will help you as much as they can.

Even if you don’t get into the water, this is still a fantastic bucket-list-worthy experience, as you’ll still be able to see the whale sharks from the boat. As well as that, you’ll get the opportunity to explore a stunning beach on Isla Mujeres as part of your tour.

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

A whale shark swims through the water off the coast of Tulum, Mexico
Yes!

YES! Swimming with whale sharks in Tulum is 100% worth it!

Just imagine swimming next to these gigantic, gentle creatures (some of which can be up to 33 feet/10 meters long) in the deep blue waters of Tulum. You’ll see the world’s biggest fish up close, an experience only a few people get to do. You’ll even get to see the unique mosaic patterns on their backs from a short distance away. So cool! And just imagine the underwater photos you can take!

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.

Honestly, I could talk all day about how amazing our whale shark tour in Tulum was. But, to summarize, swimming with whale sharks is certainly an experience that will remain engrained in your mind forever! So if you’re wondering how to spend your time in Tulum and you love adventure, don’t hesitate to go swimming with whale sharks!

Related Read: Be sure to check out the best cenotes in Tulum or take a catamaran ride while you’re here too!

Where to Stay in Tulum

Che Tulum Hostel Pool
Che Tulum Hostel Pool

Tulum has become such a great vacation spot, and that is largely due to the great places to stay! With so much to do in Tulum, you’ll need a great accommodation to rest up and keep adventuring. There are plenty of options ranging from hip budget-friendly hostels, resort vibes, or anything in between. 

For budget travelers, my favorite hostel is Che Hostel. This hostel is just steps from downtown Tulum and has a tropical vibe with gardens surrounding the property. There are lots of events that happen here, including salsa dancing and pool parties! You can get a dorm room here for as low as $20 USD, which is truly a steal considering how nice this hostel really is! They also offer gorgeous private rooms. This can be booked on Hostelworld.com or Booking.com

A moderately-priced hotel, that is still very nice and family-friendly is Aruma Boutique Hotel! This hotel has a great location and is only a few minutes away from Tulum’s city center. Not only is it close to many shops and restaurants, but they also serve an exceptional breakfast, including espresso, and the staff is so friendly! There is a rooftop pool and bar, which makes a great place to relax after a day of exploring. You can expect to pay anywhere from $50-$100 a night depending on the time of year you are visiting. You can reserve this accommodation on Booking.com!

Finally, if you’re looking to make your vacation a luxurious trip, there are plenty of good options in Tulum! Hotel Boutique TerraNova is a top-rated boutique hotel that truly makes your stay like paradise. All the rooms are spacious and have a garden patio, and there is an outdoor pool as well! You can expect to pay at least $300 USD per night for a deluxe queen room. 

Another luxury option is Kan Tulum. This hotel is actually built around its own private cenote! These rooms have a unique jungle treehouse design, with gorgeous terraces to see the sunset. You are well located right next to beaches and nightlife. Rooms cost around $300-$400, but will certainly be a memorable experience!

Other Activities to do while in Tulum

View of the gaurd house at the Tulum Ruins with views of the coast
The Tulum Ruins!
  • Visit the Tulum Ruins. If you’re reading this blog, you’re likely interested in visiting Mayan ruins. The great part about staying in Tulum is that there are some incredible ruins right at your fingertips! This archeological site sits right on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean and was likely a large port town. The largest structure, El Castillo, was a lighthouse guiding those coming in on the shore. Accessing the Tulum ruins is a quick 5-minute drive from downtown Tulum and isn’t quite as crowded as Chichen Itza. You can also book a tour of the ruins for more insight with a local guide and a stress-free visit, as they take care of all the planning!
  • Rent a bike and explore the city – Renting a bike is a fun and convenient way to explore Tulum. You can see the murals, cute shops, hit a brewery, and even the beach in just a few hours! Renting a bike in Tulum is really simple and very affordable. My favorite bike rental shop is Ola Bike Tulum where you can get a bike for $11 a day! You can even do multi-day bike rentals without returning the bike, making it easy to have transportation the whole time you’re in Tulum. 
  • Visit Cozumel – Cozumel is a small island off the coast making it a great day trip from Tulum! Cozumel is well known for its white sand beaches and clear water. This is one of the best places in Mexico to go scuba diving and snorkeling. Cozumel has the second-largest coral reef in the world, only behind the Great Barrier Reef! There are also more Mayan ruins and villages all around Cozumel that you can explore. To get to Cozumel, you’ll need to catch the ferry from Playa del Carmen. The 45-minute ferry ride is about $20 USD. 
  • Food tour – While visiting Mexico, a food tour is a must. Not only do they have some of the best food in the world (in my personal opinion), but it is also a great way to experience the tradition and culture of the country! This walking food tour of Tulum will take you to all of the best restaurants and local spots in the city. You’ll experience traditional Mexican dishes, such as tacos, tamales, mole, and dessert! Not only will you get to taste some delicious food, but get to meet a local guide who will teach you all about Tulum!
  • Have a beach day – With all the adventuring and exploring you’ll likely be doing in Tulum, a lazy beach day is a perfect activity to relax! Many people come to Tulum for the amazing beaches, as they are some of the best beaches in Mexico. The closest beach to Tulum is Paradise Beach, and the name speaks for itself. You can rent lounge chairs here for $10 and enjoy the nearby restaurants. You can easily get to Paradise Beach by walking, biking, or a quick taxi ride. 

Renting a Car in Mexico

Bailey and Daniel take a selfie while driving around Mexico
A rental car means freedom to go to the beach whenever you want!

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 2023, 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. Read my honest review of Discover Cars here for more details!

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!

Daniel and Bailey take a selfie on a catamaran cruise to Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Thanks for reading!

I hope this blog post has answered all your questions about taking a whale shark tour in Tulum, and that now you’re ready to book that bucket-list-worthy tour! Honestly, you won’t regret it!

For more, check out our Mexico page. It has all our blogs about Mexico laid out to make planning your trip easy! Or maybe at a glance, you’ll find some of these related guides helpful too!

Is Mexico Safe? Safety Info about Traveling in Mexico

33 FUN Things to do in the Riviera Maya, Mexico

13 BEST Chichen Itza Tours from Cancun

21 BEST Day Trips from Playa del Carmen