Swimming With Whale Sharks In Mexico (They’re HUGE!)

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Whale Sharks in Mexico

Swimming with Whale Sharks in Mexico

Isla Holbox, Mexico

Swimming with whale sharks is an underwater adventure I’ve wanted to try for years. I finally took the plunge, and swam alongside these gentle giants in Mexico!

I’ve swam with regular sharks before — the kind that occasionally dine on humans. But swimming with whale sharks is a totally different experience.

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, growing up to 40 feet long and weighing up to 20,000 pounds. However you don’t have to worry about them eating you with their very tiny teeth.

Which is why you should try swimming with them in Mexico!

Isla Holbox Boat Trip

Sailing Around Isla Holbox

Whale Shark Snorkeling

Anna Snorkeling with a Whale Shark

Whale Sharks Won’t Eat You

Whale sharks are filter-feeders, sucking up microscopic plankton and baby fish with their giant mouths. This makes them similar to whales, although technically they are from the shark family.

They can’t eat humans — which is why swimming with them has become so popular in places like Mexico, the Philippines, and South Africa.

Whale sharks can live up to 70 years old. They move slow enough that we can keep up with them underwater, but barely. You have to swim really fast with fins to stay beside one.

The only real danger is swimming under one. After feeding they sometimes descend without warning… imagine being trapped under a sinking dump truck!

Whale Shark Boats

Tour Boats Waiting for Snorkeling

Sailing The Gulf Of Mexico

My girlfriend Anna (AnnaEverywhere.com) and I booked our whale shark tour with Willy’s Tours in Isla Holbox.

Setting off from the dock at 8am, we sped over the Gulf of Mexico for the next 2 hours. Stopping briefly for photos of a pod of playful dolphins!

The boat was covered, which was nice, because that tropical Mexican sun is hot! Eventually we saw other boats gathering in the distance… this was a good sign.

Whale Shark Tours

Swimming with Whale Sharks

Waiting Our Turn

Unfortunately there was only one whale shark that day. But that’s still better than none, which sometimes happens early or late in the season. So a group of 6 boats took turns sending customers into the water.

We sat on the edge with our snorkel gear on, waiting for the signal to jump in. Once you’re in the water, the goal is to kick hard and fast to keep up with the shark. Because if you hesitate, you might miss it.

They swim effortlessly, but are much faster than they look.

You aren’t allowed to touch the whale sharks because it stresses them out, and may cause them to dive deep, ending the experience for everyone. Only 2 people go into the water at a time, along with your guide.

Whale Sharks Underwater

Huge 30 Foot Whale Shark

Swimming With Whale Sharks

Swimming next to a 30 foot long sea creature, the size of a small bus, was a wild experience. It’s a bit intimidating to be honest… they’re huge! It looks like they could swallow you whole…

But the world’s largest fish won’t try to eat you.

It’s just slurping up tasty plankton and expelling excess seawater through its gills. The white-spotted shark kept her eye on us, but didn’t seem to mind our presence.

Normally whale sharks live much deeper in the ocean — only coming up to eat about 46 pounds of those microscopic organisms each day.

How an animal this big can live on something so small is a mystery to me…

Flamingos at Isla Holbox

A Flamboyance of Flamingos!

Sea Turtle Swimming

Snorkeling with Sea Turtles

Flamingos & Sea Turtles Too!

After swimming with the whale shark 3 times, for a few minutes each, it was time to leave it alone and motor off to the next part of the trip.

Our guide prepared fresh ceviche as we sped back to Holbox, on our way to a reef. There we snorkeled for about 30 minutes with sea turtles, manta rays, and a bunch of fish. Including a few barracudas!

We then sailed into a protected bird sanctuary to watch flamingos and other sea birds hanging out in the shallow water, before heading back to the dock.

Snorkeling with Whale Sharks

Great Day on the Water!

Sustainable Tourism

Is swimming with whale sharks ethical? Personally, I believe responsible and sustainable tourism can help these animals survive.

Sharks of all kinds are being wiped out by overfishing. But conservation & awareness projects to save them are often funded by tour permit fees. Without tours, these programs don’t get much funding.

Yet we also need to be careful, and not wreck the animal’s habitat due to unchecked tourism either. There’s no easy answer.

When To Visit

Whale Shark season on the Yucatan Peninsula is from June to September. This is when the sharks migrate to waters around Cancun, Isla Mujeres, Isla Contoy, and Isla Holbox to feed.

But the best months are July & August, when populations are highest.

Sunny days are better than cloudy days too, but not just because you’ll get better photos. The plankton whale sharks feed on only comes up to the surface when the sun is out, so if it’s cloudy, they stay below.

Holbox Dock

Boat Dock in Isla Holbox

Holbox Beach

White Sand Beaches in Holbox

Getting To Holbox

Most tourists base themselves in Cancun. If you want to book a whale shark tour from Cancun, click here. However, if you have the time, I recommend visiting the beautiful sleepy island of Isla Holbox. Voted a top travel destination by the New York Times.

To get to Holbox, you take a ferry from the fishing town of Chiquila, which is a 2 hour drive from Cancun (3 hours from Playa del Carmen). A bus is also possible, but takes a lot longer with all the stops. Hiring a taxi/shuttle can cost $60 – $100+ USD.

Best Places To Stay

I based myself from Mexico’s Isla Holbox to swim with the whale sharks, and had a wonderful trip. If you’re wondering where to stay on Holbox here are my recommendations:

Isla Holbox Budget Hotel
Los Arcos
Fun little budget hotel for people trying to save some money. Great location, simple clean rooms, basic but gets the job done.

Check Prices / Read Reviews

Isla Holbox Hotel
Cielito Lindo
This is where we stayed. Small hotel only a short walk away from the beach and downtown Holbox. Excellent value for the price.

Check Prices / Read Reviews

I also enjoy using AirBnB from time to time. Make sure to read my article about how to find cheap hotels too.

Swimming with whale sharks in Mexico was a pretty unique experience, as there are only a few places in the world where you can do this.

Witnessing these gentle giants up close really helps you appreciate how small humans are, and how diverse the ocean truly is. ★

Traveling To Mexico Soon?

Don’t forget travel insurance! I’m a big fan of World Nomads for short-term trips. Protect yourself from possible injury & theft abroad. Read more about why you should always carry travel insurance here.

Watch Video: Swimming With Whale Sharks

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Location: Isla Holbox, Mexico
Total Cost: $1100 Pesos ($70 USD)
Official Website: Willy’s Tours Holbox
Tours From Cancun: All Mexico 365
Book A Flight: Learn how I find the cheapest airline flights
Rent A Car: RentalCars.com is a great site for comparing car prices
Find A Hotel: My tips for booking affordable accommodation
Protect Your Stuff: WorldNomads.com can insure your trip & gear
Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Yucatan
Suggested Reading: The Maya: Ancient Peoples & Places

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Swimming with Whale Sharks in Isla Holbox, Mexico. More at ExpertVagabond.com
Swimming with Whale Sharks in Isla Holbox, Mexico. More at ExpertVagabond.com

Have any questions about swimming with whale sharks in Mexico? Would you do it? Drop me a message in the comments below!

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase an item, I will receive an affiliate commission, at no extra cost to you. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.

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  1. Thanks Matthew, great post! I did this in the Philippines and loved it! I posted about the experience on http://www.visit50.com.

    I had heard it was possible in Mexico so I found your post. I just booked a trip to Cozumel/Tulum for Christmas week and was looking this up. I assume this just isn’t possible in this season right?

  2. Nice post! We were in Mexico for the month of March all around the Yucatan and had thought about Isla Holbox, but in the end, didn’t make it. Would love to swim with whale sharks. Went scuba diving in Puerto Morelos, saw lots of fish, but no whale sharks. Your flamingo shot reminded me of the hundreds (thousands?) of flamingos we saw in Celestun. We’ll be back…. next time!

  3. Thanks for your post. I so much want to see a whale shark at some point in my life. I tried to see them in the Philippines (Donsol), but it was late in the season, and we didn’t see any. You mentioned about the touching stressing them. I’ve also read that they are vulnerable to infection from the bacteria from us. And I’ve heard that in places like Oslob (in the Philippines) they will let people touch them, so please don’t go to Oslob for this :). They also feed them in Oslob, which I’ve read affects migration and had caused problems for them because of their skin knocking against the boats when they come up to them to get fed. Anyone planning to see whale sharks anywhere, please do your research and go with a responsible company that will respect the whale sharks and their wildness :).

    1. Only 2 people allowed to swim with the whale sharks at a time?!
      I see 8 people in the photo and yes, the swimmers resemble orcas surrounding their meal for the day.

      If I were a whale shark, being surrounded by bug-eyed goonbahs would stress me out as well…stick to the program people and don’t surround them for gawd sakes!

  4. Awesome.. I was lucky enough to experience swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines and it was one the best experiences of my entire life. You know.. when they swim straight towards you and it looks like they are gonna eat you!! haha it’s a pretty huge mouth! :) Thanks for the post

  5. Nice! We would love to swim with whale sharks too one day, they look so awesome, and huge indeed. ;) When we were in Koh Tao in 2015 to learn how to scuba dive, there were some whale shark sightings, but we weren’t with the lucky spotters unfortunately. Mexico just jumped up a few places in our bucket list though. :D

  6. This is definitely something I would like to do the next time I travel to Mexico! It looks like a lot of fun swimming with whale sharks. Also love that they don’t eat us!