Whale shark tourism has exploded over the past few years, but even though snorkeling with them is surreal, you should do your homework before booking a tour. Here are 10 things to consider before taking the plunge.
The name "whale shark" can be confusing because they’re not really whales. They’re a species of shark, which is classified as a fish. Whales are mammals, but whale sharks are the largest fish in the world.
These behemoths can grow up to 40 feet long, can weigh up to 20 tons and can live to over 100 years old. Though they are big, their brains are tiny. They aren't that curious about anything that doesn’t appear to be food, so you don’t really get the kind of intelligent human/animal connection with them that you might otherwise experience with dolphins or whales.
Probably the most common question asked about swimming with whale sharks is "Will they bite?" And the answer is no.
Unlike most species of sharks, they are filter feeders, not hunters. They do have teeth, but they are teeny tiny and not used for biting down on food. In fact, scientists are not really sure why they have those teeth – 3,000 of them exactly – at all.
As filter feeders, the whale shark's snack of choice is krill and plankton, and occasionally small fish that get scooped up into their gigantic mouths. Though their massive jaw span could easily encompass a human without any problem, if ever one got in, the body would be immediately ejected since the whale shark’s throat opening is only about the size of a golf ball.
But it's best to steer clear of their mouths anyway. After all, who wants whale shark slobber all over them?
Whale sharks are inherently solitary souls, only meeting up briefly to mate. They don’t travel in pods, so the only time you’ll experience them together in large numbers is when the underwater dinner bell sounds, to alert them that there are massive amounts of their favorite food.
The largest groups are found off Mexico near Cancun, Isla Mujeres, Isla Contoy, Isla Holbox and Cozumel in the summer when the krill is bountiful. The season starts in May and runs to September, but the largest groups are always found gathering in July and August.
Especially off the coast of Mexico, whale shark adventure tourism has exploded. With that economic boost to the region, there have been a lot of fly-by-night operators popping up that don’t follow the rules or offer safe adventures.
Stick with well-vetted operators that only take small groups and guarantee closely guided snorkels with the animals. Eight to ten passengers per boat is ideal, with one guide for every two swimmers in the water at a time. Don’t be lured by cheap specials; pay more for responsible tour operators like Cancun Adventures or Solo Buceo in Cancun. Do your homework.
You know how humans complain about that “fishy” smell? Well, whale sharks think we stink, too. The chemicals from the shampoo, perfume, deodorant and sunscreen we use make their eyes sting.
They are very sensitive to that, and will dive down deep to get away from you if you'e wearing scents. Eco-aware tour operators will ask you to kindly go au naturel and use eco-friendly sunscreen when doing the adventure. It’s a win-win for all concerned – the ocean will be cleaner and the whale sharks will hang around longer for underwater selfies.
Though whale sharks are dubbed “gentle giants” of the sea, there are rules you should observe to ensure a safe snorkel and also to show a healthy respect for their space. Their massive tails can swipe a person pretty hard, so your guide will have you jump in as close to the head as possible and ask you to swim fast to keep up.
The rule of thumb is to stay 3 feet away from the head and 10 feet from the tail. And never ever try to touch one! Life jackets are also a must, and flash photography underwater is forbidden.
In 2016, these creatures were classified as an officially endangered species by the IUCN Red List. In Asia, they are hunted legally and illegally for their meat and fins, and for use in medicinal products. Plus, they often get entrapped in fishing nets, and colliding with boats is also a big danger.
Thankfully, scientists are beginning to track them with satellite tags and non-profit groups like the Whale Shark Project in Los Cabos are seeking ways to better monitor and protect them.
Boycott any products using whale shark parts of any kind. Report tour operators who crowd or corral the whale sharks with with their boats and encourage tourists to mount them or hitch a ride by hanging onto their fins. Sign petitions that ban shark finning and support places that create shark sanctuaries.
Encourage responsible eco-tourism with whale sharks that promotes awareness. You can also virtually adopt a whale shark through organizations like the World Wildlife Federation and Wildbook. Proceeds go toward their preservation efforts.
Isla Mujeres has an annual Whale Shark Festival each summer to celebrate these colossal creatures, which attract thousands of visitors to the tiny island each year. It’s a fun, family-friendly five-day fest with lots of local cultural entertainment and exciting events revolving around whale sharks.
You’ll learn fascinating facts like how their neon constellation pattern markings are unique like a fingerprint, and that’s how marine biologists identify them when they are spotted and tracked. Part of the festival’s proceeds go to Amigos de Isla Contoy, a local non-profit educational foundation working to promote marine conservation and ecotourism there.
10Best is a part of the USA TODAY Network, providing an authentically local point of view on destinations around the world, in addition to travel and lifestyle advice.