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Return of the gentle giants, whale shark season in the Mexican Caribbean

If you are traveling to Cancun or Riviera Maya soon and love the underwater world, how about your own once-in-a-lifetime encounter with nature, an unforgettable swim with the whale sharks. You’ll have seen these gentle giants in wildlife documentaries but this is your chance to come face to face with one. They start to gather in area waters in mid-May to feed on plankton and from the beginning of June to mid-September, whale shark tours are available.

Whale sharks, one of the ocean’s great wanderers

The world’s largest fish, whale sharks are great ocean wanderers, traveling thousands of miles through the tropics in search of the microscopic plankton that is their staple diet. From mid-May to mid-September, they gather in the Mexican Caribbean where higher temperatures mean an abundance of plankton. Hundreds of whale sharks feast on plankton in the waters off the islands of Holbox, Contoy and Isla Mujeres. Indeed, biologists believe that this is the largest whale shark gathering or aggregation in the world and that it isn’t only plankton that attracts them, but also fish roe. It is the spawning season of a fish called the bonito (little tunny) and researchers have discovered that the whale sharks are partial to the eggs.

There are actually two whale shark feeding grounds: the area between the island of Holbox and Cabo Catoche and agua azul or “blue water,” the deeper waters to the east of Contoy and Isla Mujeres, a two-and-a-half-hour boat ride from Cancun. Due to the importance of this area for whale sharks and other marine species such as sailfish, marlin, manta rays, dolphins and sea turtles, the Mexican government declared part of the zone a marine biosphere reserve.

Imagine snorkeling alongside a whale shark and watching as a creature the size of a bus looms out of the depths, approaches you and then swims placidly by, its gaping jaws open to scoop up the plankton. With a final flick of the tail it disappears into the distance, leaving you with an incredible sensation of happiness and peace. It is an awe-inspiring sight and an emotional experience, one that wildlife watchers won’t want to miss.

The domino fish

Local fishermen also call whale sharks “domino” or “pez domino” a reference to their distinctive stripes and dappled skin. Each fish has unique markings and taking photos of them is helping whale shark experts around the world to compile a catalog. Through the use of this international database for identification purposes and by tagging sharks they can now begin to map the movements of these enigmatic creatures during the year.

Guided small group eco trips to see the whale sharks are available from Cancun, Isla Mujeres and Holbox starting in June. During the boat trip out to the whale shark feeding grounds, your guide will explain the whale shark rules.

Whale shark trip rules

  • Keep your distance (five meters) from the whale sharks
  • Do not attempt to touch whale sharks
  • Swim alongside whale sharks, do not swim in front of them
  • Only two people per boat plus a guide are allowed in the water at one time
  • The use of sun products and flash photography are not permitted


On the journey out to the whale shark area, you may spot wild dolphins and sea turtles. Huge manta rays also gather to eat plankton and sometimes breach the water surface in spectacular flight.

Whale shark trips from Holbox

Another option for an unforgettable whale shark adventure is to plan an overnight trip to Holbox, the beautiful island on the north coast of Quintana Roo. Here, even the wooden signs and colorful murals lining the sandy streets show the whale shark. Go in search of whale sharks early in the morning and then enjoy lunch at one of the thatched restaurants on the waterfront. In the afternoon take another boat trip to explore the Yalahau Lagoon, Isla de los Pajaros (Bird Island) and the Yalahau Cenote and you’ll still have time for the beach and to discover the laidback ambiance of the island.

Book your Whale Shark Trip with Thomas More Travel

Call in at the tour desk during your summer vacation to book the whale shark trip.

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