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

If you are traveling to Cancun or the Riviera Maya this summer and love the underwater world, how about an incredible once-in-a-lifetime encounter with nature, a swim with a whale shark? You’ll have seen these gentle giants on TV in BBC and National Geographic programs but have you ever imagined coming face to face with one? The whale sharks start arriving in the Mexican Caribbean around the middle of May and from June to mid-September you have the opportunity to swim with the world’s largest fish.

Face to face with one of the great ocean wanderers
Whale sharks are great ocean wanderers, traveling thousands of miles through the tropics in search of the microscopic plankton that is their staple diet. In the summer 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. Biologists believe that this is the largest whale shark aggregation in the world and have discovered that it isn’t only plankton that attracts them but also fish roe. It is the spawning season of the little tunny fish and the whale sharks are partial to the eggs.

There are actually two whale shark feeding grounds in the Mexican Caribbean: the area between Holbox and Cabo Catoche and a stretch of deeper water to the east of Contoy and Isla Mujeres. 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 approaches you and swims placidly by, its gaping jaws open to scoop up the plankton. With a final flick of the tail it disappears into the depths. It is an awe-inspiring sight and an emotional experience, one that wildlife watchers shouldn’t miss.

Spots and stripes, the domino fish
Whale sharks are also known as “domino fish” due to their distinctive stripes and dappled markings. Each fish has its own unique pattern and whale shark scientists around the world are compiling a photo catalog of them. 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 and learn where they go as they visit different feeding grounds during the year.

Guided small group eco trips to see the whale sharks are available from Cancun and Isla Mujeres. During the boat trip out to the whale shark feeding grounds your guide will explain the whale shark rules, which include keeping your distance (five meters), not attempting to touch the creature and swimming alongside it instead of in front. Only two people per boat are allowed in the water at one time and are accompanied by the guide. 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 the plankton and sometimes breach the water surface in spectacular flight.

Another whale shark watching option is to plan an overnight trip to Holbox, the island on the north coast of Quintana Roo where even the wooden signs lining the sandy streets of the village show the famous pez domino as the whale shark is affectionately called by local fishermen. You can go in search of whale sharks in the morning, explore the Yalahau Lagoon and Isla de los Pajaros (Bird Island) in the afternoon and still have time for the beach and to discover the rustic laidback ambiance of the community.

Book your summer whale shark trip
Whale shark watching trips are available through Thomas More Travel. Book online at www.thomasmoretravel.com or at the tour desk during your stay.

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