Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the world and can get the size of a 40-seater bus. To enter the clear blue waters with them is an impressive and adrenalizing experience. The experience is unforgettable but unfortunately comes with some downsides as well.
Every year between the months of May and September the same ritual is happening in front of the mainland of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, whale sharks enter the area to feed. The amount of whale sharks in the waters can be around 50 to around 300 specimens. So this attracts many tourists to this place that are all anxious to snorkel or dive with these huge fishes.
Why the whale sharks are there?
In these months the streams of the water brings the main food source of this animal in big amounts to this area. The main food source are plankton. When entering the water you will see that the water is a bit unclear and filled with millions of small tiny things. This is what the whale shark filters out of the water with its extremely wide mouth. The whale shark is one of the 3 species of sharks that are filter feeders, the name given because to the way these fishes feed. The other one are the basking shark and the unknown megamouth shark.
What is plankton?
Plankton is simply said a big bunch of different species of tiny organisms that live in the water and can't swim against the current of the waters. So the mostly are floating with the currents of the waters. They are the main food source for many species of fish, of which the whale shark is one, and whales. They are at the bottom of the food chain within the waters. Plankton isn't like mentioned before one single species of animal but just a collection of all kind of small organisms like bacteria, krill, algae, protozoa (single celled organisms) and also fish eggs. In front of the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula for example thousands of tuna spawns their eggs. A single adult female can spawn around 6 million 0.04 mm sized eggs that will float with the stream. Also these eggs are considered plankton. Because of the strict diet of plankton the whale shark is totally harmless for human beings.
So how big does this animal get?
The name whale shark is given to the animal for 2 reasons. One reason is simply because it is a filter feeder like some whales. The second one is for the fact that this shark has the size of some whales. The average size is around 9,7 meters or 32 feet. The maximum length is around 14 meters. Reports of sizes of 18 meters are being told but until now never confirmed by scientists. The biggest specimen ever caught was just over 12,5 meters or 41 feet. Weights of over 20.000 kg or 46.000 lb are recorded. A 40 seater bus has a length of 12 meters and a weight of around 10.000 kg or 23.000 lb (just to compare).
Where does it live?
In the oceans and seas that are tropical or subtropical. It specially is found offshore but will occasionally show up more close to shore. It also can be found at mouths of rivers and it sometimes even will enter lagoons. The fish prefers to be close to the surface but can dive to depths of 1200 meters of 4200 feet.
How old does it get?
A whale shark is a fish that have a long life span. Still the exact life span is unknown but it is estimated between 70 to over 100 years old. Maturity of these animals are reached just at the age of 30 years old. The females don't release eggs into the water but the eggs hatch inside the females body after which she gives life birth. This is called ovoviviparous.
Swimming with whale sharks isn't dangerous?
Not as long as you stick strictly to the rules. You have to keep your distance to this animal, not try to touch them. It is a shark, hack... it is a huge shark. But it doesn't have shark teeth and as mentioned before you aren't on its menu, it only eats plankton. Just follow the rules.
How does this tour go?
Well in the tours leave from Cancun and Isla de Mujeres. But when staying in Playa del Carmen which is 1 hour south of Cancun or Cozumal you can also book this tour. When the boat leaves the harbor you will be on the boat for a while because it will go to open sea. How long you will be on the boat isn't predictable. That is just depending on the place where the groups of whale sharks are. The boats tends to go to the same location from where the fishes where seen the day before. From there the boats go out searching for them. All captains are using radios and inform the other boats when the whale sharks will be found. So there is an almost 100% chance of seeing them.
Then when arriving at the spot you will get a life jacket which is obligatory. Unless you use a wet-suit. I can't really find the logic in this but anyway. Then you put on your mask and flippers and you will follow the guide. You have to stay with the guide and there are 2 people per 5 minutes that can enter the water with the guide. But well... that are the rules. When i visited just everybody could enter the water at the same time. And in total we were in the water for about 45 minutes while enjoying the whale sharks passing by us.
When we entered the water it wasn't only the whale sharks that showed up. Huge manta rays as well were passing underneath and gliding peacefully through the water. How many manta rays and whale shark i eventually saw i can't tell. These animals pass by, come back. But there were moments i could see 5 at the same time.
Then after about 45 minutes till an hour you have to leave the water and then you go back to mainland.
Are there always this many whale sharks?
No. In the beginning of the season that starts around the 15th of May and at the end of the season that ends around the 15th of September there are just 1 or 2 to be seen. And sometimes the water is filled with 50 boats full of tourists that want to see this animals and swim with them. So at the beginning and the end of the season it isn't really the right moment to do so. Just inform at some tour companies and ask for information. It is a lot of money for a tour so be well informed.
What do i pay for this tour?
That's a bit depending on the location where you are staying. The Whale Shark epicenter is towards the east, north-east or north of Isla de Mujeres. When staying in Playa del Carmen you are a bit far from this place and you will have to leave early and have to pay extra for transport. So tours here will be around 180$. From Cancun it will be around 160$ and Isla de Mujeres 140$. Prices per person. Try to negotiate it sure is worth it because we are talking U.S. Dollars here not Mexican Pesos.
Can you photograph them?
If you have the right equipment, absolutely. I am a photographer. I love photography. But i don't have the right equipment to do photography underneath water. Unfortunately i don't have the money either to buy it. Most people now-a-days will use the go-pro cameras but i just want more. So for this blog i just bought some pics at fotolia, what i normally won't do. I prefer using my own pics. Though if you have the right equipment you definitely can photograph or film them. The water was a bit unclear though because of the plankton, but hey, without the plankton they wouldn't be there. More than ones the whale sharks passed by me at a distance of just a meter and i actually had to swim away to be not too close.
It is called eco tour, but is it really eco?
No. Everything that includes animals and interference of humans honestly can't be called eco or eco friendly. The whale-sharks are surrounded by around 50 boats that makes noise, leak oil, brings sunblock soaked tourists that if the guide doesn't look secretly try to touch the whale shark anyway. This is a downside and yes, i am guilty, i also did this tour. No i didn't try to touch it and yes i got a sunburn of not using sunblock.
The thing is. When visiting the whale sharks they do get a kind of protection. The protection is the money all the agencies in Mexico will get for bringing tourists to them. So these wonderful creatures won't be caught in this area for the meat. No whale sharks no money.
The whale shark doesn't really seem to bother the tourists being there and just go on with foraging. And if they want they can just swim away. Though indirect the fish still can get sick from the leaking motor oil and sunblock (which actually is prohibited to use during the tour). A long term study only can reveal the true effects on this mass whale shark tourism.
The area the whale sharks can be found isn't actually within a National park or other kind of protected area. So there isn't really a good regulation system for protecting this animals. I just can hope that the government of Mexico will do something soon to regulate this better.
Furthermore i hope that all tourists visiting this place will respect the rules and respect the animals by not secretly trying to touch them, because even in the water we also can spread kinds of germs to them that can be harmful. Don't use the sunblock and just use shorts and a t-shirt to avoid burning. The suntan on your body doesn't has priority over the animal welfare.
Mexico isn't the only place where you can snorkel or dive with whale sharks. But if you want to do so, please investigate first if it is responsible to do so. It also is offered in Oslob in the Philippines for example and the way it happens over there is the best example how it not should be done. For more information about this read this article;
5 reasons not to swim with whale sharks in Oslob.
Whale sharks in captivity
Around the world there are some aquariums that have this animals in captivity. In Japan you can find it at the aquarium of Osaka and the one in Okinawa. Also a Aquarium in Taiwan has one species. In China is an aquarium that has 5 species and in the U.S. you can find some in the aquarium of Georgia. Also Mexico city has an aquarium with a few species. Despite its size they are kept at the aquarium.
Although the size of this fish is large there is no real idea about how much animals live in the wild. The IUCN stated this animal as endangered in 2016. Before this period it was considered vulnerable. The late maturity of this animal makes it difficult for repopulating at high pace. Also the environmental pollution and accidents with boats plays part of declining populations. In some countries these animals still are hunted for their meat. In some Asian countries they call this shark the tofu shark for its tofu like taste.
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