June may be the start of summer in the U.S., but in Mexico—where the warm weather can run year-round—June has another meaning. It’s the start of the whale shark season in the Yucatán Peninsula.
And this year’s season has kicked off in style: A pod of 420 whale sharks, the largest pod ever recorded, has been sighted off the Yucatán coast. A second, smaller pod is also nearby.
The sightings, reported by scientists from the Smithsonian Institution, bode well for the season…and for business. Boat excursions to see and swim with whale sharks have become a money-maker along the Riviera Maya, on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. This area is one of the few places on earth where whale sharks are known to reliably gather each year.
So why would anyone in his right mind want to swim with a shark? Well, whale sharks are special. And as someone who has done it, I can tell you that it’s exhilarating.
Whale sharks are the largest fish on earth. They can reach up to 60 feet in length and have mouths wider than a double doorway. Fortunately, they’re also pretty harmless. They eat plankton, fish eggs, and other small sea organisms (the biggest danger they present you is getting walloped by their giant tails).
They’re also pretty mysterious… Scientists know very little about their migration patterns—except that every summer they tend to linger from June to about September at the Yucatán Peninsula’s northern tip, right where the Gulf waters meet the Caribbean. Holbox Island, which lies right at this tip, is one of the best places to take a whale shark excursion.
Most excursions start early in the morning and last a half-day. They usually include a lunch or snack, plus beverages. You may have to motor an hour or more out to sea to where the whale sharks are swimming…and there is no guarantee that you’ll see any.
Individual swims with whale sharks tend to be short—the sharks leisurely swim away, largely ignoring you—though the minute or two that you’re in the water with them may seem eternal. Only a few people at a time are allowed in the water (on my swim we went in pairs), and a guide may swim with you.
Regulations are strict about minimizing human contact with the whale sharks: You are not supposed to touch or to molest them in any way. (Which actually is just as well…the sharks’ rough hide can scrape your skin raw if you accidently brush against them.)
If that happens, though, you probably won’t notice until much later. The adrenaline rush you’ll ride from sharing the sea with these huge creatures may last you halfway back to shore.
Half-day excursions to swim with whale sharks start at about $120, though big tour operators may charge much more.
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