Swim with the Whale Sharks: How to Choose the Best Tour Operator

I have been receiving a lot of emails from customers lately, who have signed up to swim with the whale sharks on their next trip to Isla Mujeres or the Riviera Maya. They are concerned about their trip, as there has been a great deal of misinformation being spread on social media about the industry. Certain individuals are claiming to be the only operators that care for the whale sharks as a marketing strategy to sell more trips. The truth is, however, that almost all locally owned and operated whale shark tour providers operate ethically, with few exceptions. This is our livelihood and our passion and we, more than anyone else, want to maintain a sustainable industry that we can pass onto future generations.

It is also being said that there are little to no whale sharks early in the season and that tour operators are scamming customers, which is also a lie. I would actually say that even though all whale shark seasons start with fewer groups of whale sharks, that there have been more whale sharks at the beginning of this season than of the last two years. There have actually been multiple Manta Rays and Dolphins already out on quite a few of the days that we have taken groups out at Isla Spirit Adventures.

By far the most important thing to ask when speaking with tour operators is whether they are locally owned and operate their own boat. Major agencies and salesmen may sell the majority of whale sharks tours to customers and have the majority of the reviews on TripAdvisor, but they have to hire local boat operators. They do not have boats with permits to go out, as the permits for whale sharks were only ever distributed to local peoples.

Whale Shark excursions carry a hefty price tag for many visitors, so it is important to do your research when choosing a company to assure that you have the best experience possible. To help you in your research, I have compiled a guide of the four main things to consider when booking your next whale shark tour.

#1 Sustainability

When speaking about the sustainability of the whale shark tourism industry, you almost only ever hear people talk about the conservation of the whale sharks themselves. Although ecological conservation is of the utmost importance, which is why most responsible companies discourage their guests from using toxic sunscreens and encourage them to bring their own refillable water bottles, the decrease in whale shark populations has less to do with tourism in Isla Mujeres and more to do with increasing global temperatures and the unethical fishing practices in other parts of the globe where these creatures migrate.

True sustainability requires not only the preservation of our natural resources and wildlife, but also the preservation of the quality of human life. When the whale shark tourism permits were originally issued, the main goal was to create an industry that local fisherman could participate in and make a dignified living to support their families with. These are mostly families that are native to the island and to the region, and the economic benefits of this natural wonder and the privilege to be able to witness it should always belong to them first. When booking through a major agency instead of booking local, you are not only participating in a business practice that is robbing the local people of their cultural patrimony and livelihood, but you are also robbing yourself of the opportunity to hear captains like Don Pancho Coba from Aaron Tours recall when “there were so many whale sharks in these waters that it was almost impossible to navigate through them, you could literally walk over them from one boat to the next if you wanted to,” or Captain Tony Garcia share with you the history of his life growing up as the son of the lighthouse operator in Isla Contoy that remembers when “local fishermen were actually scared of the whale sharks, and it wasn’t until a tourist from Italy came to Holbox and jumped in to swim with them that the locals realized that this was a safe activity to do with visitors.” This dialog in many ways is more valuable to having an authentic cultural experience than swimming with the whale shark itself.

Don Pancho Coba from Aaron Tours & Kristen Tywan from Isla Spirit Adventures

# 2: Skip the Middleman

When whale shark permits were first issued in 2003, they were given only to local captains and boat owners in Isla Mujeres and Holbox. In fact, only six were originally issued in Cancun and they cannot be transferred between operators, they can only ever belong to the original permit holder. This guaranteed the protection of the whale shark migration area by limiting tourism vessels. It also ensured that the benefits remain within the local economy of the fishermen. After all, for them, it was a sacrifice and a risk to swap out commercial fishing to run these tours.

Booking a trip to visit the whale sharks from an agency that is not locally owned or doesn’t operate their own boats is what many visitors do without knowing it. In these circumstances, the operator pays the boat owner as low as 25-50% of the fee you pay. The boat owner also has responsibility for all of the expenses of the boat like gas, salaries, food and entrance fees. The provider you paid keeps 50-75% of your fee and does little of the work.

As most whale shark permit holders were once commercial fishermen, they are very talented seamen. Their experience means they know the waters around Isla Mujeres and Isla Contoy better than anyone else on the planet. However, most of them do not have a formal education in foreign languages, marketing, or web development. They are dependent on the larger agencies for sales because of this but lose out financially to them.

How does this affect customers? Simply put, you get what you pay for. Even though you may be paying full market value for your tour, the operator is only receiving a small percentage of it, and this in turn is what you will be receiving.

  • Lack of funds from large agents means less money invested in the boat and it could be unsafe.
  • With less funds from large agents, the boat owner cannot invest as much in gas and time to go further to find whale sharks when they travel a long way offshore or are just arriving at the beginning of the season (May & June). By booking direct, the boat owner has more resources to find the whale shark locations for you and you will rarely miss out on the opportunity to see them and swim with them.
  • Overcrowding the animals can happen early in the season. Tour operators are on strict schedules and can crowd and disrupt the animals. Local operators can choose to relax the schedule or go earlier, to make a great experience for you and the animals. Remember by law all boats must leave the whale shark area  by 2pm to allow them to feed undisturbed.
  • Isla Mujeres has many wonderful bilingual captains, first mates, and guides that are certified in areas like first aid and scuba. With low pay from large agents, captains cannot afford to employ a great team. The agency sends their own, lower paid, English-speaking guides, but none are local, and few have knowledge of marine biology and the surrounding waters.

Here is a list of some locally owned, operated, and ethically run whale shark providers that actually own their own boats and hold whale shark permits:

Go direct to them to book for the best experience possible!

#3 Know the Rules

There are several rules around whale sharks. For example, if there are less than five whale sharks in the area, only viewing of the whale sharks is allowed. When swimming with the whale sharks, only one boat (2 guests and a guide) can swim with one whale shark at a time. These rules have always been in place and have not changed this year like some media reports that are being shared on social media claim.  

The rules were established to protect the animals that are feeding in their natural habitat. Remember that whale sharks are an endangered species on a global level. Their population has decreased more than 50% in the past 75 years. We want you to have an incredible experience, but above all else it’s our priority is to protect the animals and local marine ecosystems.

These are the rules that are established by CONANP and other government agencies for all whale shark activities:

  • Life Jacket Required
  • Tour Guide Required
  • Only One Boat per Whale Shark
  • Enter the Water Slowly – Do Not Splash
  • 5 Meter Distance Between Swimmer and Whale Shark
  • 100 Meter Distance Between Boats
  • 10 Meter Distance Between Boat and Whale Shark
  • When There are Less than Five Whale Sharks, Only Viewing Allowed
  • Don’t Wear Sunscreen, Lotions or Oils
  • Don’t Touch the Whale Sharks
  • No Drones
  • No Scuba Diving
  • No Freediving
  • Don’t Jump into the Water
  • Don’t use any Lights or Flash
  • No More than Two People and a Guide per Whale Shark
  • No Fishing
  • Don’t Litter
  • Don’t Remove Anything from the Sea
  • Don’t Touch, Kick or Step on the Corals
  • Don’t Feed the Fish
  • No Selfie Sticks

#4 Know When to Go

Whale sharks, the largest fish in the sea, migrate around the globe to different feeding sites following warmer waters season to season. The official whale shark season for tourism in Quintana Roo, Mexico is from May 15th until September 15th every year. There are certain months though when the whale shark populations are higher and therefore easier to spot.

July and August, and even into the beginning of September are historically the best months to view whale sharks. There might be 30-50 whale sharks in one area on any given day. The beginning of the season, May and June, the populations have been the lowest, as the whale sharks are just starting to arrive. There are many elements that responsible local providers will use to calculate the probability of seeing the whale sharks, and the conditions for swimming with them, such as weather & ocean conditions, moon phase, and currents, will book you on the best day possible, and even change your trip if they feel like the conditions aren’t optimal for whale shark activities. However, when booking with a local company that can afford to go the distance, you are always likely to spot at least a few whale sharks on your trip no matter what the weather is like or what phase of the moon it is.

Some locally owned companies, like Isla Spirit Adventures, offer an add-on insurance. This allows you to go out again for free if you do not see any whale sharks on your tour. Other companies, like Aaron Tours, offer a discount for another booking if you do not see any on your first attempt. Any company that guarantees you that you will see whale sharks during May and June should be a big red flag. Remember that these are wild animals in their natural habitat. There is absolutely no guarantee that you will find them on any day of the season. If you must travel to Isla Mujeres to visit the whale sharks during the earlier months of the season, it is best to choose a company that will offer you a realistic back up plan.

Visiting the whale sharks is likely to be one of the most captivating experiences of your life. Do it best by going local. Support small businesses and give yourself an experience that you will truly enjoy and can feel good about.

If you have any further questions or concerns, please email me direct- kris@islaspiritadventures.com I am always happy to help.

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