Isla Mujeres Whale Shark Season

By Michele Samal Kinnon

Isla Mujeres Whale Shark Season: Gateway to an Unforgettable Underwater Adventure

Swimming with whale sharks is one of the most unforgettable experiences you can have in Mexico and maybe the whole world. The best place to experience this life-changing encounter (in our admittedly biased opinion) is in the Mexican Caribbean Sea during the Isla Mujeres whale shark season. This is definitely one of the best times to visit Isla Mujeres.

Isla Mujeres is located just a few kilometers off the coast of Mexico. It is easily accessed by ferry from Puerto Juarez and several embarkation points in the Cancun Hotel Zone. This picturesque island is not only known for its pristine beaches and vibrant coral reefs but also for hosting one of nature’s most awe-inspiring spectacles – the migration of whale sharks. 

Ultrmar ferry arriving at the docks. A great way to have a day trip to isla mujeres.

Planning your trip to Mexico around the Isla Mujeres whale shark season will give you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to swim alongside these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.

Read more about Getting to Isla Mujeres

Why Swim with Whale Sharks in Isla Mujeres

Whale sharks  (Rhincodon typus), the largest fish in the sea, migrate to Isla Mujeres every year primarily due to the abundance of food in the surrounding waters. The warm, nutrient-rich waters around Isla Mujeres and off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula create an ideal environment for plankton and small fish to thrive, the primary food sources for whale sharks.

 During the Isla Mujeres whale shark season, there is an upwelling of deeper, nutrient-rich waters which contributes to a significant increase in plankton levels, attracting whale sharks to the area to feed.

A whale shark reaching the surface of the ocean, surrounded by smaller fish.

This annual migration provides a unique opportunity for brave individuals to swim alongside these gentle giants and observe them in their natural habitat. Some of those brave individuals include myself and my children. It does not go unappreciated by me that because we live just an hour south of Cancun, these majestic giants are practically visiting our backyard. Their annual comings and goings are integrated into our travel plans and activities. We jump at the chance to show them off to visiting friends and family.

There are only a few places on Earth where whale sharks gather in great numbers. One of these privileged locations is Isla Mujeres. Fortunately, the Mexican government’s conservation is highly invested in the sustainability of whale shark tourism. The only way to swim with the whale sharks is with one of the officially licensed operators that have permits to conduct tours from Cancun and Isla Mujeres. The number of boats, the number of swimmers and the length of time that visitors can interact with the whale sharks is strictly regulated to protect the animals. 

A man swimming in the ocean with a whale shark just below him.

The government´s efforts and regulations promote a safe and sustainable relationship between humans and whale sharks. This helps to ensure that the whale sharks will return year after year as well as the tourism dollars that come with them.

When to Swim with Whale Sharks in Isla Mujeres

The best time to swim with whale sharks in Isla Mujeres is during the official season, which runs from mid-May to mid-September. The best months to swim with these amazing creatures are generally considered to be June, July and August. 

The presence of large concentrations of plankton and fish eggs in the warm waters during the summer months attracts these filter feeders, making it the best time to hop on a small boat and venture into the open water for an up-close encounter. These are considered the peak months for this natural encounter and therefore are the busiest. 

Michele catherine and cole out on a whale shark tour from isla mujeres

The Best Time to Visit Isla Mujeres – Read More Here

During the Isla Mujeres whale shark season, the weather conditions are favorable, and the sea conditions are calm, offering clear turquoise water that enhances the visibility for snorkelers. Even on choppy days, once you have immersed yourself in the water, you will find the viewing experience serene and calm.

Once the whale sharks have arrived, tours will leave from Cancun and Isla Mujeres daily. Try to book the earliest tour you can find. Early morning tours are strongly recommended as there are fewer boats, and the whale sharks are more active. 

Book the Best Whale Shark Snorkeling Tour for You

During the Isla Mujeres whale shark season, tours leave daily from Cancun and Isla Mujeres. If you are staying in Playa del Carmen, Tulum or anywhere else along the Riviera Maya, there are tour operators who will provide round trip transportation to and from the departure points at an additional cost. 

You can also book your own transportation or, do what we do. Come up a day early and spend the night before in Cancun or on Isla Mujeres to avoid the long drive in the morning.

A huge whale shark vertical at the surface of the ocean next to a snorkeler.

Because the number of boats and number of swimmers allowed each day is strictly regulated, it´s a very good idea to book your tour in advance, especially if you are visiting during the peak months. If you wait until you arrive, you may find yourself out of luck or stuck with a less-than-optimal boat experience. The best Isla Mujeres whale shark tours book up fast, and with good reason.

Numerous tour companies offer day trips to snorkel with whale sharks. Booking a tour is fairly straightforward and easy to do online. You can join a small group tour departing from either Cancun or Isla Mujeres. Here are a few that we know and recommend.

From Isla Mujeres

From Cancun

You also have the option of booking a private whale shark tour for a more personalized experience. A private tour offers you the most flexibility in your itinerary as you can tailor the experience with these marine giants to suit the needs of your group. A private tour company may give you the option of a snorkeling stop on the reef or offer an opportunity for fishing. 

Swimming with Whale Sharks: What to Expect

The official Isla Mujeres whale shark season is from May through December with its peak during the summer months of June, July and August. The summer is the best season to see these gentle giants when they migrate to this region to feed in the plankton-rich waters. 

Whether you are an expert swimmer or just a beginner, the whale shark tours are open to all. While the whale sharks are gathering to feed, they remain close to the surface of the water. Even an inexperienced snorkeler will have a great time floating at the surface and watching the activity all around. 

A whale shark swimming under water off the coast of isla mujeres

Your day will start early. The first thing you will do is gather at the dive shop or other meeting point to be briefed on the day’s activities and the rules and regulations. You’ll then set sail into the open ocean. You can expect a 45-minute to one hour boat ride to reach the areas where whale shark sightings have been reported. Don´t forget… while whale shark snorkeling may be the focal point of these incredible tours, you may also encounter manta rays and marine turtles who also flock to the warm waters off the coast of Isla Mujeres. 

A manta ray swimming.

Once the whale sharks are spotted, the boats will carefully approach. When instructed, you’ll have the chance to slip from the side of the boat into the deep water and swim alongside the largest fish in the world.  It’s a truly surreal experience to watch them glide gracefully through the water, their massive mouths open, feeding on tiny plankton and other marine micro-organisms.

Meeting a fully-grown adult whale shark, face to face, is a bit intimidating. But, in fact, whale sharks are inquisitive and easy-going creatures. They are not aggressive and pose virtually no risk to humans. That being said, it´s important to remember that these are wild animals and it´s important to keep a safe distance. You will be accompanied in the water by a guide who be there to ensure your safety and make sure that the whale sharks are properly respected. Your guide may also be able to take photos and video of your amazing encounter.

Most Isla Mujeres and Cancun whale shark tours will include a stop at Playa Norte, on the north end of Isla. Here the tour boats generally anchor just off the beach allowing time for people to swim in the crystal clear shallow water, the perfect end to this unique experience. If your whale shark tour operator offers lunch on the boat, this is the best place to do it and a great spot to get some more enviable photos.

Boats stopping at playa norte on isla mujeres after their whale shark tour.

If you are ending your day on Isla Mujeres, you can easily return to your hotel or resort from here. Passengers who have booked a whale shark tour from Cancun, will return to their embarkation point on the mainland.

Can You SCUBA Dive with the Whale Sharks?

In Mexico, the regulations regarding scuba diving with whale sharks can vary depending on the specific location and the tour operators. However, in many popular whale shark hotspots like Isla Mujeres and Holbox, scuba diving with whale sharks is typically not allowed. The preferred mode of interaction is snorkeling, as it is less intrusive and allows for a more natural observation of the whale sharks in their habitat. 

The Mexican authorities and tour operators prioritize the safety and well-being of both the whale sharks and the participants, and snorkeling is seen as a way to minimize potential stress or harm to the animals. It’s always advisable to check with local tour operators and adhere to the regulations and guidelines provided to ensure a safe and respectful interaction with these magnificent creatures.

A whale sharks huge open mouth at the surface of the ocean.

More Tips and Important Things to Keep in Mind

To protect the whale sharks and ensure that they return to the area year after year, there is a clear set of rules in place for swimming with them. These rules are in place for the benefit of the whale sharks and to ensure that you have a fun and SAFE interaction with them and experience the very best whale shark tour possible.

  • For your own safety, always follow the instructions provided by your certified guide.
  • Only enter the water when instructed
  • It is not permitted to touch or feed the Whale Sharks
  • Try to maintain a safe distance of 2 meters between you and the whale shark
  • You must only use reef-safe biodegradable sunscreen 
  • You must enter slowly from the boat to avoid disturbing the whale sharks
  • Cameras, GoPros and video gear are permitted but NO flash photography
  • No drones are permitted inside the Marine National Park 
  • You must wear a life jacket or a wetsuit
  • No SCUBA diving equipment is permitted
  • Weather conditions may cause the ports to be closed. In the case that your tour is canceled or postponed, be sure you know and understand the cancellation and refund policy of the whale shark company you booked with.

What to Bring on Your Whale Shark Excursion

To get the most out of this bucket-list adventure, it’s important to be prepared. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most people and one of the favorite experiences of people who are visiting Cancun, Isla Mujeres and the Riviera Maya.

All the certified whale shark tour operators will provide water and soft drinks to keep you hydrated throughout the trip. Some may even offer cold beer after you have finished snorkeling and are heading back to the dock. Some of the better boats will provide snacks and lunch which you can enjoy while anchored off of Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres´ most famous beach.

Michele on the boat at play norte after the whale shark tour.

All of the tour operators we recommend will provide basic snorkel equipment including fins. Life jackets will also be provided which are mandatory to wear in the water unless you are wearing a wetsuit. Some boats may have towels for you to use.

Be sure to confirm what is included before you turn up at the departure point. Aside from the obvious swimsuit, here is a list of things you should absolutely bring along on your whale shark snorkeling trip.


Sunglasses, preferably polarized, are an essential item to bring on your whale shark tour. The Caribbean sun, especially on the water, is very bright. Aside from making you uncomfortable, the sun´s rays are damaging to your eyes. Keep in mind the boat trip out to the whale shark area may be a little rough so be sure your sunglasses are well-fitting or have a safety strap.


Some of the whale shark boats provide towels for their guests but I think it´s a good idea to bring one along, just in case. We travel with quick-drying microfibre towels that take up no space at all and are super handy.

Dry Bag

A must-have for any water-based activities, a dry bag will protect your belongings in the boat and on the beach. A good dry bag will keep your towels and extra clothes dry and free of sand. If you are traveling with a camera, your cell phone or other expensive gear, a dry bag will give you peace of mind on these boat trips.

Snorkel Gear

All of the professional whale shark tours that we recommend provide masks, snorkels and fins to use on the trip. The equipment will be servicable and sanitized but it may not fit perfectly. If you are an avid snorkeler or diver, you will probably want to bring along your own gear to make sure you get the best experience.

Rash Guard

In order to protect the delicate ecosystem of the reef, only biodegradable reef-safe sunscreen should be used. It is also highly recommended that you wear a long-sleeved rashguard, preferably with SPF protection. This will shield you from the sun’s damaging rays and prevent chafing from the life jacket.

Cell Phone

Will you need a cell phone on your whale shark tour? No. But if you are like most people and use your cell phone mainly for taking photos, videos and posting to social media, then your phone is coming along for the ride. This is a unique experience that you will want to share with friends and family back home.

Waterproof Phone Case

If you are bringing your cell phone on your Isla Contoy tour, do yourself a favor and invest in a decent-quality waterproof phone cover, preferably with a safety strap attached. The crystal clear waters of the Caribbean Sea will give you a great chance to get some nice underwater photos of these amazing marine creatures but be sure your trusty cell phone is properly protected!

GoPro with Waterproof Casing

Many of the whale shark tour operators will offer to take photos and video of you (for an extra cost) to capture YOU as you get up and personal with the whale sharks If you want to grab your own video footage, a GoPro with a waterproof case is a great idea. The chance to capture this unique experience on video is one you don´t want to pass up or leave to chance with a cell phone. 


All of the whale shark tours we recommend are all-inclusive. However, you may want to consider tips for the boat captain and crew (at your discretion) and money to pay for photos and/or video. If your tour makes a stop on Isla Mujeres, you may be given some time to disembark and you do a bit of shopping!


I´m going to say it again….The boat trip out to the whale shark areas, from either Cancun or Isla Mujeres, can be a long, bumpy ride. There is nothing worse than being stuck out on the open seas and being struck with sea sickness. Whether you are prone to seasickness or not, go out prepared. Take some Dramamine or another nausea-preventative medication about an hour before you get on the boat. This should be a magical experience. Be sure you are feeling 100% to really enjoy it.

Isla Mujeres Whale Shark Season: Final Thoughts

Isla Mujeres is hailed as one of the best places in the world to swim with whale sharks. The waters off the coast of Cancun and surrounding the island of Isla Mujeres are warm and clear and ideal for witnessing the movements of these amazing creatures.

Despite years of research, we still know very little about the biggest fish in our oceans – but we know they are important. We also know that whale shark tourism helps to protect the animals from being hunted to extinction. 

Whale shark season isla mujeres - swimming with whale sharks

Because Isla Mujeres whale shark season is crucial to the economy of the island, we encourage visitors to come to the island a day early, spend a little money in local hotels, restaurants and shops and book their tour with a certified whale shark boat leaving from there. This brings a necessary boost of income to Isla in what is otherwise considered slow season.

Swimming with whale sharks in Isla Mujeres is undoubtedly one of the best things you can experience in the Mexican Caribbean. The peaceful creatures, coupled with the breathtakingly beautiful surroundings of Isla Mujeres, make this a magical encounter and a must for your bucket list. 

If you have any questions about this information, please feel free to contact us

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Are whale sharks dangerous?

Whale sharks are known as gentle giants and are not dangerous to humans.

How big are whale sharks?

Whale sharks are the largest extant fish species and, when fully grown, can weigh well over 20,000 pounds and reach lengths easily exceeding 30 feet.

Can I scuba dive with whale sharks?

SCUBA diving with the whale sharks in Isla Mujeres is not permitted.

What do whale sharks eat?

Whale sharks are filter feeders, primarily feeding on plankton, small fish, and fish eggs.

Where can you swim with whale sharks?

Popular spots include the Philippines, the Maldives, the Galapagos Islands, Belize, Isla Holbox and Isla Mujeres among others.

When is Isla Mujeres whale shark season?

The season varies slightly from year to year but typically falls between May and September.

Are whale sharks endangered?

Yes, whale sharks are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Can I swim with whale sharks in Playa del Carmen?

No, but many tour operators offer transportation from Playa del Carmen, Tulum or anywhere else along the Riviera Maya to Cancun where the whale shark tours embark.

How long do whale sharks live?

Whale sharks have a long lifespan, with estimates ranging from 70 to 100 years.

Do whale sharks have teeth?

Yes, they have thousands of tiny teeth, but they don’t use them for feeding.

Can whale sharks swallow a human?

No, their throats are actually too small to swallow a human despite their large size.

Why are whale sharks important?

Whale sharks play a crucial role in marine ecosystems by helping to regulate the population of plankton and small fish.

About the author

Michele Samal Kinnon

Despite the strong reservations of family and friends, in 2004 I moved from the United States to Mexico with my young family. Since then, I have made the Riviera Maya my home. I have raised two remarkable children here. I have celebrated amazing successes, made countless mistakes, and in the process, fallen in love with this beautiful country.