Swimming with whale sharks, Cancún

By: Norman Dailey
This article appears on page 30 of the March 2018 issue.

Norm Dailey and a whale shark. Photo by Susan Dailey

In 2016, my wife, Susan, and I received a brochure from a highly regarded travel company advertising snorkeling with whale sharks off the Yucatán Peninsula. The cost was over $4,300 per person for six days, not including airfare. The accommodations shown were excellent, and there were two days of swimming with the whale sharks and one day of snorkeling on a reef.

The previous November, we had visited the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta and were impressed with the size and beauty of the fish. The thought of swimming with these magnificent, slow-moving, filter-feeding beasts was highly desirable, even at that cost. 

Coincidentally, we met some friends who regularly go to Cancún, and they mentioned that they had taken a whale shark excursion while in Cancún and were disappointed.

They had booked with a local tour operator that took groups of up to 12. Only two people at a time were allowed to swim with the whale sharks and only for 15 minutes. Each person ended up getting only two or three chances to be in the water, so everyone spent most of their time watching from the boat. We looked up similar tours on Viator.com, and the cost for this type of experience was $165 per person.

After more searching online, we discovered the perfect compromise. Whale Shark Daddy (Cancún, Mexico; phone, in the US, 305/433-7523, cancunwhalesharktours.com) offered a VIP special — a one-day tour for $1,600 total for up to five people — so we booked a private tour for just Susan and myself. The price included transportation between the hotel and boat, snorkel gear (we took our own), lunch, a bottle of sparkling wine and a choice of activities on the way back to the marina. (We booked our airfare directly with American Airlines and found a hotel on Booking.com.)

The VIP boat is the first boat out in the morning, so when you do find the whale sharks, you don’t have 20 or more other boats (at least, at first) in the same area. 

The morning of the whale shark tour, we were picked up from the hotel lobby at 6:30 and driven about a half-hour to the dock. After being dropped off at the marina, eating a light breakfast and filling out forms, we left at about 7:30 to see the whale sharks.

In addition to tasting wonderful, with so many layers of flavor, the Gazpacho Moreliano showed the artistry of the chef at <i>Le Chique</i> — Riviera Maya, Mexico. Photo by Norman Dailey

Our experience with whale sharks, on July 26, 2017, was everything we could have hoped for. We came across a school of 20 to 30, all about 25 to 30 feet in length. After getting in the water, at one point I looked right and saw nothing, but when I turned my head to the left I was looking into the eye of a whale shark gliding by two feet away, its gills pulsating and its tail almost brushing me as it moved on.

Unlike the other tours, we were able to stay in the water as long as we wanted, since there were only two of us. After about an hour, we climbed back into the boat and rested a bit. That’s when we spotted a whale shark vertically feeding. It seemed to be standing in place, sucking in food from the surface. We were quickly back in the water to watch the show.

After spending almost another hour in the water, it was time to leave the flotilla of small boats that had gathered. We had a choice of either visiting a beach that affronted a resort, snorkeling at another location or simply stopping for lunch on the water before heading back to the marina. We chose to snorkel at another location, as we wanted to see more Caribbean marine life.  

After we snorkeled along a reef, the boat anchored close to a resort and we had lunch on board. Afterward, happily worn out, we decided to return to the dock, arriving around 1:30 p.m., and were driven back to our hotel.

June through August is a great time for whale shark viewing. 

As an aside, one night we dined at the restaurant Le Chique (lechiquerestaurant.com) inside the Azul Sensatori Beach Resort (Riviera Maya, Mexico; www.karismahotels.com/Hotels-Resorts-Villas/For-Everyone/Azul-Hotels/Azu...), a Caribbean-coast resort. [Suites run around $361-$3,654 per night — Editor.]

They had only a tasting menu, but it was one of the best meals of our lives (and we’ve visited many multistarred Michelin restaurants plus establishments on “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list: www.theworlds50best.com/list/1-50-winners).

It was a fantastic meal, true to the heritage of Mexico, with layers upon layers of flavor in every dish. In addition, every dish was visually artistic.

The normal cost for the meal, including a wine pairing with each course, was $150 per person (or $40 less for those staying at the resort). However, since we ordered the upgraded wine option at $50 per person, the cost as reflected on our credit card statement, including tax and tip, was $497.

To reach the restaurant from the hotel zone in Cancún, we used Canada Transfers (www.canada transfers.com). The cost for a round trip was $65.

To us, even with the transportation cost, the meal was a bargain.

Alexandria, VA

A whale shark vertically feeding. Photo by Susan Dailey