By Pat Ford

It s one on the most amazing natural phenomena anywhere!  Every summer hundreds of whale sharks and manta rays congregate about 20 miles off Isla Mujeres, Mexico and tourists visiting this tiny island off Cancun can hire a local guide and swim with them.  Isla Mujeres is old time Key West with a Mexican flavor and a treat in itself but the whale sharks make it a perfect family vacation.

It s an hour and twenty minute flight from Miami to Cancun and then a 25 minute ferry ride from Puerto Juarez to Isla.  Hotels like Posada Del Mar are inexpensive by American standards.  We rode with my friend Abel Avila ( who runs daily trips for up to 10 people to swim with  the whale sharks.  He recommends leaving early to beat the crowd which shows up around 8 am.  I highly recommend leaving as early as possible. 

I first swam with the whale sharks in 2013 and then returned in 2018 with my daughters and their families.  The rules had change you need to wear a wet suite or life jacket, only 2 people and a guide in the water at one time, do not touch the whale sharks, etc.  All very reasonable.  My youngest grandchild is 11 and he had no problems at all.  We met Able at the dock at 6:30 am for the 45 minute run to the whale sharks, swam until around 11 am when the crowds got too much for us to be alone with a shark and that was about the same time the whale sharks got sick of people harassing them and sounded, but the day was not over.  We ran back to Isla Mujeres beautiful beach and anchored up while Abel provided a magnificent lunch of the best shrimp ceveche I have ever had.  The day was over around 3 pm which gave us plenty of time to explore the Island and have dinner at Freddy’s or Asia Caribe…my favorite restaurants on the island.

Nevertheless I did notice a lot of changes.  In ’13 I counted 85 boats at midday but there were hundreds of sharks and we were never really close to another boat.  The whale sharks and mantas hung around all day feeding happily of the plankton and fish eggs that the ocean currents swept into this particular area.  In ’18 I counted over 170 boats and Abel told me that over 300 permits had been issued to allow commercial trips to the whale sharks.  There were boats around us constantly after 8:30 am and the whale sharks all disappeared by 11 am.  The amount of boats and people has to be affecting the behavior of the whale sharks and Abel feels that the regulations will soon become more restrictive to protect the natural environment of the sharks.  It appeared to me, and I am no expert, that the constant harassment by boats and swimmers is taking its toll on the behavior of the whale sharks.  There certainly has been a major change since my last trip.

Nevertheless, it still is an amazing trip that I highly recommend, but you better sign up quickly because it’s not going to be available forever.  Send Abel an email…he’ll set you up!