Natural Habitat Adventures

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Responsible Whale Shark Tourism in Mexico

—By Karen Douthwaite, World Wildlife Fund

They measure 40 feet, weigh more than 20 tons and can have a lifespan of more than 100 years. But to ensure that whale sharks continue to live out their full lives in the world's oceans, all of us, including travelers, have important roles to play.

Most years, between June and September one of the largest aggregations of the world's largest fish is found around Isla Mujeres, a small island off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Several years ago, World Wildlife Fund’s Mesoamerican Reef program worked with local fishermen who were taking tourists out to see and swim with the whale sharks. WWF helped develop guidelines for operators participating in whale shark tourism.

Since then, the Yucatan's whale shark tourism industry has grown tremendously, increasing from just a few hundred tourists a year to more than 12,000 annually. This puts more and more pressure on the whale shark population.

In coordination with Mexico’s Natural Protected Areas Agency and university student volunteers, we are trying to promote awareness of good environmental practices in whale shark tourism among the travelers themselves through a public campaign focused in Cancun, which is where the majority of travelers go on whale shark excursions. The following are guidelines and best practices travelers should observe:

1. Do not use any tanning lotion or oils on the day you’ll be swimming with whale sharks.

2. Book tours to swim with whale sharks though authorized operators and guides.

3. Don’t jump from the boat into the water; take care to enter the water slowly.

4. Don’t touch the whale shark.

5. Whale shark visitors should keep a 16 ft. minimum distance between the whale shark and the swimmer.

6. If near reefs, always take care to not touch or kick the corals.


If you are fortunate enough to see and swim with whale sharks in Mexico or anywhere in the world, remember to use best practices listed in this article.

Header Credit: Astrid Frisch
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Swimming with Mexico's Whale Sharks
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Swimming with Mexico's Whale Sharks

A genuine once-in-a-lifetime experience! From our base on Holbox Island, snorkel off the Yucatan Peninsula with the largest fish on the planet—gentle 15-ton, 40-foot-long whale sharks!
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