Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Whale sharks are known as the gentle giants of the sea. They are, in fact, the largest fish on earth and have been found with lengths over 40 feet and weights over 20 tons (up to 50,000 pounds.) These sharks are one of three shark species that filter feed. They swim throughout the earth’s oceans feeding on plankton simply by opening their giant mouths and passively filtering through the water – picking up plants, animals and small fish that help fuel their massive bodies.
Whale shark tourism has been increasing, and groups like the World Wildlife Fund continue to work to protect the sharks from human interactions. Diving centers are also actively working to protect the species by reinforcing the concept of NOT touching or feeding them. Many dive centers only allow snorkeling/swimming with the whale sharks instead of scuba diving. This way, if the whale shark wants to escape, all it has to do is dive.
Whale sharks are found around the world – seen in the Philippines, Australia, Oman, the Baja California peninsula and the Caribbean. Tour agencies often tout near-guarantees of siting a whale shark during each area’s peak months. However, the largest gathering of whale sharks continues to be in the Caribbean Sea just off the coast of Cancun where over 1000 whale sharks can be seen during the season. In the most recent years, the small island Isla Mujeres has been the closest land to where the gentle giants gather to feed.
Cross the Bahia de Mujeres on a ferry boat from Cancun, Mexico to arrive at the beautiful island of Isla Mujeres. It is only four miles long and less than half a mile wide. Golf carts are frequently rented to tour the entire island in half a day. Despite its small size, the community is vibrant, and the town offers a plethora of options for exploring, dining and entertainment. Whale shark season is from May through September with the peak numbers generally seen in July and August – and this overlaps with turtle egg-laying season in the early summer and turtle hatching/release in late summer to early fall.
We recently went to Isla Mujeres for a whale shark adventure with a group of friends. After flying in to Cancun, we bypassed the hordes of tourist groups crowding the arrival area and went directly to USA Transfers. This driving service offers safe, reliable transport from the airport to hotels and ferry docks, and we were able to book in advance so that there was a driver waiting for us. It was a short ride to Puerto Juarez where the Ultramar ferry runs every half hour between 6:30am and 8:30pm to take people over to Isla Mujeres. Must do: relax with tacos and beer at a dockside restaurant while waiting for the next ferry.
The ferry ride is remarkable as this part of the Caribbean Sea is one of the cleanest and bluest of all. We had booked rooms at the Ixchel Beach Hotel located in the Centro area of Isla Mujeres. This hotel is on the northeastern shore where the beaches there recede very gently into the sea producing a massive natural sandbar 200-500 feet outward from the dry sand. While taxis and golf cart rentals are available, we chose to walk the half mile or so to the hotel. It is a wonderful way to get a sense of the culture and to see all of the restaurants and stores we can visit later.
The hotel itself is gorgeous with two swimming pools and outdoor dining facilities. We chose a suite since we planned to cook our own meals while there. The suite was spacious with an open kitchen and living room area, and the balcony overlooked both the pools and the beach.
Our schedule was the same each of the four full days in Isla Mujeres. We got up at 6am and had breakfast with a core group of 6-8 people joining us on the trip. By 7am we were at the dock and boarding one of Delfin Diving’s two boats. (Delfin Diving is run by a wonderful man named Arturo Delfin who has a well-deserved reputation of safety, education, conservation and adventure. Every outing with Arturo is a good one!) Arturo gets the boats out early to beat the crowds, and we were often the first ones at the feeding site each morning. By the time the waters got crowded, we were drying off and heading back to the island. We’d return to the shallow sandbar area in front of our hotel and wade in the waist-deep water for a bit while Arturo’s crew handed out cold beers and prepared fresh ceviche on the back of the boat. After our snack, we’d return to our hotel rooms to shower off the sea salt and settle in to make a light lunch. Afternoons, then, were for sunbathing by the pool or beach; touring the island; visiting the turtle sanctuary; or grocery and souvenir shopping just blocks from the hotel. For the evenings we gathered together in a bigger group of 16 for supper, taking turns as hosts.
Just about every boat captain in the waters that trip commented that it was the best week of whale shark viewing they had ever seen. It was not uncommon for us to see 30, 40, 50 whale sharks just around our boat – and hundreds more within eyesight in the surrounding waters. Arturo sticks to only two swimmers and one guide in the water at a time, and on my first jump into the sea, I got to swim between two whale sharks and got circled by a trio of manta rays. The whale sharks are very gentle, and some are even friendly. Although we were careful not to touch them, the whale sharks seemed less concerned and would sometimes bump us in the water with their sides or a fin. With so many sharks up near the surface, one would often come along behind us while we were watching one in front. It was common to hear shouts from the boat of “Look left!” or “Turn around!” to see a 25- or 30-foot shark – mouth agape – heading right at us. We actually had to swim briskly out of their way a number of times!
The second day out we saw more manta rays than whale sharks. Mantas are the elegant “birds of the sea.” A close relative of sharks, they are found in similar locales of the whale sharks because they, too, are filter feeders. Manta rays can grow well over 20 feet and weigh as much as 5000 pounds. Also, they are very friendly and considered to be one of the smartest fish species. While swimming out in the Caribbean, they would often swim underneath us flapping their magnificent “wings” which sometimes brushed up against one of us.
The next morning was by far the best – I cannot even begin to estimate the numbers of whale sharks and mantas out that day! At one point I was swimming in the middle of three or four whale sharks within 10 feet of me and a circling group of four mantas just inches away from me. Plus, there’s a unique phenomenon where the whale sharks “go vertical.” This vertical feeding allows them to consume pockets of plankton with little effort. Rather than swimming through the plankton, the shark flips upright with mouth towards the surface and tail down, and then it sucks in the water and plankton for filtering. It’s incredible! On three of the days we were out in the water, I got to see and swim next to a vertical whale shark.
The final day was spectacular as well with wonderful picture-taking opportunities. We saw numerous whale sharks, manta rays, yellowfin tuna and jack fish. As always, the water was warm, the sun shining, and Arturo once again produced his fresh and tasty ceviche with a special habanero hot sauce.
Our evening meals were also fresh as we shopped at local markets and roadside vendors for our produce and proteins. We ate cucumber salad with serrano peppers; fresh shrimp and fish; free range chicken and eggs, mango salsa and an incredible Spanish version of a frittata made by our friend Shawn. One of the nights was hosted by our friends Ruth and Annie on their penthouse terrace which provided impressive views of both the open sea and the entire northern end of Isla Mujeres.
We didn’t skip out on the local restaurants either. We enjoyed a couple of lunches in the Centro area; a Nutella crepe or coconut drink snack while exploring; a pizza indulgence at Rolandi’s one night; and a group supper at Angelo’s for our last evening there. Isla Mujeres has all types of cuisine like Mexican, American, Asian and Italian. Everywhere we dined, we enjoyed it.
Our afternoon adventures included walking through the town, shopping for groceries and souvenirs, and sometimes stopping for snacks. One afternoon we visited Tortugranja, Isla Mujeres’ famous turtle farm and sanctuary. Some of our friends enjoyed walking through the centuries-old El Cementario while others went scuba diving at the Isla Mujeres Underwater Museum. We also loved a flight tasting at Isla Brewing Company – the island’s only craft brewery!
Isla Mujeres is a true gem – a small, mostly unknown island paradise. The bonus of being the best place on earth to swim with whale sharks and manta rays adds to its appeal. For clear, warm water, blue skies, brilliant sunshine and teeming marine life, check out Isla Mujeres during the summer months!