Trip reports from our past Swim with Whale Sharks 2013

Swimming with Whale Sharks with Host Gregory Sweeney 2013

The recently discovered aggregation of hundreds of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) off the coast of Isla Mujeres, a tiny little island off the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, is the perfect opportunity for underwater photography and close up wildlife encounters. The whale sharks arrive in large numbers every summer to feed on the abundant supply of plankton and bonito eggs. For me it was an incredible experience to be in the warm blue water with these beautiful and graceful creatures. On several peak days several hundred whale sharks would congregate in the space of a couple soccer fields. I have photographed whale sharks in locations around the world (Honduras, Mozambique, Western Australia), but never had the experience of being in the water with such a large aggregation and individuals who seemed unfazed by my presence. 2013 has proven to be the best season yet with the giant mantas nearly stealing the show. Word spread quickly of the large numbers of whale sharks and mantas and well-known photographers from around the world flocked to Cancun to experience this magnificent event.

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Rotating Gallery of My Whale Shark and Giant Mantas Images

Swimming with Whale Sharks

Swimming in this aggregation was not like other times I have encountered whale sharks. We would hold in an area where there were 4 -5 visible then wait until they passed close and get in the water with them. They did not seem too agitated by our presence or the splash of our fins. I could swim along side one of them for a while then if they got ahead of me often they would turn and come back toward me. Waiting in one spot in the water often would put me in a good position to encounter another individual. We stayed in the water for hours at a time. Occasionally we would move the boat to keep up with the movements of the aggregation.

Our boat captain and crew were excellent at finding whale sharks each day, sometimes just a short 40 minute boat ride. The food on the boat made the day even more special. After long day on the water we would head back to Isla Mujeres for a relaxing time in the hotel pool , a cleanup and download , and a delicious dinner.

To encounter whale sharks in such huge numbers was truly an unforgettable experience.

Highlights from July 2013

whale shark sun burst whale shark pattern from above
whale shark sun burst whale shark pattern from above

My first guests can to Isla Mujeres in late July. The weather was great with smooth water, great visibility and hundreds of whale sharks which were easy to find each day. And there were the mantas. They would glide in lazy loops up and down, oblivious to our presence. I was so happy I choose to book durring this peak time and full moon (which is also supposed to enhance feeding activity). Everyone has as many encounters as they wanted and the pictures were beyond expectations.

The most special days were when the myself and crew found schools of mantas separate from the others and the other boats full of swimmers. For the whole afternoon on several days we had a private show of giant manta ray ballet punctuated by whale sharks skimming past. I had some guests who were willing models for some photos to show what sort of interaction happens daily in these waters.

Guests Dancing with the Whales Sharks and Giant Mantas

whale shark sun burst whale shark pattern from above
whale shark sun burst

Photography Gear

I use a Canon 5D MKIII in an Nexus housing for my underwater work. It is full frame and I like the quality video capabilities - see some of my video below. Due to the size of the whale sharks I am using a Canon 15mm f2.8 fisheye lens.

Typical Settings Using full Manual Mode

ISO 320 or 400
Aperture f8.0 - f9.0
Shutter Speed 1/250 sec
whale shark and boat Isla Mujeres beach

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the sea (5.5 to 10 meters and 20.6 tons average) and although massive in size, they are docile and fortunately for us they favor plankton over other food. As a filter feeder it has a capacious mouth, which can be up to 1.6 meters wide and can contain 310 to 360 rows of tiny teeth. The many rows of teeth play no role in feeding. Instead, the shark sucks in a mouthful of water, closes its mouth and expels the water through its 5 pairs of gills. During the slight delay between closing the mouth and opening the gill flaps, plankton is trapped against the dermal denticles which line its gill plates and pharynx. This sieve-like apparatus prevents the passage of anything but fluid out through the gills, trapping anything above 2 to 3 millimeters in diameter.

It is believed that they reach sexual maturity at around 30 years and their life span is an estimated 70 to 100+ years. A pregnant female whale shark can carry up to 300 pups 35 to 65 cm long which she gives birth to live. The spots on a whale shark's back are unique to each individual and can be used as a form of ID. In much of Latin America the whale shark is known as "pez dama" or "domino" for its distinctive spot pattern. In Africa it is known as "papa shillingi" from the Kenyan myth that God threw shillings upon the shark, which now has spots.

iguana fishing boats
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