Cancun holidays are the most popular holidays in Mexico, at least that’s what a survey by a leading online travel network says. This probably comes as no great shock, not least because Cancun has won this particular accolade several years running. Despite the Caribbean climes and endless ivory sand beaches, the result is put down to some excellent marketing by the region’s hotels and resorts. But there is another, very particular draw of the region that pulls in the punters year upon year: the chance to swim with whale sharks.

Swimming with dolphins? Pah, old hat. Frolicking with small reef sharks these days is a bit of a controversial Caribbean pastime. Swimming with whale sharks, on the other hand, is the new black.

Whale Sharks

They are the world’s largest fish, practically invulnerable to being hit by anything smaller than a military frigate, and as gentle as a giant could be. A whale shark will think nothing of a human passenger as it glides effortlessly through the water.

Last year 420 whale sharks migrated to the Yucatan peninsula on Mexico’s Caribbean coast to feed on zooplankton. They normally live in water of about 20-26 degrees C (68-79 degrees F), which puts them geographically in a band between 30 degrees north and 35 degrees south. Oddly, however, there have been reports of whale shark sightings as far north as New York.

The thing is, no one really knows what they do most of the time. The lives of whale sharks are quite the mystery until they pop up at a select few spots worldwide to feed – including Cancun and the Yucatan to the south, Belize and Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia.

Isla Mujeres and Cancun

About an hour’s boat ride north-east of Cancun lies Isla Mujeres, a spot famous for whale shark gatherings. It is not unheard of to be surrounded by a hundred of these spotted giants at any one time.

The whale sharks turn up during the summer months, from May to September, with numbers peaking in July and August – the height of the Cancun holidays season. And after that, they’re gone. All we do know is that, much like their namesake sea mammals, many embark on extraordinary journeys across the oceans. One tagged on Mexico’s Pacific coast travelled to Tonga – an island north east of New Zealand in the middle of the Pacific – a staggering distance of 13,000 km (8,078 miles).

The largest whale shark ever accurately measured was caught off Pakistan in 1949, measuring 12.65m (41ft 6in) long. However, in Mexico’s Bahia de Campeche, west of the Yucatan, a regular visitor that earned the nickname ‘Big Ben’ was estimated at a gargantuan 22.9 m (75ft) long. These magnificent creatures must be seen to be believed, and Cancun is one of the few places in the world you can do so. Should you find yourself in this part of the world during whale shark season, make sure you take time for one of these unforgettable tours. Your hotel should be able to organise a tour directly, usually priced around the $150 mark, or will happily point you in the direction of a reputable operator.

Tourists are clamouring for holidays to Cancun these days, and with such opportunity to witness the majesty of nature eye to eye, it isn’t hard to see why.

With thanks for whale shark facts & figures, courtesy of Michael Bright, author of  Wild Caribbean: The Hidden Wonders of the World’s Most Famous Islands (BBC Books).

If you are interested in travelling to Cancun to go swimming with whale sharks, check out our handy whale sharks of Yucatan infographic.

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