Without a doubt, swimming with the whale shark is one of the best experiences you can have in Riviera Maya. The question is, is it also a good experience for the whale shark?

I reflect on the tourist activity of swimming with the whale shark through the mirror itself, that of the experience itself. I have done the swim with the whale shark on 5 occasions, all times different and incredible moments. I find it impossible not to get excited by swimming next to an animal so colossal in the open waters of this crystalline Caribbean Sea, as if you were one more fish, forgetting everything else during those unrepeatable minutes. From the experiences that tattoo you a smile.

Why did I stop swimming with the whale shark?

Swimming with the whale shark began in the Mexican Caribbean on the 2002. Since the first time I did the activity in the 2008 to date, the number of tourists has increased considerably. Where there were dozens of tourists before, now there are hundreds. It is impossible not to perceive the harassment of whale sharks the amount of tourist boats that participate every day of this activity. As I learned more about the activity and the business they told me that half are damaged by the propellers of the boats, but it is preferred not to talk much about the subject.

The activity of swimming with the whale shark is done by taking advantage of the hours that the colossal fish comes to the surface to feed on the plankton. The confluence of waters between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean is one of the richest places in nutrients, and brings together a large amount of marine fauna, including the whale shark. The activity of the swim is done during their feeding time, when they remain gathered in an area of ​​the surface, perfect situation to assault your table. Empathizing a little with the animal, imagine that a flock of clumsy mosquitoes invading your space is approached at your mealtime. Of course I would try to get away from these annoying intruders.

Since the 2011 I decided not to bother his table anymore, I felt very bad the last few times. But imagine that even having awareness of what the activity implies, if a friend asks me if it's worth it, I would say yes, although of course I explain my vision. The greed of having the experience is superior to everything, for me it was brutal the feeling of swimming with this animal piece. My decision was made with satiated greed, it was simpler: I only reflect in my mirror and that I can serve the experience of the experience.


The business and its difficulty:

Swimming with the whale shark is an activity that, during the scarce 4 months that lasts, leaves the greatest economic spill in tourist activities to fishermen and tourist entrepreneurs in Quintana Roo.

The swimming season with the whale shark takes place from the second half of May until mid-September

The General Directorate of Wildlife of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) and the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) are the competent bodies to administer the activity. In the 2015, concessions were granted to carry out the activity to more than 300 permit holders, with 60 being able to leave boats per day. In Holbox, more permitting 40 are counted. Each boat carries a maximum of 10 people: we are a good band of mosquitoes around the animal, aren't we? I read that We become 2.300 tourists on a busy day (Source).

From the official institutions, insurance is intended to generate the best service and take care of the animals with actions such as giving counted licenses, duly training the guides and forcing tourists to comply with standards. I know that every year there are new debates about the activity of swimming with the whale shark, and they try to find new solutions to improve. My reflection is that the people involved in the business, both official bodies and private entities, are precisely those that live on the whale shark, it is the mouth that feeds them. And under this natural law, rather than preserve and care for the whale shark itself, what they do is preserve the swimming activity with the whale shark.

This fact covers local damage and the real lack of knowledge about whale shark and how the activity of swimming impacts them. It is something that does not allow a healthy internal debate and the possibility of how to redirect whale shark activity in Riviera Maya.

SIf it is not debated, putting in the same bag all the possible causes of a bad preservation of the whale shark, the whale shark will never come to fruition, it will always be damaged. This bag should include the question the swimming activity itself with the whale shark, its harmful effect on the animal and its customs. At least as it is handled now.

Different solutions?

In a presentation that I attended at the Cancun Planetarium on July 14 of 2015 of the documentary “Among Giants: Whale Shark”, by diver Alberto Friscione, several questions about whale shark and worry were addressed, especially when not arriving at some moment. I found it interesting the participation of people without any monetary link with the activity of swimming with the whale shark (something essential in my view to clean up the debate) who pointed out fresh ideas for preservation, while still making profits from the whale shark. One of the most recurrent was to limit the licenses for the activity much more, with the big problem of which neighbor you take away the bread. Business pressure is always evident.

A biologist teacher pointed to redirect the activity so that its impact was less on the animal, with exits to see the whale shark, but without allowing the swim: this supposed boats with visibility of seabed and a much more prudent distance of the boats with the animals would be conserved. It does not seem an interesting way out for the business, which they know generates the most attractive benefits Offer to swim with them than just watch them. They are only notes that remain in the air, but they open doors to some mind, who knows.

It was clear in the presentation that there are Real stress to whale sharks. something that many of us who have participated in this activity feel, a point through which those involved tend to pass quickly. There is also the obviousness of the damage caused by the propellers, something that he does not like to talk about. It is easier to look into the eyes of others and talk about private boats that intercede in the business or fishing permits to Cubans as palpable causes rather than looking in the eye itself. It is human and natural, I would surely do the same if my business was swimming with the whale shark.

whale shark

The rules for swimming and reality:

The rules are clear: a distance of at least 10 meters from the boats with the whale shark, two tourists in the water per guide, who can swim five meters to the sides of the fish and only one vessel per organism is allowed for 30 minutes. In addition to not putting sunscreen, only biodegradable (I wonder if there are really biodegradable, what do you think?).

The issue is that the rules do not know if one day you find 200 whale sharks or if you find 20. Depending on the day there will be time for all tourists, other days the stipulated time of 30 minutes per boat is complicated. Basically, the whale shark sets the standards, and as we see it is unpredictable. The boats act under the pressure of customers who after paying about 200 usd per person, want to get the best service. In these circumstances it becomes impossible or very difficult to follow the rules as it should. We are many, that is the problem. The boats approach more than what is allowed many times, damaging the whale sharks with the propellers and attacking. However skilful and good availability the captain of the boat has, bringing the tourist closer to the animal between such a boat is not an easy task. Part of the fault lies with the clients, although we know the rules and without wanting to incur them, it is easy to get through the animal's path and disturb them, they are not expert swimmers who dominate the moment. It's what it is, why fool ourselves?

As I see it?

The human being takes advantage of all the natural resources at his disposal to make money, it is evidence. The whale shark will not escape the human being's will, but there are always less aggressive ways of acting in our environment. I think that as the activity of swimming is administered today we harass the whale shark. It is outrageous the number of boats loaded with tourists that surround them, a burden.

whale shark

That the activity is carried out in full nature does not mean that it is ecotourism, nothing to do. Hopefully we know how to live better with our environment, knowing that we are the great predator of the Planet, we should become aware and limit our wills. I do not know how the swim with the whale shark will continue to develop, if they will move away from the coast, if we are really bothering them so much that there is no going back, I really do not know, but considering things is a start of something.

Good way,

Thank you very much to Faust for the graphic material, you are an artist 🙂

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Sandra Salvadó Training photographer, traveler by vocation and certified tourism guide by the Government of Mexico. We promote natural wonders and contemporary Mayan culture. Great fan of pre-Hispanic history. Author of the blog and co-founder of The Shortest Path Travel, agency that guides you through alternative paths in Mayan lands. Social and sustainable tourism in the Yucatan Peninsula and Chiapas.
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