Cozumel has many draws: The gleaming beaches of the Punta Sur, the resplendent coral gardens of the Mesoamerican Reef system, the charming cantinas of San Miguel town, the haunting ruins of the old Mayan historical sights – we could go on and on. And then you have the Cozumel whale shark season, a time that magnetizes wildlife lovers with the promise of encounters with some of the greatest beasts of the ocean.
Yep, the rich waters that slosh around this much-loved isle on the side of the Riviera Maya aren’t just for high-season snorkel trips. They also become a gathering ground for the largest shark species known to man at certain times in the calendar. Swimming with them has risen to become one of the top things to do in the area and a real bucket-list-topper if there ever was one.
Thing is, the Cozumel whale shark season doesn’t last all that long. There’s one very specific window of time that you need to be in town for if you’re keen to meet these mighty carpet grazers. Use this guide to help you plan your travels. It outlines the best months to come for dives with the beasts and offers extra info on whale shark diving in the region, along with a bit of detail about the animals themselves to boot. Let’s begin…
What are whale sharks?
First thing’s first…what are these fabled animals that everyone’s flocking to Mexico’s Carib coast to witness in the wild? Well…they are pretty darn amazing. Superlatives come thick and fast. They are the largest extant shark species, the largest ocean fish species, and the largest nonmammalian vertebrate (whatever that means!). Measuring a whopping 18+ meters from nose to fin, these guys can weigh in at a crushing 40 tons or more. Basically: They are huge.
There’s that, and then there’s the fact that they aren’t at all like other shark species a la the great white. Nope, the whale shark is totally harmless to humans. A gentle giant, if you will. It’s a type of animal known as a filter feeder. That means it gets is sustenance by drifting through the ocean and devouring small plankton and krill as it goes. They have zero interest in our flesh and often show it by being curious and even kind (there are stories of them offering lifts to divers!).
Sadly, the whale shark is now rated as endangered by the IUCN, mainly due to overfishing. That’s led to a raised awareness in the diving industry and there are now strict controls on what travelers can and can’t do with the animals, including in Mexico (more on that later).
When is the Cozumel whale shark season?
The Cozumel whale shark season officially lasts from the end of May to the start of September. That coincides with the annual migration of the creatures through the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, when they’re known to congregate in the mineral- and food-rich reef systems at this top end of the Mesoamerican coral garden.
There’s good and bad news for travelers there. The summer months when whale sharks are most commonly around are actually not the greatest for vacations in this corner of Mexico. For one, it’s the hurricane season in the Caribbean, which means it’s not unheard of that big storm systems will push across Cozumel bringing high winds and lots of rain with them. On top of that, it’s the official seaweed season. That’s when prevailing water currents bring blooms of sargassum to the beaches on the mainland and the east coast of Cozumel itself. It’s not especially dangerous but it can ruin your beach holiday because the stuff smells pretty terrible.
On the flip side, the Cozumel whale shark season can offer some great value for money. Because the weather isn’t as reliable as the late winter months (the peak time to travel here), and because there’s a chance of seaweed on the beaches, you’ll often find that you get way more bang for your buck on flights and hotels, not to mention encounter far smaller crowds throughout.
When is the best time to take a Cozumel whale shark tour?
The official season (see above) isn’t necessarily the best time to book your whale shark tour out of Cozumel. That’s because all it really does is outline when the mighty grazers are most likely to be in the area. Most of the tour operators will hold off another month or so before actually starting to go looking for them with crews. The same goes as the end of the official season approaches – many tour outfitters will stop their packages early because numbers start to dwindle.
The upshot? You probably have the best chance of actually finding and encountering a whale shark in the Cozumel area in just two months: July and August. This window of 60 days is the absolute pinnacle of the whale shark migration. Although sightings are never guaranteed, it’s not unusual to see tens of the beasts on a single trip through the straits around the Yucatan and Cozumel.
TL;DR: If you’re absolutely 100% determined to catch a sight of a whale shark (or plural) during your time here, then be sure to book your tour for July or August. Those months are unquestionably the height of the Cozumel whale shark season.
Where can I see whale sharks in Cozumel?
Truth be told, whale sharks don’t actually gather in considerable numbers around Cozumel itself. Instead, they pass through the waters around the island on their way to the warmer shallows closer to Cancun. That means that you might have an accidental encounter with a traveling one here, especially if you’re planning outer reef dives in Palancar and other sections of the Cozumel corals. However, it’s not that likely at all.
That’s why most Cozumel whale watching tours actually start real early and involve an initial transfer back to the mainland via the port in Playa del Carmen. From there, you’ll drive 45 minutes north to another port in Cancun where you board a speedboat and leave for the well-known whale shark meeting points. The most famous and popular ones are around the long, thin Isla Mujeres. It’s basically the whale shark watching mecca of the whole Riviera Maya.
Because you need to travel north before even departing for the reefs that host the animals, you can expect whale shark tours to be quite lengthy. The options with pickup from a hotel in Cozumel often last the best part of 11 hours in all, but they do usually come with lunch included. Expect to pay something in the region of $150-200 per person for the trip all in, and perhaps a little less on the fringes of the main season around June and late August.
What are the rules during the Cozumel whale shark season?
Whale sharks are now considered endangered by the IUCN and it’s generally accepted that any tourism that surrounds them should make negligible to no impact on the creature’s lives. It’s for those reasons that the Mexican government instituted strict rules about what’s allowed and what’s not allowed on whale shark tours in Cozumel, Cancun, and the greater Riviera Maya.
The most important change to the law actually made it illegal to run whale shark tours out of season. That means you simply can’t book onto a trip to see these big ocean animals from Cozumel in the months from October to April, even though there’s hardly any likelihood that you’d find them anyway. It’s also now illegal to plan full scuba and free dives with the animals in the land of tacos and tequila.
There are also clear protocols that all whale shark tour operators should follow. There’s only allowed to be two people in the water with whale sharks at any one time. They must always be accompanied by a trained guide. Touching and feeding the animals is strictly prohibited, too. A good tour operator will ensure that all these restrictions are met and coordinate with other tour operators in the area to manage crowd control in the water.
The Cozumel whale shark season – our conclusion
The top time to seek out whale sharks around the sponge-blooming coral gardens of Cozumel is the height of the summer. Basically, the two months of July and August are when you’re most likely to catch a glimpse of the hulking saltwater creatures, although the official whale shark season runs from late May to the start of September.
And don’t go thinking that you can give it a shot and try to seek out a whale shark when the season isn’t on. That’s not really possible. First off, there won’t be any around – whale sharks almost totally abandon the waters around the Yucatan Peninsula come September and don’t come again until late spring. On top of that, it’s now actually illegal to run whale shark tours outside of the main season, so any outfitter that says they can do it will be breaking Mexican law.