The annual aggregation of hundreds of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) off the coast of Isla Mujeres, a tiny little island near Cancun, Mexico has been a must – do event among underwater photographers and marine wildlife lovers. I have been sharing this great event with guests and underwater photography for over 10 years now and still find it a thrill and a grand opportunity for close up wildlife encounters. This year was another great year with numerous whale sharks and some giant mantas.
See Trip Details
I had two group trips this year: one in July and one in mid August. Both groups were treated to many encounters, good weather and water conditions. I want to thank all of this year’s guests for being such great participants: it was a joy to host you.
My first group was a family of wonderfully fun, positive, and active people. It was a first visit for most of them and it was exciting to see them experience the magic for the first time.
My 2nd Whale Shark trip was combined with Crocodiles in Xcalak. We enjoyed superb diving on pristine reefs in their marine reserve and 2 nights in the remote fishing hut at the Chichorro Atoll with 3 days of in water encounters with the crocodiles. The group then transferred back up to Cancun and Isla Mujeres for the whale sharks.
Many of these guests had joined my whale shark trip in the past: they came back because they love the atmosphere, relaxing days on the boat, the fresh ceviche, all the great food and sites on Isla Mujeres. The first time guests were excited to see so many whale sharks in one place and without the burden of scuba gear.
I schedule our trips at the peak of the season. In both July and August the weather was great with smooth water, great visibility and hundreds of whale sharks which were easy to find each day. For both our first and second week of guests, the water was clear and flat. Not even one day of bad weather or cloudy water! Very special.
At least one day with each group the crew were able to find schools of mantas. Most times there were no whale sharks in the area, just the mantas, but one of the encounters had the mantas right with the whale sharks. This was a wonderful chance to get a manta and whale shark together in a single image.
Like most days, we had this encounter to ourselves with no other boats near us. The mantas did their ballet of loops and plunges before moving off out of our range. It was time to return to shore so we came home very happy and content.
Canon 5D MKIIII
15mm fisheye lens
17 – 40mm Lens
Go Pro in underwater housing with short grip handle
iPhone or Panasonic for topside and island photos
I use a Canon 5D MKIIII in an Nexus housing for my underwater work. It is full frame and I like the quality video capabilities. Due to the size of the whale sharks I am using a Canon 15mm f2.8 fisheye lens. I visited the crocodiles before the whale sharks, so I also had a 17 – 40mm lens, but I prefer working the results of the fisheye for whale sharks.
I looked at my shooting data in Lightroom from my 10 years of whale shark images and most fall into the below settings ranges.
|Typical Settings Using full Manual Mode|
|ISO||500 typically but ranging between 400 – 640|
|Aperture||F8 – F9|
|Shutter Speed||1/200 sec|
I like to photograph the feeding motion of the mouth from a 3/4 profile angle. The idea here is to capture the turbulence of the water as it flows into the mouth. The whale sharks have a natural behavior where they hang vertical in the water and feed on the krill at the surface. We call this “botilla – bottle feeding”. It makes for a great portrait aspect ratio photo and the action usually lasts several minutes; so the photographer does not need to swim to keep up, rather move around the WS to get different sides.
How this Trip Works
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 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 the large individuals who seemed unfazed by my presence.
Our boats leave from Isla Mujeres, just a short walk or golf cart ride from our beachfront hotel. The 10 passenger boats are comfortable for our groups of 6 or 7 and they are fast, provide shade and storage, and smooth while cruising. Our boat captain and crew were excellent at finding whale sharks each day, sometimes just a short 40 minute boat ride. Sandwiches and snacks are on the boat with us so we are set to spend most of the day at sea. Regulations require we depart the whale sharks between 2pm – 3pm, but this gives us plenty of time to enjoy our swimming. After long day on the water we would head back to Isla Mujeres but not before eating some ceviche freshly prepared while we were busy with the whale sharks. Once back at the hotel, we have a relaxing time in the hotel pool , a cleanup and download , and a delicious dinner out in town at one of many great restauants.
One afternoon we took the golf carts to the opposite end of the island where they have a zipline, a scenic park, and iguanas. There are many shops to pick up snacks and drinks. Each night we had a delicious meal at restaurants ranging from Mexican tacos to pizza, Mediterranean, and Cuban. After our 4 days on the whale shark boat, some of the guests returned to Cancun and did scuba dives in the Mayan cenotes and toured some of the ruins.
Another Magical Season Wraps Up
Swimming in this aggregation in the Gulf of Mexico was not like other times I have encountered whale sharks in other waters: 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. This is an event that delivers a great guest experience and images year after year. If you love being in the water and have not experienced this, you must do it. I have many guests who return year after year for the awesome whale sharks, but also for the fun of Isla Mujeres, great food, and friendly people and guests.
I will be returning next year: Check my website for dates and available spaces.
More Links to my Whale Sharks Blog Posts