Swimming with Whale Sharks in Mexico

Fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico turn to conservation through tourism in Isla Mujeres.

Shawn Heinrichs was on an expedition filming sailfish bait balls in waters off Isla Mujeres, Mexico in 2008 when casual talk with local fishermen spurred his interest. His captain related that he periodically came across large groups of whale sharks in the open blue water of the Gulf of Mexico - approximately 20-30 miles off Isla Mujeres. When the captain presented his logs of his observations, Shawn easily deduced that the majority of sightings occurred around full moons in July and August. Reasoning led to the hypothesis that the whale sharks gathered to feed on fish eggs from spawning pelagic fish. A caviar soup of sorts for this magnificent animal!

At that time, there were no tourism-focus on interactions in this area, like those that had been set up in the green water around Islas Holbox and Contoy; local fishermen deemed the whale sharks off Isla Mujeres unpredictable and too difficult to find. But Shawn, an Emmy award-winning cinematographer, photographer, and founder of Blue Sphere Foundation, was up for the challenge. A year later on the full moon in July 2009, he organized an expedition with renowned shark enthusiast Jim Abernathy and a few friends. "We set out into the blue, and despite the fact that we were searching a 50 square mile area, we actually found it. Over 300 hundred whale sharks feeding on the surface stretching to the horizon," Shawn explained. "Our captain was also excited, as the most he had ever documented was about 30, 1/10th this number. Clearly this was the largest whale shark aggregation ever documented in the water!"

Whale shark above water
Kristin Hettermann

Since they first set coordinates on this aggregation ten years ago, scientists studying in the region have discovered that whale sharks gather here from all over the world for a feeding frenzy on the eggs of spawning little tunny (a species of tuna that resembles bonito). Adjoining the Gulf of Mexico with the Caribbean Sea (and part of the second largest barrier reef on the planet), some whale sharks remain in this area throughout the year. But subsequent tagging and research efforts show that some travel as far away as West Africa, Brazil, southern Caribbean, the Gulf, Texas, and up towards North Carolina. Like whales, whale sharks are filter-eaters, straining plankton and fish eggs from huge gulps of water. The largest fish in the sea, they can reach up to 40 feet in length, each with its own unique set of spots and stripes.

Researchers estimate that as many as 1,400 whale sharks migrate through the waters surrounding Isla Mujeres, providing humans an excellent opportunity to swim alongside these gentle giants of the sea. Mexico is now working hard to protect their whale sharks, designated the Whale Shark Biosphere Reserve (Reserva de la Biosfera Tiburón Ballena) in 2009, located off the north coast of Quintana Roo, Mexico, with a surface area of 145,988 acres. Just a short boat ride into the open ocean from Cancun, considered by some to be one of the world's great tourism related development vs. environment disasters, I was cautiously optimistic about what I was going to experience off Isla Mujeres. But this effort is what some would call managed tourism, focused on minimizing the impact tourists have on the sharks; supervised by Mexican patrol boats,

recent rules enacted further provide for the well-being of the sharks and the safety of tourists. These include: maximum of two guests and a guide in the water at a time; maximum of 10 guests on a tour boat; 2pm closure of the whale shark area; no touching or harassing the whale sharks; life vest or wetsuit required at all time; and no boat speeding in the whale shark zone.

Whale Sharks fish hanging on
Kristin Hettermann

A good number of fishermen in Isla Mujeres, like many small subsistence-based coastal communities around the world, were previous shark longline fishermen. Each year, fins from up to 73 million sharks are used in shark fin soup. Consumption of this luxury dish has led to overfishing of many vulnerable shark species, as well as to the inhumane practice of finning. According to the IUCN Red List, the global whale shark population has likely declined by more than 50 percent over the past 75 years. Major contemporary threats to whale sharks include fisheries catches (fishermen specifically targeting whale sharks both legally and illegally). An emerging threat is the use of whale sharks in demand by the cosmetics industry. A WildLifeRisk investigation in 2014 found up to 600 whale sharks a year being processed in a single factory in the town of PuQi (in China's Zhejiang Province) to supply the Italian market with raw materials for its cosmetics industry, as well as Omega-3 health supplements.

The fishermen were skeptical and scared about a switch-over, but are now great advocates for the whale sharks through a tourism-based economy for a few months out of the year. Relying heavily on the fact that the whale sharks, with a lifespan of up to 70 years, are now worth so much more alive than dead, boats flock daily to witness this annual migration running approximately from June 1st until September 15th. Fishermen are now employed as captains and guides instead of shark killers; tourism business owners taking guests to swim with sharks to have the experience of a lifetime. "They make a much better living, their families are better off, their children can receive higher educations, and they do not enter the fisheries business," Heinrichs explains. "Disturbance to the whale sharks is temporary, with boat access in the area limited to a few hours a day. Death on a longline is permanent. Which would you choose if you were a shark? The tourism takes massive and lasting pressure off the sharks and other targeted marine life. We must be practical in conservation and this is an excellent example."

Whale shark mouth open
Kristin Hettermann

WildAid has been running magical whale shark swimming trips in the clear blue Caribbean waters of Isla Mujeres, Mexico for more than a decade. "It is wonderful to see fishermen, who used to kill sharks unsustainably for a living, turning their hand to instead making tens of thousands of dollars a year in sustainable tourism taking people to swim with whale sharks," said WildAid CEO Peter Knights. With their mantra, "When the buying stops, the killing can too," WildAid has spent two decades campaigning with well-known global personalities, raising the profile of sustainable and rapidly growing eco-tourism opportunities as options to wildlife trade and trafficking. WildAid is just one example of many NGO's partnering in collaboration with tourism efforts in this area, and their trips off Isla Mujeres have been pivotal in the area for raising awareness for whale sharks and the perils of shark finning.

Heinrichs, and many others who work in the region, believe that if it were not for the development of the tourism industry, there is a very strong possibility that this aggregation would have been targeted and annihilated before anyone knew it really existed. "The demand for shark fins knows no boarders, and greedy traders would have had a huge incentive to direct fishermen to set upon it. In a single day, hundreds of whale sharks feeding innocently on the surface could have been killed, effectively wiping out the aggregation for all time."

Kristin Hettermann is an ocean conservationist and underwater photographer who uses the camera and storytelling as tools to tap into emotions and elicit deeper feelings about her favorite part of planet earth, the ocean. Her artivism platform, OCEANSCAPES, is modeled to combine science and activism with art and design, and her favorite moments are in the field with scientists and naturalists exploring natural environments and capturing images that accompany their stories. Her mission is to inspire you to feel the ocean.