Isla Mujeres, Mexico

A silhouette of a snorkeller photographing a whale shark (Rhincodon typus) as it feeds at the surface. Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Yucatan Peninsular, Mexico. Caribbean Sea. Model released. Photo by Dr. Alex Mustard, for more visit http://www.amustard.com

Also known as the Island of Women, Isla Mujeres is a five-mile-long island located off of the Yucatán Peninsula. It was once a fishing village, but now it has a booming tourist economy because of whale sharks.

In the early 2000s, local fishermen reported seeing large congregations of whale sharks in the Afuera, which is how the locals refer to the deeper water off the Yucatán coast. It wasn’t until 2006 that local scientists were able to organize expeditions to investigate the area. Aerial photos showed more than 400 whale sharks gathered in one area. Previously, the recorded gatherings of whale sharks were 15−20 individuals at a time. Since then, Isla Mujeres has converted has their fishing boats to tourist boats.

Every year, in the months of July and August, whale sharks gather in the hundreds to feed. A small species of tuna, little tunny, release millions of eggs into the open water to be fertilized by males of the species. These planktonic eggs cloud the water and attract these gentle giants.

Aggregations of whale sharks and rays were also found off the coast of the northern tip of the Yucatán, between Cabo Catoche and Isla Holbox. This aggregation was discovered a few years earlier, and the tourism and scientific research that spawned in response helped to convince the Mexican government to create the Whale Shark Biosphere Reserve in 2009. Unfortunately, this reserve does not include the aggregation near Isla Mujeres.

If you want to see these whale sharks, you can book a tour from either Cancun or Isla Mujeres. However, it is recommended that you do your research ahead of time. For the best experience, you want to book a private tour that allows you to have extended swimming sessions with the whale sharks. Non-private tours are much shorter and do not offer as rewarding an experience, so to avoid being disappointed, please do some research beforehand!

If you want to see whale sharks and don’t have a dive certification, don’t worry. The area is limited to snorkeling, so it’s a great place for beginners, and you don’t have to worry about the world’s largest fish because they’re more interested in feeding than anything else. Whale sharks are filter feeders and don’t actively hunt prey like other sharks do, so there’s no danger of swimming near them.

If you do snorkel with the whale sharks, please follow all rules and regulations in place. These are wild creatures and they are just trying to survive. So please do not touch or harass them; just because they don’t retaliate or get violent doesn’t mean that it’s okay to bother them. The more we respect whale sharks and show the local government that we care, and are interested in their protection, the easier it will be to convince the Mexican government to widen the Whale Shark Biosphere Reserve to include the aggregation of whale sharks off of Isla Mujeres.

Tourism is a powerful tool for conservation and environmental efforts around the world. If done properly, it can have a positive impact on the ocean and the world—we just have to be smart about it. So do your research and follow the rules. Treat the ocean like you’re a guest in someone else’s home, because that’s what we are, guests.

Isla Mujeres is definitely on my must-travel-list! I wouldn’t mind going back to Cancun, but if I were to return to the Yucatán area, I would want to go to the Island of Women first. I’ve read that the island is more laid back than Cancun is, and there are more dive sites around the island that I would love to see, including an underwater art gallery.

Sources and links:
100 Dives of a Lifetime by Carrie Miller
https://indopacificimages.com/americas/the-whale-sharks-of-isla-mujeres/ ⇐ a more in-depth look into the area and the whale shark tourism

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