Whale Shark Research & Photography

The experience of snorkelling with the largest fish in the sea, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is not one you are likely to forget. These gentle plankton eating giants grow as large as 19 metres, display beautiful spot patterns from above, block out the light of day from below and often carry with them a living reef of fish life.

This exclusive experience off the Caribbean coast of Mexico allows as small group of people to join an expert Aqua-Firma research team in search of whale sharks in the largest known aggregation of them on our Planet. We have been operating these trips for six years now, during what has proven to be a peak period of the year, when more than 400 whale shark individuals have been counted in the area on surveys. We have seen up to an estimated 250 sharks from our research vessel on any given day. Photographic and video opportunities can be superb.

There are often aggregations of a potentially 3rd species of Giant Manta Ray in the area we research, as well as whale sharks. Some days we have been in the water with 100 or more of them, as they feed at the surface, swim between whale sharks or barrel roll. Our partners at the Marine Magafauna Foundation (MMF) are fairly convinced that this Atlantic version of Giant Manta is a separate species, but to prove this we need a combination of above and below photo plus DNA evidence from the same individuals. In 2015, Dr Andrea Marshall joined us in trying to achieve this, but whilst we gained photos and DNA, we didn't quite get the combination we needed. Join us on our quest in 2019!

Most of our encounters with whale sharks is in blue water, so visibility can be excellent. We often find Giant Mantas in areas further west, where Copepods can appear in huge abundance. Visibility is much more variable in these waters, but it can provide us with opportunities to snorkel with dolphins and their babies and bonito tuna which they feed on. In reaching these area, we transit past clear shallow waters of the Contoy Island National Park, where we see often see dozens of green and loggerhead turtles swimming beneath us and with us if we snorkel over sea grass beds in the area. We can also see huge colonies of frigate birds and boobies.

Other marine life we find out in clear blue water can be schools of 30 or more Golden Cownose Rays, Bottlenose, Spinner and spotted Dolphins, chance encounters with Sail Fish and Marlin. As always with Mother Nature, every day is different. So far, we have never been a day at the afuera without a whale shark. When we find them amongst an abundance of food, sharks sometimes stop swimming and feed in a vertical position, creating a vortex sucking water in from the surface. These opportunities are wonderful for enabling us to focus on one individual in great detail and provide even better opportunities for film and photography than normal.

Snorkelling with Whale Shark in Isla Mujeres  Mexico Underwater Photography by Ralph Pannell - Swimmiing with Whale Shark Cancun

Aqua-Firma's leadership team in 2017, 2018 & 2019 includes one of the World's leading whale shark researchers, Dr Clare Prebble; and two of Mexico's leading whale shark researchers. Your participation enables Aqua-Firma to help fund the work of these researchers, whose expert insights into our ever growing knowledge of whale shark behaviour and distribution is very much be part of this experience. Clare also happens to have taken hundreds of very high quality images of whale sharks and manta rays. Learning how to emulate the kind of images he has been able to take will also be a part of this experience - not only on location with free group and private photography workshops, but with advice we can provide before you go.

We will take a maximum of 9 people per team on research trips lasting up to 6 1/2 hours each day. Our first priority is to locate the whale sharks and once we do, you will be able to enter the water with them to assist in digital photo ID and recording behaviour and species which use the whale sharks as mobile habitats. Chris and our local team will conduct in water surveys which will include on occasion, skin biopsy samples for DNA and dietary analysis. We may also apply data tags such as a satellite location transmitter or gyro sensor.

The we take on our research boat each day is 9 people plus researchers. In line with local regulations, we can put 2 guests in the water at a time, plus a researcher; whilst those waiting their turn can observe whale sharks from above - often with mouth half in and half out of the water.

Our trips begin and end in Cancun, but we spend most of our time on Isla Mujeres. Whale shark encounters are best enjoyed by snorkelling since whale sharks usually feed here close to the surface. Snorkeling also permits faster movement on and off the boat and through the water.

For those who scuba dive, we can facilitate the opportunity to do so within marine protected areas west and south of Isla Mujeres. Aqua-Firma can also arrange diving in the Cenotes of eastern Mexico; Cozumel Island; tailor made exploration of the World's second largest barrier reef in Belize a short distance to the south; two of the Caribbean's best dive locations, the Turks & Caicos and Cayman Islands; diving in the Sea of Cortez; Central American rainforest; and Mayan ruins in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Please Contact one of our Latin American experts to discuss

Turtle Watching

We usually see marine turtles in the sea every day, but as night falls, we have very high chances of being able to take you to see Green Turtles laying their eggs at select locations on the island. We sometime see as many a 7 at a time, digging nests and laying their eggs. These eggs are collected and taken to a hatchery, where they hatchlings can develop without risk of dogs digging them up, or nests being exposed by the tide.

citizen science - whale shark tour - swimming with whale sharks


Sample 8 Day Itinerary

Note: Boat schedule may be subject to change without notice due to weather conditions or improvements made to help increase our chances for in water encounters with whale sharks or manta rays.

Day 1: Arrive in Cancun

You can arrive into Cancun at any time. You will be met at the airport and transferred to our beachfront hotel in Cancun.

Tonight, we can use dinner as a chance to meet the research & Aqua-Firma trip leaders and others joining the trip. We will make this at 7pm. If you arrive later we can still arrange dinner for you and make every effort to bring you into the group.


Day 2: Head to Isla Mujeres

We will take a relaxed start of things this morning, checking out of the hotel at midday. We will then take a private car and then speed ferry across to Isla Mujeres where we will be based for the rest of the trip (bed & breakfast basis).

We will come back to a marina north of Cancun today, collect luggage and take a comfortable speed ferry to Isla Mujeres. Once there, luggage will be taken care of and we will take a short stroll to your condo / hotel.

Early evening there will be a short relaxed introductory talk about whale sharks and latest updates on their research and conservation around the World. You will also be familiarized with some of the research and research equipment that will be used during the trip. Isla Mujeres has some great eating options which we can explore for dinner.


Days 3 - 7: Whale Sharks of Isla Mujeres

Everyone will have the opportunity to head out a total of 4 times in search of whale sharks. These trips usually last up to 6 1/2 hours. Depending upon overall group size, we will either take everyone out days 3, 4, 6 & 7 or stagger your days on and off the boat. A snack lunch will be provided on the boat as well as ice cold drinks.

Those not going out on any particular day will have the day free, but the Aqua-Firma trip leader will be able to assist in making additional arrangements for you if you wish, such as scuba diving, snorkelling in the Isla Mujeres marine park on its coral reefs, or underwater museum of statues. These activities are supplementary and need to be pad for locally.

Some evenings we will put on talks by members of our international and local research team and provide film / photography advice for those keen. This can include advice on how to use of certain editing software.

We can also head out to a some stretches of beach not far from the hotel where we can expect very good chances of seeing marine turtles coming onshore to dig nests and lay their eggs. Most often it is large Green Turtles we see nesting at this time of year.

(Breakfast all days; snack Lunch on the 4 days out)

Day 8: Return to Cancun

We will take a boat back to Cancun and transfer to the airport … or continue your travels in Mexico and beyond.



Enquire / Book 17 - 24 Jul 2021 - £ 2,090
US$ 2,660
Enquire / Book 24 Jul - 01 Aug 2021 - £ 2,090
US$ 2,660

Price per person sharing a twin bedroom

Single supplement: £315 / US$399

Price includes:
All accommodation in Cancun and Isla Mujeres
- 4 long days out (up to 61/2 hours) in search of whale sharks and Atlantic
  giant manta rays
- Airport transfers in Cancun
- Boat crossing to / from Isla Mujeres
- All breakfasts
- Lunchtime snacks and cold drinks when out at sea
- Welcome dinner
- Guidance and talks by whale shark experts
- Contributions to help fund research

Not included:
International flights
- Snorkel kit
- Visa if needed
- Travel and personal effects insurance

  • Swimming with Whale Shark 'botella' - Feeding Vertically off Mexico's Yucatan - underwater photography by Ralph Pannell using Panasonic Lumix in Nauticam housing
  • Snorkel with Giant Manta Ray in Mexico Yucatan off Isla Mujeres - Dr Simon Pierce
  • Snorkelling with whale sharks in Isla Mujeres citizen science holiday with Aqua-Firma - underwater photography workshops by Dr Simon Pierce MMF
  • Huge Whale Shark Dorsal Fin - Ralph Pannell Aqua-Firma citizen science whale shark research
  • Swimming with Whale Shark vertical feeding in Isla Mujeres, Yucatan Mexico - underwater photography by Ralph Pannell AQUA-FIRMA
  • Snorkelling with an Atlantic Giant Manta Ray - underwater photography by whale shark researcher Dr Simon Pierce citizen science programme Aqua-Firma MMF
  • Coral Bommie & Christmas Tree Worms Snorkelling at Isla Mujeres, Yucatan Mexico Underwater photography by Ralph Pannell AQUA-FIRMA
  • Citizen Science Snorkelling with Whale Shark Isla Mujeres Mexico Afuera - Dr Simon Pierce Aqua-Firma / Marine Megafauna Foundation
  • Whale Shark Research by Snorkel in Isla Mujeres Yucatan Mexico cancun - underwater photography by Dr Simon Pierce Aqua-Firma / Marine Megafauna Foundation
  • Snorkelling with Whale Shark vertical feeding in Mexico afuera Isla Mujeres cancun - underwater photography by Ralph Pannell Aqua-Firma
  • Whale Shark vortex feeding in Isla Mujeres - snorkel and swim with whale sharks citizen science tour Aqua-Firma hosted by underwater photographer and researcher Dr Simon Pierce MMF

Trip reviews - Mexico

Whale Sharks

Aqua-Firma Biggest Donor to Marine Megafauna Foundation Whale Shark Programme

Aqua-Firma Research Group Frees Manta from Hooks & Line

Whale Sharks in Stereo for First Time

  • Snorkelling with whale shark in Mexico off Isla Mujeres - Dr Chris Rohner
  • Whale Shark Research in Isla Mujeres - Underwater Photography by Dr Simon Pierce
  • Snorkelling with an Atlantic Giant Manta Ray during Aqua-Firma Whale Shark Research & Photography Citizewn Science holiday in Mexico Yucatan off Islan Mujeres / Cancun - photograph by  Dr Simon Pierce Marine Megafauna Foundation
  • Whale Shark feeding at the surface in Mexico Caribbean Sea afuera - Ralph Pannell
  • Citizen Science ! Preparing Whale shark skin biospy samples for DNA & dietary analysis - Whale Shark Research & Photography Aqua-Firma Marine Megafauna Foundation
  • Whale Shark Research in Isla Mujeres - Dr Simon Pierce
  • Snorkelling with whale shark in Isla Mujeres - Dr Simon Pierce
  • Whale Shark surface feeding in Mexico - Ralph Pannell
  • Turtle in Isla Mujeres - Dr Simon Pierce
  • Whale Shark Research in Isla Mujeres - Dr Simon Pierce
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