It’s whale shark season in the waters of the Mexican Caribbean. And there’s an added reason to visit this year. The 10th annual Whale Shark Festival takes place from July 20-23 on Isla Mujeres. It celebrates the island, the center of the world’s largest concentration of whale sharks.
One of the Cancun’s “Treasures of the Caribbean,” Isla Mujeres is a "Pueblo Magico" or Magic Town. The destination's whale shark legacy played a role in that 2015 designation.
Last year’s Whale Shark Festival attracted thousands of visitors. Organizers are outdoing themselves for this special anniversary year. The roster includes a parade, sand sculpting and crafting events as well as plenty of food booths. Exhibits will feature whale-shark themed artworks, photography and local handicrafts. Marine biologists will be on hand, as will non-profit groups dedicated to conservation and ecotourism.
The highlight of the festivities is the chance to swim with whale sharks.
The largest fish in the ocean can reach lengths of 40 feet, and weigh nearly 80,000 pounds. Filter feeders that eat mostly plankton, whale sharks pose no threat to humans. But humans pose a threat to them. Their numbers have dwindled significantly in recent years. They’re on the endangered species list, protected by both international and Mexican laws. Strict rules restrict the number of licensed boats allowed to approach the pods surrounding Isla Mujeres, Contoy and Holbox. Only two passengers at a time from each boat can enter the water to swim or snorkel near them.
It’s the experience of a lifetime, though. To see the “gentle giants” up close, especially as their huge mouths slowly open, is magical. One proviso for agents: Make sure clients know they’re looking at a boat ride of one and a half hours or so each way. The waters can be choppy, so seasick meds might be in order.
Hotel Updates in Cancun and the Riviera Maya
Hotels in Cancun and the Riviera Maya continue to gear up for summer visitors. Travel Agent learned about some new family-friendly options at IBEROSTAR Hotels & Resorts from vice president of sales and marketing John Long.
At IBEROSTAR Paraíso Lindo in the Riviera Maya, there’s a new “Kids Corner” open from 5 p.m. until 1 a.m. Parents can enjoy the hotel’s nighttime offerings while kids are looked after. As a bonus for good behavior, parents can treat the little ones to the new candy paradise, “Sweet Home,” at the Playa Paraíso Shopping Center. The shopping center is accessible to all five hotels within the Playa Paraíso Complex. "Sweet Home" offers bulk candy, cotton candy, ice cream, popcorn and chocolate-covered fruit skewers. It’s included with a stay at any of the five hotels within the complex. Dental office follow-ups are not.
Guests at IBEROSTAR Tucán and Quetzal, both in Playa del Carmen, can enjoy a new path along the mangrove area. New huts have also been added for massages. Both hotels underwent significant renovations of lobbies, terrace areas, pool and playground décor, spas and fitness centers in 2016.
All the improvements are part of the Spanish-owned chain’s commitment to customer service, gastronomy and entertainment.
“Mexico is one of IBEROSTAR’s most important destinations,” Long tells Travel Agent.
More Whale Shark Encounters in La Paz
After whale shark season in the Caribbean wraps up in September, it begins again in the Sea of Cortez. The sharks return every winter to the Bay of La Paz in Baja California Sur. Popular tours to Isla Espiritu Santo or the sea lion colony at Los Islotes often include whale shark encounters.
Though they don’t accumulate in the same numbers as the Caribbean islands, whale shark encounters from La Paz are easier to accomplish. Several operators specialize in whale shark tours. The season lasts from October through the early spring. Waters of the Sea of Cortez are cold that time of year, so wetsuits are needed.
“Our waters are very calm. They’re perfect for kids to enjoy snorkeling and get in touch with nature. It’s easy to see the whale sharks. They’re right there in the bay. You don’t have to spend more than an hour in a boat getting to them, like you do in other places,” Sandra Felix, general director of the board of tourism of La Paz, tells Travel Agent.
She adds, “We may not have the big name that other destinations have. But, we are in the ‘Aquarium of the World,’ according to Jacques Cousteau. La Paz is an authentic Mexican destination, and an incredible option for visitors any time of year,” said Felix.