Every year from mid-May to September, environmentalists, scientists, and in-the-know tourists gather on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula to catch one of the animal kingdom’s most awesome summer parties: a get-together featuring whale sharks, the biggest fish in the sea. Despite their fearsome name, these docile sea beasts are more concerned with munching on plankton than meddling with gawking onlookers, and so the best way to see them up close is, well, to get real close. There are a few places around the globe that’ll let you scuba dive with them, but in reality the easiest, most intimate, and most likely way to get quality time with a whale shark is snorkeling in Mexico’s 145,988-acre Whale Shark Biosphere Reserve.
EcoColors, in Cancun, Mexico, offers soup-to-nuts service for this one-of-a-kind trip. Crucially, that includes knowledgeable guides, such as local biologists and naturalists, who are well-versed in the wildlife and ecosystems of the Yucatan. Boats launch from a dock in Punta Sam, north of Cancun, for a 15- to 45-minute ride (depending on where the big fish are hanging out that day). After pulling on fins, mask, and snorkel, you simply drop from the edge of the boat into warm, calm water. Immediately, you're within arm's reach of a 20- to 50-foot-long gray fish with a distinctive pattern of white spots. It's unnerving at first, and easy to forget that this 10-ton behemoth (with a mouth big enough for one of us to fit inside) is a gentle giant with tiny teeth and no interest in something our size. In fact, you're safer near the whale shark's mouth than its powerful tail, which makes up a third of its total body length. The swim itself isn’t a challenge and so is appropriate for virtually any level swimmer – and it is spectacular.
EcoColors takes only small groups (max 10 per boat), and provides pickup at most Cancun hotels. Be ready for pickup at 7 a.m., and you’ll be back on the beach in time for a late afternoon beer. Lunch is served on the boat, and snorkel gear is included. And no need to fear a whale shark–free day: Sightings are guaranteed, or your money back. [Six-hour tour, $195 (discounts for booking online); ecotravelmexico.com]