Are There Sharks In Cancun? The 9 Most Common Shark Types + All You Need to Know
Are there sharks in Cancun? Before you jump into the ocean, you are probably wondering what other creatures will be in the water with you.
Keep reading to find out if there are sharks living just off the coast of Cancun, and how they will affect your vacation!
Are there sharks in Cancun?
Yes! According to researchers at the University of Quintana Roo, there are over 40 different types of shark species in the area. Until recently, it was believed that there were only around 25 species.
If the idea of all these sharks is making you nervous because you were planning to spend your vacation lounging on the and in the water – don’t be!
Shark attacks in Quintana Roo are extremely rare. In fact, the presence of sharks is great news!
Ocean researchers often say that you can tell the health of a coral reef by the presence of apex predators, such as sharks. Sharks cycle nutrients between the open ocean and reef and control the population of smaller fish.
Their presence is essential to maintaining a healthy coral reef, where so many tourists in Cancun visit to enjoy seeing colorful fish and marine animals.
Different types of sharks in Cancun
There are over 40 different shark species in the Cancun area. Some of the species, such as nurse sharks and Caribbean Reef sharks, are frequently seen on the reefs while scuba diving or snorkeling. Others, such as hammerhead sharks, are more elusive.
In fact, scuba divers may spend their entire dive career hoping for a glimpse of one, and never seeing it. Here are the most common sharks that can be found in Cancun.
1. Whale Shark
Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish, adults can reach up to 18-33 feet long. These beautiful sharks have white spots and stripes all over their backs.
These amazing patterns are the whale shark’s fingerprint- each one is different. Every summer, groups of whale sharks gather off the shores of Cancun to feast on the plankton bloom there.
Whale sharks are filter feeders, meaning that they filter water through their gills and eat tiny plankton and small creatures.
Whale sharks are gentle giants. They slowly swim, and despite their huge mouths, have tiny teeth and cannot bite you.
The whale sharks are in the Cancun area from mid-May until mid-September every year but typically stay an hour or more boat rides away from the shore.
You can sign up for a tour that will take you out into the deep water, where you can snorkel with them.
You are not allowed to scuba dive with them, but it would not be necessary anyway. The whale sharks often stay shallow to eat the plankton.
2. Nurse Shark
Nurse sharks are one of the most common species of shark you will encounter while scuba diving or snorkeling in Cancun. They are generally docile and spend most of their day relaxing under ledges in the reef.
They are more active in the evening and at night when they hunt for lobster and other crustaceans.
Nurse sharks are usually between 7 and 10 feet long. Unlike the stereotypical-looking shark, they have round heads and small eyes.
Nurse sharks will generally allow scuba divers to approach them, and will swim away if they feel threatened.
Many scuba divers believe the incorrect myth that nurse sharks have no teeth and therefore cannot bite you.
This is not true, nurse sharks have a mouth full of small, sharp serrated teeth. Nurse sharks have been known to bite divers who poke or scare them. As with all marine animals, you should respect nurse sharks. If you do not bother them, the chance of them biting you is very, very low.
3. Lemon Shark
Lemon sharks get their name from their yellow color. This color helps them blend into the sandy bottom, and they often live and hunt for food in shallow waters.
Lemon sharks often live in groups. Adult lemon sharks can grow up to 10 to 11 feet long. Lemon sharks are not aggressive toward humans.
It is not common to see a lemon shark while scuba diving or snorkeling in Cancun- so consider yourself lucky if you spot one!
4. Shortfin Mako Shark
Shortfin Mako sharks are 12 to 13 feet long, and can weigh up to 1,200 pounds! They are a metallic blue or grey color with long, pointy noses.
One of the most remarkable things about them is how incredibly fast they swim. They can swim at 25 miles per hour with short bursts that reach up to 56 miles per hour.
With these speeds, they can catch their unsuspecting prey.
Mako sharks are not known to be aggressive toward humans. In fact, it is rare to see them. They prefer to stay in the deep, open ocean.
They rarely come into the shallow areas where people swim or do water sports.
5. Hammerhead Shark
Hammerhead sharks are the most recognizable shark, due to their wide, flat head. Their heads are full of sensory organs that help them hunt their prey.
Hammerhead sharks are a grey color with white bellies.
There are several species of hammerhead. In the Cancun area, you can find the small bonnethead species which only grow up to four feet, as well as the great hammerhead sharks which can grow up to 20 feet long!
Hammerhead sharks look menacing and are known to follow their prey into shallow waters. Despite this, they are not known to be aggressive toward humans.
It is rare but possible, to spot them while scuba diving in Cancun. Any scuba diver who has had the luck to see one will proudly tell you all about it!
6. Caribbean Reef Shark
Caribbean Reef sharks are one of the most commonly spotted sharks in Cancun. True to their name, Caribbean Reef sharks live in shallow waters, close to coral reefs.
There they hunt for fish, small rays, and crustaceans. Caribbean reef sharks can be found all along the eastern coast of the Americas, from Florida all the way to Brazil.
Caribbean Reef sharks are a dark gray color with white bellies and a blunt snout. They are usually between 6 and 10 feet long and weigh up to 150 pounds.
Since these sharks live near coral reefs, it is common to spot them while scuba diving.
Caribbean Reef sharks are not aggressive toward divers- they generally avoid them. They often swim away when they see and hear divers approaching.
7. Bull Shark
Bull sharks can be spotted in the waters off of Cancun and Playa del Carmen from December to March. Every year pregnant females come to the area to enter shallow mangroves and give birth.
These massive sharks can grow to 7 to 11 feet long and reach up to 500 pounds. The females are typically larger than the males. They have a short, flat snout.
Bull sharks are aggressive predators that will eat almost anything. They are known to hunt fish, smaller shark species, marine mammals, birds, and turtles.
They are opportunistic eaters and will follow their prey into shallow waters.
8. Tiger shark
The massive tiger shark is known to live in the Cancun area, although it is rare to spot one. Tiger sharks can grow up to 14 feet long and weigh up to 2,000 pounds!
They are found in warm waters all over the world and can live in either deep water or shallower areas.
Tiger sharks are aggressive predators. They have a reputation for eating almost anything, including trash that is floating in the ocean.
They are generally considered to be more curious than aggressive with humans; however, if you encounter one, use caution.
9. Blacktip Reef shark
Blacktip Reef sharks are similar to Caribbean reefs except they have distinct black markings on the tip of their fins.
They can grow to be around 6 feet long. These sharks are commonly seen by scuba divers because they live in the shallow waters near coral reefs where they feed on crustaceans, mollusks, and cephalopods.
For some people, learning that there are several shark species living in the Cancun area could cause some anxiety.
Fortunately, shark attacks are very, very rare. In the state of Quintana Roo, there have only been 10 recorded shark attacks.
For the number of tourists who visit the area and spend time in the water every day, this is an incredibly small number.
Of course, the few times that there has been a shark attack, it has received a ton of media attention.
Shark attacks in Cancun
According to the International Shark Attack File, there have been 8 unprovoked shark attacks in Quintana Roo since 1907.
Two of these attacks occurred in Cancun within a few months of each other in 2011.
The first attack happened in January 2011 when a Canadian woman went into the water up to her waist. She was bitten by a bull shark on her arm and leg. She survived but lost one arm and part of her thigh had a large bite.
The second shark attack occurred a few months later in March 2011. Despite warnings from lifeguards that there were sharks in the water, a tourist still got in. The tourist was bitten on their foot by a bull shark but survived the attack.
Isla Mujeres shark attacks
Isla Mujeres is located in the Caribbean Sea just off the coast of Cancun. It is a popular destination to visit during whale shark season.
Tours to go snorkeling with the whale sharks depart from there. Whale sharks are incredibly gentle.
They are filter feeders, so they use their huge mouths to eat plankton and other small creatures- not to attack humans (or any other animals).
Whale sharks are much more likely to be hurt by a human who touches their sensitive skin or grabs onto them for a ride than the other way around.
There are no known unprovoked shark attacks in the waters off Isla Mujeres.
Shark attacks in Playa del Carmen
In recent years, Playa del Carmen has become very popular with scuba divers who want to see bull sharks. Bull sharks arrive every year in Playa del Carmen in December.
The females come to the shallow waters to have their babies and stick around the area until February or March. This makes bull shark sightings common in the area.
Bull sharks, along with great white and tiger sharks are responsible for most shark attacks worldwide.
This is because bull sharks enter shallow areas to hunt their prey. They are aggressive predators with teeth that are designed to shear, not just hold.
Despite this, there are no recorded unprovoked shark attacks in Playa del Carmen. Thankfully, lifeguards pay close attention to shark sightings and will close beaches if there are known bull sharks in the area.
Shark attacks in Mexico & worldwide
With all this talk about sharks, it might feel like shark attacks are common occurrences. In fact, the International Shark Attack File estimates that your chance of having a close encounter with a shark is only 1 in 11.5 million!
This same site has recorded only 40 shark attacks all over Mexico since 1907. For a country with so many miles of coastline, that is not very many!
The media has played a big part in sensationalizing shark attacks. From movies to new stories about shark encounters, they paint the ocean as a very dangerous place to visit.
Unfortunately, this fear-mongering is harmful to sharks. When people see sharks as dangerous, they are less inclined to stop shark overfishing or shark finning.
These things have led to a decline in shark populations worldwide, and as we already know, sharks are critical to the health of coral reefs and the ocean.
What this all means for you as a tourist, is that you should not fear a shark attack while in Cancun. As always, take caution when entering the water and be aware of your surroundings.
Listen to local lifeguards if they warn of shark sightings in the area and do not enter the water.
What to do when you encounter a shark
In the rare event that you do encounter a shark while swimming off the shore in Cancun, the best thing to do is calmly get out of the water.
Experts think that sharks attack humans because they are confused or curious. They recommend that you do not use brightly colored swimsuits or metallic swimwear and avoid wearing jewelry that will reflect the light.
They believe these reflections can confuse a shark and make it believe you are their typical food. If you spot a shark, try to avoid splashing, as this can also confuse them or make them want to come to investigate you.
In the even rarer event that a shark attacks you, experts recommend punching or hitting them in the face, especially the eyes.
They say that this will make the shark swim away from you. Chances are, you will never have the chance to put this knowledge to use.
Many divers would consider a run with any of these sharks to be great luck! If you are scuba diving and you see a shark, do not swim after it and just remain calm.
Sharks understand that humans are not their food, and will probably swim away on their own. Make sure to take a great mental picture of the shark- you will be able to brag about the sighting forever!
While some people shudder at the idea of seeing a shark up close, others want to sign up for the chance to see one. Here are the shark tourism opportunities in Quintana Roo.
➡️ Swimming with whale sharks in Cancun
Cancun is one of the best destinations in the world for swimming with whale sharks. They come to the area to feast on a plankton bloom, and you can snorkel with them. You are not allowed to scuba dive.
Where can you spot whale sharks in Cancun?
The whale sharks that come to the Cancun area do not come close to the shore. You will need to take a boat ride that can last from one to two hours out into the deep waters to see them. Tours leave from Cancun, Isla Holbox, and Isla Mujeres.
When can you swim with whale sharks in Cancun?
Whale sharks visit the Cancun area from early-June to mid-September every year. The best months for spotting them are usually July and August.
Best whale shark tours in Cancun
The only way to snorkel with the whale sharks is a tour. The government requires boats to have proper permits and follow rules to ensure the whale sharks’ safety.
👉 Small-Group Eco Friendly: Whale Sharks tour in Cancun & Riviera Maya
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On this tour, you will depart from the marina and head out to sea looking for the whale sharks.
Your biologist guide will give you a full safety briefing then it will be time to hop into the water to swim next to these massive creatures.
You will have a minimum of two jumps into the water to snorkel. On the way back you will stop at Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres to relax and have fun.
Diving with bull sharks in Cancun ethically!
Bull sharks arrive every December in Playa del Carmen. Many dive shops offer special dives to see these huge, pregnant females.
To guarantee that their divers will see bull sharks, some shops have begun feeding the sharks. This practice has stirred debate among dive shops and divers since many people feel it is unethical to feed the sharks.
Why is feeding sharks unethical?
Feeding them changes their natural eating tendencies, and makes them easy prey for fishermen who want to fish them.
If you decide to do a bull shark dive, ask your dive shop if they will be feeding the sharks. It is best to only support shops that DO NOT feed the sharks.
Where can you dive with bull sharks in Cancun?
Bull shark diving takes place in Playa del Carmen, which is one hour south of Cancun. Many Cancun dive shops work with dive shops in Playa del Carmen and can take you on a bull shark dive.
Shops that do not feed the sharks still know what areas the sharks frequent, so you will still see them without participating in a feeding.
When can you dive with sharks in Cancun?
The bull sharks arrive in Playa del Carmen around December. The amount of time they stay in the area changes every year. Some years they stay until February or March.
Best bull shark diving tours in Cancun
Most area dive shops will take you to see the bull sharks. Make sure to confirm with your shop that they do not participate in shark feedings.
Sharks are an important part of the marine world, and it is important to protect them. There are several groups throughout Mexico that work with shark conservation.
On a personal level, you can contribute to shark conservation by being careful about what seafood you consume. Sharks are still fished in many parts of Mexico and restaurants and grocery stores call it cazon, and many people do not realize they are eating shark meat.
Cancun sharks FAQ
Do great white sharks live in Cancun?
No, there have not been any great white sharks reported in Cancun.
Is there cage diving in Cancun?
No. The only cage diving in Mexico is on Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja California and you can only go there via Liveaboards.
Can you swim safely in the ocean in Cancun?
Yes! As always, be careful when swimming in the water. Lifeguards will tell you if there are shark sightings, and also alert you to dangerous rip currents in the water. Listen to them and stay within a safe distance of shore.
What part of Mexico has the most sharks?
There are a variety of sharks all over the coasts of Mexico. The Pacific coast is home to many species of shark. The Caribbean coast of Mexico is home to over 40 species of shark.
The remote Revillagegedo Islands are visited by schools of hammerheads and many other species, and great white sharks visit Guadalupe Island.
Are there sharks in the Gulf of Mexico?
Yes. There are many shark species that make their home in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Final thoughts: Are there Sharks in Cancun?
Yes, there are sharks off the coast of Cancun, and this is a great thing. Sharks are critical to the survival of coral reefs.
We know that there are several species of shark that lives in the waters off Cancun; however, it is rare to encounter them.
Many spend their time in deeper waters, coming into shallow areas to feed or have their babies. It is rare to have a shark sighting, and you can confidently swim in the water without worrying about shark attacks.
Just remember, anytime you enter the ocean you need to be aware of your surroundings.
About the Author
Adrienne Banka is a Michigander and fell in love with diving at 16 years old. Now she is an island living dive instructor turned brewmaster, turned mom. When she is not in the water she enjoys riding her bike and chasing after her dog and her little girl.