Last updated on May 24, 2023 by Wandering our World
Shark preparation is an important aspect of visiting any beach destination, and while shark attacks tend to be very rare it’s important that you are prepared for whatever you may run into on your travels. Whether there are sharks in Cancun and the Riviera Maya is a question many ask, and it’s an important one too, as you’ll find out here.
The city of Cancun and the Riviera Maya region, which includes the cities of Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, Puerto Aventuras, Xpu-Ha, Akumal, Soliman’s Bay, Tank Ha Bay, and Tulum are only separated by about 20 miles, and both encompass long stretches of beach access.
That means you should be prepared to encounter marine life in both areas. Here, we answer your questions about the sharks that you might run into in Cancun and the Riviera Maya, and also detail past shark attacks in the region.
We also explain the areas where you’re most likely to see sharks in case you want to avoid them (or find them!), give you shark safety information, and show the conservation efforts going on to help these creatures and how you can help!
Shark Attacks and Encounters in Cancun and the Riviera Maya
According to the International Shark Attack File, Mexico has experienced over forty recorded shark attacks in the past 400 years.
Cancun has experienced several shark attacks, including potentially one on a young boy in knee-deep water in March 2023 – although the local council has claimed that it was a barracuda attack.
As for confirmed attacks, there were at least two unprovoked shark attacks happening over the course of just a few months in 2011. The first shark attack took place in January of 2011 when a Canadian woman waded into the water up to her waist and then felt a shark bite into her arm. Unfortunately, the victim lost her arm and a large chunk of her thigh was bitten off and had to be reattached later at the hospital.
In March of 2011, the second unprovoked shark attack took place when a tourist waded about 100 meters into the water, even after lifeguards on the beach warned her that there was the possibility of sharks in the water. The woman was taken to the hospital shortly after where she was treated for an 8-inch wound in her foot.
The Riviera Maya region is located within the same state, Quintana Roo, as Cancun. Quintana Roo itself has eight shark attacks recorded in recent history. In the Riviera Maya region, there have been several shark sightings recently that resulted in the closure of beaches for safety, but the fact remains that shark attacks in the area are very rare.
While shark sightings are frequent, typically lifeguards in Cancun and the wider Riviera Maya region are able to act quickly and close beaches before an incident occurs.
However shark sightings off the coast of Playa Del Carmen are particularly common. As biologists from the Saving our Sharks organization point out, sharks approach the coast in places like Playa Del Carmen to have their young between November and March. Biologists from the organization also point out that when we enter the ocean we are entering the shark’s habitat, so it is up to us to take care and be responsible visitors.
Most shark attacks that humans experience are actually provoked, meaning the human initiated interaction with the shark in some way. Examples of provoked attacks include a shark being caught in a fisherman’s net, a human harassing or touching a shark in their habitat, or a human feeding a shark.
So the safest way to avoid attacks from sharks in Cancun and the Riviera Maya is to listen to lifeguards who will keep an eye on sightings, and avoid touching or going near any sharks.
Further down this article we give you information on what to do if you encounter a shark, but first, here’s a few of the shark species you can find in the region, and whether they are aggressive or not. (Recommended: Your Guide to Culture in Cancun).
But First: Our Recommended Stays in Cancun:
Shoestring: Finding a stylish place on a shoestring budget is hard in Cancun, but Nomads Enigmatic Hotel & Hostel is just that. This modern hostel in downtown Cancun has been created in an old Mexican style but comes complete with bar, outside swimming pool and wonderful shared garden. For the price, it’s a fantastic choice.
Budget: It’s even harder to find luxurious beachside accommodation in the city’s famous hotel zone without stratospheric prices attached to it. However Oleo Cancun Playa Boutique All Inclusive Resort offers an all-inclusive experience – and even rooms with sea views – at more than half the price of many neighboring hotels.
Luxury: Set in the heart of the action in Cancun’s hotel zone, and with every luxury imaginable including butler service, Turquoize at Hyatt Ziva Cancun with its unbelievable beachside views and infinity pool is as high end as you can get.
Common Shark Species in Cancun and the Riviera Maya
1. Caribbean Reef Shark
Caribbean Reef Sharks live along the coast stretching from Florida to Brazil and are typically found in shallow waters and in waters surrounding reefs.
Reef sharks are therefore the most commonly seen shark while scuba diving. They can grow up to ten feet in length and are about one hundred and fifty pounds. The Caribbean Reef Shark is known to avoid humans altogether and is not known to have attacked any humans. However, Reef Sharks are still considered dangerous and should be viewed with caution.
2. Whale Sharks
Whale sharks are the largest shark, and the largest fish in the sea! Whale sharks will travel long distances to find food and typically feed on plankton and use a filtration system of feeding, similar to that of whales.
The Whale Shark prefers warm waters and can be found in all Caribbean waters. It is known as the gentle giant of the sea because it poses very little threat to humans and they are a favorite of scuba divers because they are easy to spot.
Whale Sharks are some of the easiest sharks to spot in Cancun and the Riviera Maya. There are a variety of tours available that give you a chance to see Whale Sharks and many options for tourists to view them in their habitat. They’re incredible to see and pose no risk to humans, so if you get the chance to see them, take it!
3. Tiger Sharks
Tiger sharks are some of the largest marine animals, weighing up to 2,000 pounds and measuring up to fourteen feet in length. Tiger sharks can be found in warm waters all over the world, but specifically can be found in the Cancun and Riviera Maya areas.
Unfortunately, they are known as being very aggressive predators and as omnivores will eat almost anything they come across, sometimes even garbage and metal they stumble upon floating in the water.
Tiger sharks have been known to attack people, and due to their large size, the attacks are sometimes fatal. It is best to avoid tiger sharks if you see them, as they can be very dangerous to encounter.
4. Nurse Sharks
Nurse sharks can be seven to ten feet in length and weigh up to three hundred pounds. Nurse sharks are more of a yellowish-brown color instead of a grey color like most sharks, and they have round heads and very small eyes.
These sharks are relatively sedentary during the day and do most of their hunting in the evening and nighttime. Because of their inactivity during the day, divers are most likely to run into nurse sharks in reefs. While the sharks are relatively docile, it is best to avoid touching them as some attacks have been reported when the shark was startled awake by a diver.
5. Bull Sharks
Bull sharks can be sighted in both Cancun and Playa Del Carmen and are one of the most common sharks to see if you choose to go scuba diving in the area.
Bull sharks can be as large as seven to eight feet in length and up to three hundred pounds. Female bull sharks migrate to the warm waters of coastal Mexico to give birth, and it is highly recommended you do not feed these sharks as it can be quite dangerous to do so.
Bull sharks get their name from their flat snout and unpredictable behavior which makes them quite dangerous to humans.
Which Areas Are You Most Likely to See Sharks?
Shark sightings are quite common in Cancun and the Maya Riviera, so much so that there are many options for shark sighting tours throughout the region. The most common tours are to see the Whale Shark which is considered a very gentle shark that is often friendly to divers, and easy to spot.
Specific regions to visit include Tulum and Playa del Carmen where shark sightings are more frequent. Another very popular area to visit is the Isla Mujeres, a small island off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where one of the world’s largest aggregations of whale sharks can be found between June and September!
If you are visiting the area and interested in a tour, there are many options so you can get up close and personal with this gentle giant of the sea. Whale Shark season typically happens between early June to mid-September and the best time to see them is during this season.
Sharks in Cancun and the Riviera Maya: Safety and What You Need to Know
If you come across a shark, stay calm and don’t flail your arms or legs around. The thrashing can attract a shark to investigate to see if you’re food.
Keep eye contact with the shark if possible and slowly swim away from it. Try to stay vertical rather than horizontal when moving away from the shark.
Focus on showing the shark that you are a predator, not prey, by making eye contact with them and showing them that you are confident and aware of your surroundings. However, don’t stick around too long – after initial eye contact make sure to survey your surroundings again to ensure there aren’t other sharks around.
Sharks also have monochromatic vision, and they tend to be very interested and curious about high contrast areas. So it’s best to avoid wearing brightly colored clothes while swimming as that could attract any sharks.
Recommended: The Common, Rare & Dangerous Animals in Cancun You Might Meet!
Conservation Efforts for Sharks in Cancun and the Riviera Maya
Sharks are some of the most beautiful sea creatures that you can encounter and have lived for millions of years, and have even outlived the dinosaurs.
Unfortunately, shark populations have diminished over the years due to the threats that humans have imposed. The biggest threat to shark species today is overfishing because sharks can easily be caught in the nets of fishermen and do not always make a safe escape.
Other threats to sharks include the sale of fins, meat, and liver oil that are considered highly valuable in some countries. Specifically, the sale of fins, which is considered a delicacy in some Asian countries, poses a huge threat to the protection of sharks. Sharks are an important part of the marine ecosystem, and keeping them from extinction is important.
As a tourist to Cancun and the Riviera Maya, it is important to visit shark habitats respectfully and to take into consideration local conservation efforts to ensure the marine ecosystem remains intact.
As tourism has increased throughout Cancun and the Maya Riviera, so has the threat to the safety and well-being of sharks and their habitats. If you plan on visiting the highly popular Whale Sharks during your visit, remember these dos and don’ts from the World Wildlife Conservation:
- Always wear a lifejacket
- Remain 16ft away from the Whale Sharks
- Do not touch the animals
- No littering
- No fishing
- Do not use sunscreens, oils, or lotions
- Do not jump from the boat
- Always bring a guide
- Enter the water slowly
- No flash photography
- Do not touch the coral reef
- Never remove marine life or plants and take them with you
Being educated on the types of sharks you may encounter, where they frequent, and the safest way to interact with them is important to ensure you have a wonderful shark encounter during your visit to Cancun and the Maya Riviera.
Experiencing a shark attack is incredibly rare, but if you are interested in seeking out a shark encounter, you should do so safely with a guided tour company that offers authorized tours focused on protecting you and the marine life.
Our Final Thoughts
Shark attacks in Cancun and the wider region are rare, and it is unlikely that you will be in a situation where you feel unsafe and threatened by a shark in Mexico.
The most dangerous situation you can put yourself in is by trying to catch a shark, touch it, or try and provoke it. That’s when they can become incredibly aggressive.