There’s an excitement that buzzes through Playa del Carmen every year, around mid-November. It’s not a pre-high season pulse or the waning Halloween/Dia de Muertos highs; its the anticipation of the arrival of some of Playa’s most-visited temporary residents, the revered Bull Shark, or Carcharhinus leucas. Each year, beginning around the middle of November and finishing up at the end of February, sometimes trickling into March, Playa is home to a population of migratory female Bull Sharks, many of whom are pregnant and nearing the end of their 10-to-11 month gestation period. Their male counterparts tend to linger around Cancun, while it is believed that the females are seeking out a nursery environment in which to give birth. This draws them to Playa del Carmen, where there are vents of fresh water that release into the ocean from the area’s expansive underwater cave systems. Bull Sharks are capable of living in both salt and fresh water environments, and are often found in estuaries, rivers and even some lakes. They therefore seek out the cooler streams of fresh water, and ultimately migrate south to the brackish, mangrove-protected lagoons around the Bay of Chetumal to give birth. They then return briefly to Playa’s waters with their young before continuing their migration to unknown destinations.
This high anticipation for the shark season to begin develops into adrenaline for divers as soon as they drop into the waters over Shark Point, just offshore of Mamita’s beach in Playa del Carmen. Divers free-descend down onto a sandy bottom where they settle in and are often immediately greeted by the curious bull sharks, circling in to investigate what’s making all that bubbling noise. Any nerves the divers may have had are often quickly diminished as soon as they witness the grace and beauty of these animals in their natural environment; it is a dive in which it is truly a privilege to participate.
What the presence of the sharks has meant for the area has changed over the years. Previously the sharks were heavily sought after by local fisherman as a prize-catch, earning them up to $200 USD per shark. In recent years, this practice has been discouraged and grown less common as the diving community has worked alongside the fishing community to promote the preservation of these incredible animals in hopes to demonstrate their sustainable economic value as an alive attraction rather than the quick one-time pay day that is earned through fishing. Though some of the local dive operators do feed and/or chum to create more of a spectacle for divers, many dive centers subscribe to a strict no-feeding policy in efforts to observe the sharks in a more natural state, and so as not to encourage the sharks to develop a dependency on divers as a food source and potentially incite more aggressive behavior. The popularity of the dive has grown immensely in recent years, and the area now attracts thousands of divers annually eager to get in the water with “Las Gorditas,” as they are affectionately known locally. The bull shark dive has done wonders to debunk the bull shark’s unfair reputation as aggressive man-eaters, and has helped to spread global awareness that we need to protect these sharks and their important position as apex predators in our ocean’s ecosystem. While the popularity of the dive brings about a whole new set of questions about how we interact with animals in the wild, it is important that we participate responsibly with the utmost respect for the animals and their environment. And while fishing of the sharks has diminished, it is not banned, and still occurs with some regularity each year. They still are in need of our support and conservation efforts. Certified divers who plan to visit Playa del Carmen during November to February are encouraged to reserve their Bull Shark dive now to see for themselves why these sharks need protecting, and to also donate to the local non-profit Saving our Sharks, who have lead the charge in research and conservation of Playa’s Bull Shark population.