Imagine being 90’ under the ocean with nothing but bubbles between yourself a school of bull sharks, National Geographic’s “most dangerous sharks in the world.” Playa Del Carmen has a reputation of being a beach party town, but divers everywhere come to Playa to dive with sharks. If you’ve never been underwater with these apex predators, you wouldn’t understand. Seeing their graceful power in nature, your fears change to respect and admiration. Every diver with an adventurous streak should try bull shark diving once, and there is no better place than Playa Del Carmen.
Getting Ready for Diving With Sharks in Playa Del Carmen
Jenn and I met up with our dive masters, Hugo and Thibault at the Blue Life shop. Five divers were going on the boat that day: Jenn, Junior, Tati, Andrea, and myself. Blue Life has a policy of keeping a 4/1 diver ratio, so both Hugo and Thibault were going to go with us. Even though there is no history of shark attacks while diving in Playa del Carmen, we wanted to find a dive shop that takes safety seriously. Our dive masters said the sharks live in 90’ water, so we donned 5 mil wetsuits and filled our tanks with enriched air.
To our surprise, the pre-dive safety briefing focused more on the depth and current, and less about the sharks themselves. We were asked not to have external lights or flashes on the cameras, to stay low, to have no dangly objects, and to keep our eyes on the sharks. The simplicity of the safety briefing hinted that our shark fears did not match the reality of this dive. From Blue Life, we traveled two blocks down to the beach with the shop truck carrying all the gear. The group waded out to the boat and then we motored to the dive site. It was the shortest dive boat trip I have ever taken. The site was just five minutes offshore, in front of the main beach. I wonder if all the swimmers there know how close they are to bull sharks?
Why are there Bull Sharks at Playa Del Carmen?
We asked Hugo why there were sharks at Playa Del Carmen. He said that the fisherman would clean their catches here before coming into shore. After a while, the sharks caught on and started to hang out where the fish were. No wonder the dive site is so close to town.
Our First Shark Dive
My spine tingled with a mix of excitement and fear as I swam to the dive buoy. Somewhere beneath my fins lurked a swarm of bull sharks. I kept thinking about that one scene from Jaws, but I couldn’t fully indulge the fantasy. I had to keep my breathing under control if I was going to have any bottom time. Every breath at 90’ under uses four times as much gas as breathing at the surface.
One final ok, and we let the air out of our BCDs to begin sinking into the sharks’ lair. Slowly dropping into the depths, I could see the sandy bottom beneath me. I wasn’t halfway down before I saw the first shark glide by. I felt defenseless during my slow descent, like a paratrooper dropping onto the beach at Normandy. I focused on the things I could control, my breath, buoyancy, and equalizing my ears. A small puff of air into my BCD made me neutrally buoyant at the bottom, and we began our slow swim to find more sharks.
We didn’t go far before the sharks found us. They knew who we were, and swam close by to check us out. I kept my eyes on them at all times, in part for safety, but also because they were too beautiful to look away. I was expecting to see the eyes of a ruthless killer, but instead, my mind wandered back to the shark caricature at the dive shop. I could see why the artist drew smiling sharks. They looked happy to see us.
We spent a little over a half hour at the bottom before we had to surface. In that time, I learned to recognize several distinctive sharks. There was one with a nip out of his dorsal fin and another with a tracker implanted. A few others were perfectly formed and sleek but came in different sizes. Our new friends would visit for a while, then disappear into the blue from where they came.
Our Second Dive With Bull Sharks
On the boat, Jenn asked if we could go again. Junior and I eagerly agreed. Tati wasn’t comfortable with the sharks or the depth and Andrea wanted to see the nearby reef for diversity. The guides agreed to split the group since we would be within ratios. Tati decided she would rather stay with Junior, her dive partner, and opted for a second shark dive. Thibault gave Andrea, the diversity girl, a private tour of the reef where they saw plenty of eels and tropical fish. The group had to be careful with nitrogen loading doing two deep dives in a row. Luckily, we were diving a 34% nitrox mix, but we still had to keep a close eye on the deco time.
We followed the buoy line all the way down to rejoin our shark friends at the bottom. Jenn and I settled down into the sand and grabbed onto a fixed line to hold our positions. The usual shark crew was back along with some rays and remora fish, commonly known as sharksuckers. We were all ready for some peaceful shark watching until the next dive group from another local shop arrived, and chaos ensued.
Manufactured vs. Natural Shark Encounters
The chainmail clad dive masters were the first intruders from the new group to arrive. They ripped their fins off and marched around on the bottom rocks setting up for their show. Their divers descended in mass and burrowed down into the sand to watch the theatrics, kicking up a cloud of sediment in the process.
The DM’s chummed the water and shook their shakers to call in the sharks. It seemed like a Sea World show contrived by an egoist. I love bowing at the feet of aggressive masculinity as much as the next guy, but I liked the more natural encounter we where having before about twenty of our closest friends crashed the party. Peace and calm returned when our group moved down the line to find a new spot.
Should You Chum Sharks?
The debate continues about the ethics associated with shark chumming. Shark tourism reduces fears and builds shark advocates. Per National Geographic “Around 100,000 are killed each year for their fins or as by-catch by the fishing industry, and increased awareness of the issue could contribute to conservation efforts.” They also point out that shark feeding changes natural habits, which also might not be a bad thing for aggressive apex predators when you think about it.
I personally enjoyed watching the sharks swimming around us going about their day much more than watching the chum show. I also appreciated Blue Life’s small group size and the undivided attention of the dive masters. One could only assume that the DMs of the huge groups limited the dive time so that even the heaviest breathers had plenty of margin to surface. As it was, Hugo had his hands full with the four of us making two deep dives, and we can’t thank him enough for the personal attention he gave us on the trip.
Reflections on Shark Diving
We hung out back at the shop talking with Hugo and Thibault for a while. They were the sort of people who you instantly gravitated to. After just a few hours, we felt more like friends than clients. I believed them when they said Blue Life could be our new diving home in Playa Del Carmen. If you’re scuba diving in Cancun, most shops have day trips down to Playa Del Carmen for shark diving, but I would ask questions if they operate their own boat or partner with area dive shops.
Playa Del Carmen is a charming city filled with life and vibrancy and is the gateway to dive the Yucatan. The ferry to Cozumel gives you easy access to Cozumel drift diving. It’s just a short trip by car to dive the cenotes of Tulum. Blue Life even runs cenote trips including some that are farther north than most Tulum companies service. We are definitely heading back to Playa Del Carmen for more diving, more Riviera Maya excursions, and to see our friends at Blue Life again.
What to do in Playa Del Carmen When You Aren’t Diving:
Xcaret / Xplor- Part amusement park, part eco-tour where the adventurous can go to get their thrill on.
Quinta Avenida – 5th Avenue, known as the most important street in Mexico is a pedestrian-only street lined with restaurants, shopping, and a vibrant scene.
Rio Secreto – A true adventure cave tour where you’ll have to wear a life jacket and a helmet as you walk and swim through beautiful cave passages
Snorkeling with Turtles at Akumal Beach– Just over 40 turtles live year round in the grass beds at Akumal Bay. Guided tours take you on a route where you can see turtles without causing a disturbance.
Parque Los Fundadores– A cute little park in front of the ferry dock where you’ll see sculptures and maybe a street performer or two.
Punta Esmeralda– One of the nicest public beaches in Playa with a little cenote right on the beach.
What to eat in Playa:
Street Tacos – Who doesn’t love an impromptu taco tour? Come early to the popular El Fugon, check out the local street vendors at the night market near the Leona Vicario Library, or find your own favorite.
Alux – It’s a fancy restaurant, in a cave, with cenotes. How cool is that? If you just want to look around, a 150 peso (~8 USD) door charge will give you access and a drink at the bar from a special menu.
Quinta Avenida – Not just for sombreros and tequila… Walk the streets until you find your eats.
Mu Burger House – A delicious hipster burger joint with an exceptional craft beer menu.
Wrapping up our Bull Shark Dive
Are you still considering shark diving in Playa Del Carmen? We did a lot of research ahead of time to find the right dive company (one that did not chum or feed the sharks in any way). We used our adventurous couples skills and debated if we wanted to do a shark dive, both for safety concerns and conservation ethics. Anytime we consider an animal encounter, we look into how it impacts the animals. We want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. In the end, we had a peaceful experience and found new respect for a much-maligned “monster” of the sea. I think I heard in a movie that bull sharks have gotten a bad rap. They are sharks and not mindless eating machines. Sharks are friends, not food.
We couldn’t have been happier with our choice of dive companies. Blue Life was the first shop we approached after conducting our research and they were a quality operation all the way through the experience. Even though we were hosted by Blue Life, our opinions (they Rock!) are entirely our own. If you choose to dive with sharks be sure to ask the right questions and don’t waiver on your requirements.
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