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Coming in Mexico: Your chance to get cozy with giant whale sharks

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Visitors are welcome to swim with the bus-size fish. Photo courtesy of the Cancun CVB.

It’s “whale shark time” again – when the world’s largest fish make their annual migration to the waters off eastern Mexico’s island of Isla Mujeres, about a 20-minute ferry ride from the mega-resort at Cancun. Some 1,400 of the bus-size fish – looking much like a cross between a whale and a shark – are expected to show up this summer to feed and breed.

They often swim by the island in large numbers, creating “a spectacle for locals and tourists alike,” as a spokeswoman for the Cancun Convention & Visitors Bureau puts it. Spectacles, of course, call for festivals, and the CVB wants you to know they'll be celebrating the 7th Annual Whale Shark Festival this year from July 25 to July 27.

Visitors are welcome to swim alongside or above or below the whale sharks...it’s perfectly safe, as long as you stay away from their giant mouths (especially when they're about to open that barn-door-size orifice to gobble up a luckless school of a few thousand little fishes). Their favorite chow is plankton (algae, krill, tiny bacteria and the like).

The whale sharks – some as long as 50 feet and weighing as much as 15 tons -- come in both sexes, but it's not clear exactly what the male does on the procreation scene. Some experts say the female doesn't need him because she's “ovoviviparous,” meaning mom fertilizes her own eggs. Another theory is that mating does indeed occur, but the female stores a supply of sperm large enough to last for several fertilization seasons. Whale sharks have been known to give birth to as many as 300 “pups” at a time.

Following a kick-off parade on July 25, the festival will stage events showcasing Isla Mujeres’ traditions, achievements and beauty as well as the island’s time-honored dances.

Spanish conquistadores from Cuba stumbled on the four-mile-long island in 1517 while they were sailing around the Caribbean looking for slaves to work their sugar plantations. The sailors inked it on their maps as Isla de las Mujeres (Island of the Women) after the female figurines they found scattered around the island.

Isla Mujeres’ powdery, white-sand beaches are dotted by over 70 inns and hotels with a total of around 1,400 rooms.