Sharks of Cozumel: Which Types Can Divers See?

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Scuba diving in Cozumel doesn’t have a huge reputation for sharks, but there are consistently a few types of sharks that are in the Cozumel area of the mesoamerican barrier reef chain.

The most common shark you’ll see while diving in Cozumel is the Atlantic nurse shark. On occasion, you may spot some black-tip reef sharks on dive sites in the southernmost portion of the protected national marine park.  There have also been isolated stories of rare hammerhead shark sightings.  Finally, there are bull sharks and whale sharks found in some neighboring dive spots, but they usually don’t inhabit Cozumel, proper. 

As mentioned, other species of sharks, like bull sharks and whale sharks, show up annually in nearby areas, namely Playa del Carmen and Isla Mujeres, respectively.  

If you plan ahead, you can include easy day trips for these special encounters as long as you’re here at the right time of year. More on planning those dive trips, below. 

Cozumel Nurse Sharks

Cozumel has lots of nurse sharks, and you can see them diving here, all year-round.  Nurse sharks are not a very migratory shark, so they live and hunt in Cozumel consistently. 

Nurse sharks in the Cozumel area are typically about 5-8ft (1.6-2.5m) long but you could encounter smaller juveniles or older ones that can potentially grow up to about 13-14ft (4m) in length. 

They’re harmless to humans and known among divers more for snoozing than for stalking. 

These sharks are very sleek and graceful and glide along the reef if you’re lucky enough to see them out cruising during the day.  

Small Atlantic nurse shark gliding over the coral reef on Cedral Pass reef in Cozumel.

Very often, however, you’ll stumble upon them at rest.  Nurse sharks in Cozumel are known to hide out in crevasses and tucked under shadowy reef overhangs, for a nice nap on the sandy bottom!  

Encountering a nurse shark is not a given on every Cozumel dive.  It’s a treat to see one, but they can show up on nearly any one of our popular dive sites.  Some sites that they seem to favor are Palancar Bricks, Paso de Cedral, Dalila, and Punta Tunich.  

Are Nurse Sharks Dangerous? 

Nurse sharks are basically harmless to humans and seem quite intent on moving away from you as soon as they can.  

Nevertheless, nurse sharks do have several rows of sharp teeth, and if aggressively confronted have been known to react in self-defense.  

See our related post here for more on Cozumel’s nurse sharks, and their feeding behaviors.  

Other Types of Sharks in Cozumel

I’ve been diving in Cozumel for almost 2 decades, and have seen only a few other shark species.  

As mentioned above, the second most common type of shark we tend to see in Cozumel is the black-tip reef shark.  

Sometimes black-tips are spotted in the southernmost dive sites, namely on the outer walls at Palancar, Colombia, or Punta Sur.  

From what I’ve experienced here, they tend to spend time in small packs, or “shivers” of sharks.  

For example, a couple of years back, there was a small shiver of black-tip sharks a friend discovered around Palancar Caves (a popular dive site), and they seemed to stay in a very certain area of the reef for several weeks in a row.  

I’m not sure if they were grooming new young, or what, but after a time they were gone.  That is not a very common occurrence, but obviously they are in the area, and it happens.  

Another time, I saw a group of about 10 blacktips below our group on a dive.  They were swimming around below us, at around 130ft, off the outer wall, in the same general locale.  

Unfortunately, these are pretty isolated incidents. 

Shark Cousins in Cozumel 

Sharks are classified as “elasmobranchs,” or animals with 5-7 gills, and a skeleton made of cartilage, rather than bone.  

What other common marine animals in Cozumel are of the same classification? 

Rays and skates! 

Eagle ray underwater in Cozumel
Eagle ray season in Cozumel

So technically, when you come across a majestic spotted eagle ray during their season in Cozumel  – winter months from approximately December through March – you’re seeing a close relative of a shark.  

Similarly, when you encounter a large southern stingray skimming over the sand, and scooping up clouds of it looking for a snack?  Or even a small vibrantly patterned yellow stingray, hiding along the sandy bottom? 

Think shark!  Because you are brushing up very close to a member of the greater shark family. 

yellow stingray on sand
Small yellow stingray

Where to See Whale Sharks in Cozumel

Lots of divers see whale sharks when they come to Cozumel, so there is some lingering confusion around this one. 

If you’re not familiar with this area of Mexico, let me try to clear it up.  

For the last many years, there has been a large whale shark migration pattern that brings huge schools of the animals just off the east coast of Cancun. Cancun is only about an hour north of Cozumel (by car) and is close enough that its airport is where many of us fly into when traveling to Cozumel.  

Cancun has another very small island right off its coast, called Isla Mujeres. 

Map showing Cancun as related to Cozumel

Isla Mujeres is the prime route for the whale sharks, and as you can see from this map, it is a good distance away from Cozumel.  So “Isla” is really the place to be in order to get a chance to see the whale sharks.  

While these areas are all close to each other by bus/car/van/ferry, they’re far enough apart where you will not see whale sharks while scuba diving in the Cozumel marine park.  (Outside of some kind of freak citing…which actually has happened at least once in 2017, but it was like seeing a unicorn…)  

So how do lots of people who come for Cozumel scuba diving end up getting to see the whale sharks?  They do it as an excursion or a day trip! 

If your Cozumel dive trip takes place in our Summer months – and ideally in July or August – it’s an easy day’s adventure to go up and snorkel with the whale sharks (and sometimes even manta rays show up!). 

Whale shark ascending to surface
Snorkeling with whale sharks in Isla Mujeres, MX

You simply take an early ferry over to the mainland and head up to Cancun for a boat out to the migration grounds.  

Also please note, it says snorkel with the whale sharks.  Diving with these sharks is not allowed here.  

That also means, though, that this excursion is open to non-divers

I would encourage anyone signing up for this to be a pretty confident swimmer who feels comfortable in the open ocean.  

This trip is really worth it, especially if you’ve never seen a whale shark in the wild, before. It’s a great, once in a lifetime experience in the water.  They are beautiful and breathtaking.  

If you have seen whale sharks up close before, you might not enjoy the hours involved and the crowd of snorkel boats on some days.  In the past few seasons, many are starting to think there are too many operators vying for position, and that it may be detrimental to the animals.     

Bull Sharks Near Cozumel

Bull Shark Dives in Playa del Carmen – Short Ferry from Cozumel 

The other shark that gets a lot of attention in the Cozumel area is the bull shark. 

Bull sharks are large and stout, and frankly look a lot meaner. They resemble a smaller-sized version of their cousin, the great white shark.  

And according to National Geographic’s page here, bull sharks are a lot meaner.  They’re among the most aggressive types and statistically more likely to attack humans.  

That said, if you’re in Cozumel during the right season you can dive with them on controlled, guided dives off the shore of Playa del Carmen.  For the bulls, their season is typically the winter months of December – February, give or take.  

bull shark in Playa del Carmen MX
Bull Shark dive in Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen is a short ferry ride to the mainland – about 45 minutes.  Once there and hooked up with a specialized bull shark dive op., you’re minutes away from seeing the bulls. 

On my dives to see the bull sharks there, we descended to a fixed moored rope in the sand and were instructed to stay low and tranquil against the white sandy bottom. And then just wait.  

Sure enough, in a few minutes after we were settled, several bull sharks made their appearance nearby.  They gradually came closer and closer, and were soon swimming several yards/meters away, and doing cautious loops around our line of about 6 divers.  

It was quite a thrill to just hang there and watch (and somewhat nervously photograph) these burly sharks passing all around you.  

It’s an exciting sight, no doubt.  And I didn’t feel scared at all.  At first glance, there was some adrenaline. But like most sharks I’ve seen diving, they seemed rather preoccupied – uninterested in us.  

Oddly, it was also a cool opportunity to get a really good look at the remoras that typically attach to the larger sharks and rays. On our bull shark dive in Playa, the remoras easily outnumbered the sharks, and were less bashful.  They were swimming about freely at times, and sometimes came almost too close for comfort! 

It was a neat bonus encounter. We got lots of up-close looks at the fish, and especially the sticky-looking treaded pads on the top of their heads, that they use to attach to various sharks, rays, large fish, and turtles.  

CozInfo’s Recommended UW Camera Gear

If you want to get started with underwater photography but aren’t sure what to buy, this setup is easy and inexpensive, gets great technical reviews all over the internet, and is used by thousands of divers all over the world.

It’s also light, and can easily fit in your carry-on bag – a big consideration these days.   

This straightforward kit is accessible and simple when you’re just starting out, but it can grow with you as you progress in your new hobby. 

This is the exact UW camera gear I use on every dive and for all the UW images on this site.

My Tried and True Dive Photography Kit: 

  • Olympus TG-6 compact camera
    Olympus’ “tough” series is inherently waterproof and dust/dirt proof, so it’s also great for other outdoor activities, or as your everyday point-and-shoot camera for weddings and events.  Small and durable. 
  • Olympus PT-059 Marine Housing. 
    Olympus’ own marine housing allows the camera’s on-board flash to operate without additional cables or added strobes. This is important if you don’t want to deal with external strobes, etc.  The marine housing is needed for diving, but not for snorkeling or swimming depths. 
  • 64GB Memory Card. 
    I’ve used this exact card for years, and it hasn’t failed.  I bought a backup, but haven’t needed it, yet. 
  • Memory Card Reader. 
    I find this memory card reader a dead-simple way to save my photos to my MacbookPro at the end of each dive day.  I don’t want to rely on wifi during dive trips, and while I’m using the card in the card reader, I can be recharging my camera for the next day.  
  • Camera lanyard!!!!! 
    I’m not kidding – if I had a dollar for every time someone posted on social media about losing a camera on one of Cozumel’s dive sites, I’d have…hundreds of dollars.  Plus, I’ve lost my own camera and housing…TWICE!  Lesson (finally) learned.  Now I never go in without this simple coiled lanyard clip that attaches to a D-ring on my Cressi BCD, and give me plenty of range of motion, yet the security of knowing I won’t throw another camera and housing down the drain.   The best 20 bucks you’ll spend on this hobby. 

    *These are my honest opinions on products I use every day. The links above are affiliate links, where I may receive a commission on referred visits and purchases at no extra cost to you.