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

Sharks in Cozumel: Which Sharks Can Divers See?

Scuba diving in Cozumel doesn’t have a huge reputation for sharks, but there are consistently a few types of sharks in Cozumel that in habit the island’s national marine park, and the greater section of the Mesoamerican barrier reef chain.

The most common Cozumel sharks you’ll see while diving here are Atlantic nurse sharks. On occasion, other sharks in Cozumel are black-tip reef sharks on dive sites in the southernmost portion of the protected national marine park.  There have also been more hammerhead shark sightings.  Finally, there are bull sharks and whale sharks found in some neighboring dive spots, but they do not inhabit Cozumel, proper. 

As mentioned, other species of sharks, like bull sharks and whale sharks, do not typically hang out in Cozumel, and sightings are rare. Both do, however, 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 Cozumel shark encounters as long as you’re here at the right time of year. More on planning those diving excursion days, below. 

Sharks in Cozumel Cheat Sheet

SHARK TYPEIN COZUMEL?NOTES
Atlantic Nurse Shark
Ginglymostoma cirratum
COMMONMost Common; seen regularly
Year-round – all months
Caribbean Reef Shark
Carcharhinus perezi
OCCASIONALNot common in Cozumel;
Sightings often near Palancar sites and Cedral Wall
Bull Shark
Carcharhinus leucas
RARE / NEARBYRarely seen in Cozumel, but
Common to Nearby Playa del Carmen
Season: DEC – FEB
Hammerhead Shark
Sphyrna zygaena
OCCASIONAL / RAREA few sightings in 2022! But typically rare to see in Cozumel
Whale Shark
Rhincodon typus
NEARBYCommon to Isla Mujeres off Cancun
Season: JUNE – AUG
Most Common Sharks in Cozumel (and Nearby Locales). 2023

Cozumel Nurse Sharks

Cozumel sharks are most often the Atlantic nurse shark, and you can see them diving in Cozumel, all year-round.  Nurse sharks are not a very migratory shark, so they live and hunt in Cozumel consistently. 

Nurse sharks in Cozumel 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 Cozumel 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.
Atlantic nurse sharks are the most common sharks 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 in Cozumel Dangerous? 

Nurse sharks are basically harmless to humans and seem quite intent on moving away from you as soon as they can. Diving near nurse sharks in Cozumel usually goes one of two ways – you may see one or two cruising the reef and gradually angling further away from you as you use up your tank trying to catch up, OR you’ll see these Cozumel sharks napping on a sandy slope, under a nice coral head.

Not exactly behavior that results in Cozumel shark attacks! (and on that note, in terms of Cozumel shark attacks, I know of exactly zero in my many years of diving here).

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 here for over two decades, and have seen only a few other Cozumel shark species.  

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

Black-tip Reef Sharks in Cozumel – Once in a While

Sometimes small 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 in Cozumel that a friend discovered around Palancar Caves (a popular dive site in Cozumel), 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.  

Hammerhead Sharks in Cozumel

The other species that has been spotted with some (relative) frequency in the last few years is the hammerhead shark.

Not typical to Cozumel the hammerhead does make an appearance from time to time, usually along deep walls like the Palancar reef chain or the Santa Rosa Wall dive site.

Of course, if they’re seen there, they could be sighted in any number of our great Cozumel dive sites, but it seems they stay in the cooler, deeper areas of the marine park.

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 are of the same classification as sharks in Cozumel? 

Rays and skates! 

Author's photograph of a gliding spotted eagle ray underwater in Cozumel.
Cozumel’s eagle rays are related to sharks

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

Author's photo of a yellow stingray on the sand while diving in Cozumel, Mexico.
Small yellow stingray – shark cousin in Cozumel

Where to See Whale Sharks in Cozumel

Whale sharks do not inhabit the Cozumel area. Despite what some other websites say, Whale Sharks are not a typical Cozumel shark encounter when diving here. Period.

But…but…but…Lots of divers do see whale sharks when they come to Cozumel for a dive trip. So what gives?

There is some lingering confusion around this one, but it’s pretty straightforward.

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

Cozumel scuba divers can encounter whale sharks during the months of June, July, and August. This requires a day trip for a snorkeling excursion to Isla Mujeres, which is just off the coast of Cancun, about an hour’s drive north, once you take the Cozumel ferry to the mainland. SCUBA diving with the whale sharks is not allowed.

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 the Cancun International Airport is where many of us fly into when traveling back to Cozumel (though the Cozumel Int’l Airport would be preferred).  

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

Map showing Cancun and Isla Mujeres as related to Cozumel, Mexico
Whale sharks migrate near Isla Mujeres, so close to Cozumel

Isla Mujeres is the prime route for the whale sharks, and as you can see from this map, above, 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 on a dive trip to Cozumel.  

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 Cozumel whale shark 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!). 

My snapshot of an amazing Whale shark encounter in Isla Mujeres, MX as it's ascending to surface against a deep blue ocean background.
Snorkeling with whale sharks in nearby Isla Mujeres, MX was incredible!

You simply take an early Cozumel 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 Cozumel shark excursion 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 sharks discussion 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 looking for sharks in Cozumel and are here 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.  

Author's photo of a bull shark underwater 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 operation, you’re minutes away from seeing the bulls. 

My Experience on the Playa del Carmen Bull Shark Dives

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 our local Cozumel spotted eagle 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, bigger-sized tropical fish, and large local sea turtles.  

There are No Shark Attacks in Cozumel

Despite a very loose proximity to bull sharks, which could be aggressive (but usually are NOT), there is absolutely no history of shark attacks in Cozumel.

Of all the unusual injuries that have happened to divers in the recent past, there were zero incidents of shark attacks in Cozumel. And as we’ve mentioned, our most common local shark is the Atlantic nurse shark, and they are virtually harmless.

There’s no need to worry about sharks attacking divers in Cozumel, MX.

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02/17/2024 10:05 am GMT

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