In 2008 I left for a trip of a life time to dive with Whale Sharks at Isla Holbox.
I got into Cancun at about 3:30 pm after a red-eye flight from Sacramento (and my eyes were red, believe me). I was the only member of the whale shark trip coming in that day, so our leader, Eli Martinez, publisher of Shark Diver Magazine, had a prepaid cab waiting for me. The trip to the coastal town of Cochilla took about 2 ½ hours and was my first impression of the Yucatan countryside.
What I saw was a lot of straight road going off to the horizon, on and on, mile after mile, bordered on both sides by lush green forest. We got into Cochilla a little after 6:00, in time to catch one of the boats taking people across the eight-mile strait to Holbox Island.
Photo Credit: Raq_escobar
Halfway through the trip, I developed a theory that the boat captains have all made deals with the local chiropractors to provide them with business by crunching the spines of their passengers as their boats smash across the wave tops. I felt a few inches shorter as I disembarked onto Holbox.
Holbox Island is a very relaxed, kicked back place, with small hotels and small restaurants. It is nowhere near as touristy or glitzy as Cancun, which I found a good thing. No cars are allowed, and the only transportation is by golf cart, bicycle, or by foot.
I relaxed for a while, walked into town and had dinner (the local specialty is ceviche, raw fish and shrimp marinated in lime juice and served with sliced onions and peppers, and fresh tortillas. It’s really good). Late at night, I found Eli our trip leader and found out what the plan was for the next day.
7:30 the next morning, a guy picked me up in a golf cart and drove me out to where the boats were waiting to take people out to the whale sharks. On the boat with me were two young English ladies, Susanna and Chloe.
Some facts about Whale sharks
The Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus) is both the world’s largest shark and the world’s largest fish. Specimens have been seen upwards of 50 feet long and 20 tons, although about 35 feet long is more average. They are the ocean’s gentle giants, eating nothing but microscopic plankton.
Snorkeling with Whale sharks is one of the holy grails, but until recently, you simply had to be in the right place at the right time when one showed up. Over the years, locations have been pinpointed where they can be seen, and of them all, Holbox is the most dependable.
Photo Credit: Lorenia
There is a dense bloom of plankton north of the island in the summer, and the whale sharks show up like clockwork every year to munch on it. Also Isla Mujeres is a good spot to find the Whale sharks in the season. Dive operators in Playa del Carmen offer day trips to get there.
Whale Shark ahead
We cruised for about 1 ½ hours and the water turned green and murky with plankton (a good sign). We saw a fin sticking up, and a broad head, and went over to investigate. It wasn’t a whale shark, but rather a big manta ray. They eat the same stuff as whale sharks and the two are often seen together.
We watched him flapping through the water. He was impressive, but not what we had come to see. So on we went. But a few minutes later the guide yelled out “Tiburon baleena!” (spanish fro Whale shark) In the distance, I could see a dorsal fin sticking out of the water. We had found what we had come for.
Photo Credit: Lorenia
We began suiting up. We are only allowed in the water two at a time. When it was our turn, we straddled the gunwale of the boat, watching for the telltale fin. until the pilot said “go, go, go!”
Then we slid into the water and begin to swim an intersecting course with the fish. As I swam, I could see a big dark shape below me and to my left, headed away and too deep to follow. I knew it was a whale shark, but I wasn’t able to see any details. As I swam back to the boat, I reflected that this was not what I’d had in mind.
Close but not yet what I came for.
A little later, we saw a second whale shark. And again I jumped into the water. As I looked down, I again saw the shark pass about 20 feet below me, too far away for any good interaction, although I could make out the pattern of white dots and lines on the animal’s back which have caused it to be called the “domino shark.”
After a while, the pilot decided that the sharks weren’t in the mood that day and headed back. This was a less than satisfactory beginning, but there were still two days to go.
The next day, the oceans were glassy calm, like a huge lake. The first thing we saw as we sped out to the plankton grounds were two manta rays feeding in a patch of plankton that was so intensely yellow that it looked like it had been cut off with a knife when it stopped and the green ocean started.
Photo Credit: stokes rx
As I looked at it, all I could think was “Okay, who peed in the pool?” Apparently, whale sharks hate yellow plankton, but manta rays love it. We found a big manta in the open water away from the patch, and Eli asked if anybody wanted to snorkel with it.
Of course, we all lined up. When I slipped into the water, I swam out a little way and looked down. Just below me, no more than five feet away, the manta was flapping his wings like some undersea Dracula.
He was a big one, about 14 feet across. I caught his eye, and I thought he was smiling at me as he took off into the green gloom. This wasn’t whale sharks, but it was a step in the right direction.
A few minutes later, we spotted a whale shark. Once again, I went in, started swimming, and looked to my right. The first thing I saw was a dense swarm of tiny fish. These follow the whale shark and snack on plankton that comes out of his gill slits. Then suddenly, they parted and the great fish was there. I saw a little round eye in a great blunt head looking at me, above a gaping mouth.
Photo Credit: stokes rx
Close encounter of the Whale shark kind
Then came the five flaring gill slits and massive pectoral fins, then the sloping back and dorsal fin, and finally the great tail lazily swishing back and forth. I wasn’t able to get as close as I wanted, because another snorkeler was in the way, but I at least got a good look. Things were definitely looking up.
My last dive of the day was the best. We spotted another whale shark, and this time, the boat’s position perfectly intersected his course. As I slid into the water, I could see his dorsal fin about 30 feet away, headed straight for me. The first thing I saw was the swarm of little fish. Then there was this gaping mouth rimmed in white, and then the whale shark was right in my face, The big blunt head went underneath me, and I could see the rows of tiny, useless teeth lining the lower jaw.
The color seemed to be a dark gray, covered with white speckles. The gill slits and pectoral fins were zooming by, almost within arm’s length. The suddenly, the dorsal fin that sprouted from the beast’s back was looming in front of me, and I slid to the side to let it pass. I could see the patterns of lines and dots on the shark’s torso.
And then a great tail, nearly as tall as me, was swishing slowly in my face, and I had to move to avoid it hitting me. And I hung in the water and watched as it disappeared off into the dimness. My face was calm as I saw all of this, but my mind was saying “YAHOOOO!” This was a red-letter day in my life, the day I came face to face with one of the ocean’s most splendid creatures.
(P.S. Soon after I finished this trip, Islas Mujeres was “discovered,” and it turned out to be about a million times better than Holbox to encounter Whale sharks. I heard stories of interacting with 50 of them at a time, perhaps 2-300 in a trip. All in clear water and the sharks in no hurry to leave. I’m going to have to go back and experience this some day).
What are your thoughts about The Whale Sharks of Isla Holbox in Mexico?
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Would you like to encounter Whale sharks too? Feel free to contact us. We have multiple partners that offer trips to dive with these gentle giants of the sea.
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