The most memorable adventure that I went on during my week-long trip of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico was, without a doubt, swimming with whale sharks off of Isla Holbox. Isla Holbox is a small, relatively undeveloped island about 100 kilometers north of Cancun.
Every July, an impressive number of whale sharks congregate around the warm, pleasant water around Isla Holbox as part of their annual migration. Whale shark viewing expeditions have grown in popularity recently, boosting ecotourism on an island that otherwise depends on fishing as a main economic activity. Since we were passing through in July, we knew we had to go see these amazing animals for ourselves. Whale sharks are the largest fish on the planet, but don’t be fooled by their names – these docile creatures feed almost exclusively on plankton.
Upon arriving at our hostel, we booked a whale shark tour through the receptionist for about 900 pesos, or $80 – a reasonable rate considering everything that was included. We stayed at Hostel and Cabañas Ida y Vuelta, a charming little site complete with multicolored hammocks swaying between the palm trees dispersed throughout the property. We stayed in a cute little cabin with sand instead of flooring, which took a bit to get used to but felt completely natural after we discovered and embraced the laid-back, authentic, and down-to-earth ways of the island.
(The cabaña we stayed in)
(The sunset seen from the beach on our first evening)
Bright and early the next morning, we were picked up in a golf cart and whisked away to the beach, where we boarded a boat with a few others and began our boat ride about an hour into the waters surrounding Isla Holbox. Eventually, our guide slowed down and began to keep his eyes open. Sure enough, dorsal fins began to pop out of the water in the distance – we had found our whale sharks. Snorkeling gear and flippers were distributed, and then we began the first of three swims along the whale sharks. Essentially, the boat stopped a bit in front of the relatively slow-moving trajectory of the whale shark, which is where you jump off. You then began to swim in the same direction as the whale shark, which eventually catches up to you and swims past you, at which point you return to the boat.
I was a bit disoriented during my first jump, and by the time I knew what I was doing the whale shark had already almost passed me. I returned to the boat very disappointed. My second swim, however, was marvelous. Learning from my mistakes, I jumped in with more confidence and determination and began to swim as fast as I could in the same direction as the whale shark, which suddenly appeared next to me in all of its blue, white-spotted glory. I swam next to it for about a minute, marveling at the majestic creature, before returning to the boat for my final swim.
Completely under the spell of the whale sharks, I anticipated my final jump and vowed to make it even better than the last one. As I was the last one in the rotation, my last jump would be the group’s final one. Upon the guide’s signal, I jumped in and began to swim even more furiously than the last time. Suddenly, a whale shark appeared not next to me but under me, its white spots like stars set against its dark blue skin as they drifted before me, about a foot in front of my widened eyes. I reached out and placed my hand on the whale shark’s back, feeling its skin as it gently continued to glide in front of me. Noticing something in the corner of my eye, I turned my head to the right and nearly choked on my snorkel as I saw a giant manta ray swimming next to me along with the whale shark. It was so close that I was able to reach out and stroke its wing. Eventually, I swam off to the side as the whale shark began to pass me, as the only danger when swimming with whale sharks is not their harmless teeth, but the risk of being smacked by their slow-moving yet powerful tails if you swim too close to them.
I pulled myself back onto the boat, speechless by what I had just experienced. I’ve travelled quite a bit and seen many fantastic and improbable things, but the memory of that final swim will always stay etched in my memory as one of the rare moments that really managed to get my adrenaline pumping. On the way back, we were given a small lunch of ceviche and fresh fruit with water and beer. We also stopped alongside a small island and were given a few moments to enjoy its beach, with its dazzling white sand and crystal-clear, shallow, warm water, with silver fish swimming around our feet and interesting seashells and birds scattered here and there.
(Here we are on the boat, on the way back to Holbox)
That evening, as we were walking back along the beach to our cabaña from the restaurant where we enjoyed fresh seafood on our candlelit table right on the sand, I looked up and saw a shooting star. I noticed that the sky was actually full of stars, a rare sight for someone who mainly lives in big cities. We plopped down onto our backs on an unoccupied, white, plush pad in front of a beachfront hotel and looked up. We were amazed to see several shooting stars, including the brightest shooting star I’d ever seen. It was the perfect end to a beautiful day. Living in the city is great, but it’s so important to get out of our urban boxes once in a while and reconnect with nature, and whale sharks are some of the best guides to do so, dwarfing us with their awesome size and reminding us that in the end we are really just specks of dust in this infinite universe.
Here’s a pretty cool video of whale sharks in action:
WHEN: Every July.
WHERE: Isla Holbox, Mexico.
HOW: Drive or take a bus to the small seaside town of Chiquila, then board a ferry for the 30-minute trip to Holbox. Golf carts are the only mode of transportation of the island, as there are no cars – hire one to take you and your luggage to your lodgings during the summer, as the rainy season can result in some major puddles along the sand roads of the island.
(A recent fashion shoot using actual whale sharks – it’s nice to see the fashion industry finally embracing different body types.)