Each May to November, a small miracle occurs in the waters north of Cancun. The whale sharks arrive to spend their summer breeding grounds in the warm, plankton-rich waters off Isla Holbox. My husband and I had read about the phenomenon and knew that visitors can swim with these beautiful, majestic creatures – the largest fish in the sea – on boat tours departing from Holbox, and had long ago put it on our (ever growing) list of dream activities.
On arrival, we hailed a rickety golf cart (the only form of motorized transport on the island) and trundled along sandy roads to our beachfront accommodation, the laid-back Hotel La Palapa.
We’d booked our tour in advance with a reputable outfit called Willy’s Tours, but when we went to get instructions on joining the tour the following morning, we were disappointed to be told that the chances of seeing many, if any, whale sharks was slim. Being fish and not mammals who need to resurface often to breathe, when the plankton the whale sharks feed on is carried by currents further down, the fish follow them, out of sight of snorkelers. The previous day, we were informed, there had been one lone whale shark at the surface, surrounded by fifteen boats. Armed with this discouraging news, we kept our expectations low. These are, after all, wild creatures, on their own timetables.
The next morning we arrived at the appointed time at the pier, slathered with biodegradable sunblock and kitted out with wetsuits, fins and snorkels. Our guide, Abraham, explained the rules on the way out: no touching the whale sharks (not surprisingly, it stresses them), no diving, keep a ten feet distance, a maximum of three swimmers in the water at one time. The WWF and local tour companies have developed these measures to help protect the whale sharks and they’re doing an admirable job. The creatures arrive here in great numbers and the entire community on Holbox is dedicated to their safety and preservation.
We traveled for literally hours, past the northernmost point on the Yucatan Peninsula, past turquoise shallows populated with blush-pink flamingos picking their way delicately through the mangroves, into deep, dark waters out of sight of land. A pod of dolphins frolicked alongside for a while before leaping out of sight. At last I spotted what looked like land, a line of darkness blurring the horizon. As we drew closer though, I realized the shape was boats, dozens of them. We’d found the whale sharks.
The boat slowed to an idle and Abraham pointed at a massive dark shape just under the surface. "There he is!" he said, genuine joy splitting his face into a smile. "Are you ready?" he said as we scrambled to put our flippers and masks on. We sat on the edge of the boat and on the captain’s cue, leapt overboard. There we were, underwater with the world’s biggest fish, as it floated languidly our way, its massive mouth filtering plankton, its small black eye regarding us without alarm, as if we were just another sea creature.
We snorkeled alongside as the shark gracefully turned its great spotted body in pursuit of its tiny prey. Huge gills at its side waved hypnotically. We were right alongside, close enough to feel the extraordinary strength of that 30-feet-long body sluicing through the water. Then, with a flick of its mammoth tail, it sped off, leaving us behind in its wake. We swam back to the boat and hauled ourselves aboard, faces aglow and hearts beating wildly.
As it turned out, there were at least a hundred whale sharks around us that day, all feeding at the surface. Each of the three couples on our boat got in the water half a dozen times. Each swim probably lasted only a few minutes – the sharks are incredibly fast once they get moving and soon outpace swimmers – but while we were under there time seemed suspended. Seeing such an incredible creature up close, observing it in its natural habitat and as part of its element, is an unforgettable and magical experience. Definitely one for the books.
Getting to Isla Holbox:
Buses run twice daily from the main bus station in Cancun to the small port town of Chiquila. From there, catch one of the ferries that run nine times daily to Holbox (a $7, 20 minute ride accompanied by a welcome video playing at raucous volume.)
How to Swim with Whale Sharks:
We went with Willy’s Tours:
$100 US per person includes gear (snorkels, fins, wetsuits), lunch and tour. It’s possible to just turn up and book with one of the many outfits who advertise their services around town – some reasonably professional, some little more than a guy and his boat – but it’s advisable to book in advance to ensure you get a place on your day of choice.