Swimming with the Whale Shark
Early Departure in the Morning
We have been to Isla Holbox many times before, but so far we had not managed to see the famous whale sharks, since they are only near the island during the season from about the end of May to mid-September. But this time we should succeed. The biggest fish on earth do not always keep exactly to the schedule, and this year they arrived late. It was just early June and great commotion was going through the place, “Tiburones Ballenas, the whale sharks are here!” This was our chance.
We booked our tour with Mawimbi-Tours at the hotel of the same name. This tour is a bit more expensive, but also more comfortable and personal. Already at 8 o’clock in the morning we started. Together with six other tourists, a naturalist as guide, the captain and his helper we were picked up near the beach at the big jetty of Holbox. The well-motorized dinghy took off in a northeasterly direction and picked up decent speed. Although the night had been a bit longer the day before, the rocking was less bad than feared and the driving wind made the emerging heat of the quickly rising morning sun a pleasantly warm breeze.
Dolphins on the Way
After less than an hour of cruising, the boat suddenly slowed and all passengers leaned curiously over the railing. A group of three dolphins swam calmly and unimpressed very close to the boat and were happy to be photographed. In order not to lose too much time, we continued after a short break. In the meantime there was a heated discussion on the radio about where the big whale sharks were at the moment. Apparently it is not so easy to spot them, but when several boats are on the way, word gets around quickly over the island radio where the giants are to be found.
Next Stop: Manta Rays
And again, it didn’t take long until we made the next stop. This time Captain Carmelo’s helper had spotted a manta ray. Slowly the dinghy approached the ray and we were allowed to have a look at it. A beautiful, large specimen that calmly circled in the open sea and was busy filtering plankton from the water near the surface, similar to the whale sharks.
Whale Shark in Sight
After another hour the time had finally come. The first whale sharks were sighted. Scattered far in the sea, the dorsal fins and some other small boats could be seen. In consultation with the naturalist guide, the boat captain headed for a single female whale shark. The size was estimated to be about 7 meters, which was not particularly huge, but still impressive enough.
Slowly we approached the animal and the guide lady gave final instructions on how to behave when in the water with the behemoth. Always two people together with the guide were allowed to swim with the whale shark. This lasted 10-15 minutes each and soon it was our turn. We quickly put on our flippers, closed our wetsuits, put on our snorkels and diving goggles, got our cell phones ready in their waterproof cases, and were already waiting at the edge of the boat for the signal.
“Go”, it was now said and we jumped into the water. To the left and right of the whale shark we swam in its direction, the naturalist guide always close by. The majestic fish moved slowly and yet so fast that I had trouble keeping up. What a feeling! I was not afraid and was just deeply impressed by this beautiful fascinating creature. My attempt to take a few photos failed because the cell phone camera had turned off and I was too busy following the female whale shark.
At one point I unintentionally got closer than I wanted and her dorsal fin grazed me briefly. This did not hurt, but gave an impression of the tremendous power that must be in this animal. Then the whale shark moved away so fast that we lost sight of it and had to return to the boat. Because of the small group on board there was still time and we dared a second attempt. This time we managed to take a few photos and I kept a little more distance so as not to get in its way. And again, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of being safe and secure near a gentle giant, as if time stood still.
Snorkeling in Cabo Catoche
Slowly it had become noon and the whale sharks dived with the sinking plankton into the depth. Capitán Carmelo steered the boat towards Cabo Catoche. There is a coral reef only two meters deep with numerous fish, turtles, octopuses and other marine life. A fascinating underwater world, as it was known to us so far only from the large marine aquariums. We snorkeled around the boat for some time and enjoyed the lively reef life.
Afterwards we went on to the lagoon “Boca Santa Paula” for a snack and refreshments. After fortifying ourselves, we walked the endless sandbars and observed flamingos, pelicans and many other birds. When we got back to the boat, there was a lot of excitement: A small baby crocodile was in the hands of the boat helper and of course it had to be saved from the tourist boats. So, we drove on to another bay where the little animal was released. Back on land the little one quickly scurried away and disappeared in the thicket of the mangroves.
From then on, time flew with the waves carrying us back to the hotel in Holbox, but the memories of this beautiful day have remained forever.
Tip: Transparent cell phone cases are great for protecting your phone from getting wet, but not at all for taking nice photos while swimming underwater. For good underwater photos, get yourself a waterproof underwater camera or an action camera and practice with it extensively beforehand!
Hello, my friend and I are planning on coming to Holbox on the 26th on May and wanted to do the whale shark tour a couple days later. Is this too early in the season ? Would you recommend doing it at this time?
Dear Tilly, yes it’s early, later in June it’s definitely safer to see them. But maybe you’re in luck, the first passing whale shark was seen yesterday, May 16th. So the season has started right now. Whenever you are there, be sure to check it out!