Off the north coast of Mexicoâ€™s Yucatan Peninsula, one of natureâ€™s most extraordinary encounters can be found â€“ the whalesharks of Holbox Island. A visit to see these, the largest fish species in the world, can be an awe-inspiring part of a trip to the Yucatan.
The whale shark is a slow-moving, filter feeding shark. It can grow to extraordinary size â€“ up to 40 feet in length and weighing up to 15 tons. They are believed to live up to 100 years. Every summer, these gentle giants congregate in the warm waters near Isla Holbox. While scuba diving is forbidden to protect the sharks, the experience of swimming and snorkeling with the sharks is both humbling and rewarding.
Boats to see the whale sharks depart approximately every hour in the morning, starting around 7am, from the main pier in Isla Holbox. The ride out to the sharksâ€™ feeding area can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours, depending on where they are feeding that day. While sunscreen is a must, make sure itâ€™s biodegradable and harmless to the fish â€“ the Mexican government takes preserving these unique creatures quite seriously. On the ride out, the guide will go over the other regulations , such as no touching the sharks, only two snorklers in the water at a time, etc.
Once your boat arrives in a feeding area, get ready with your mask and fins- when a shark comes within range, your guide will have 2 swimmers jump in for the swim of a lifetime. You cannot get closer than 6 feet to these protected fish, but 6 feet is plenty close – as big as they look from the boat, they look even bigger in the water! They are, however, completely harmless, as they are filter-feeders that live on plankton.
Boats generally spend an hour or so at the shark feeding ground. After seeing the sharks, your guide may look for other marine life to observe. Manta rays are often found in this area, as are dolphins.
Manta rays are another giant of nature. The largest of all rays, they have been known to reach 25 feet across and weigh up to 5,000 pounds. Another filter feeder, they can be found lazily swooping through the warm waters, enjoying a meal of plankton. With their huge kite-like shape, they appear to fly through the water.
By the time your boat returns to Holbox Island, you will have memories to last a lifetime.
Getting there: Most dive shops in the Yucatan can arrange the trip for you. If you are coming from Cancun or anywhere along the Mayan Riviera, your trip will include van transportation to Chiquila (the closest point on the mainland to Holbox), boat transportation to the whale sharks, water and juice to drink, snacks on the boat, all equipment, and lunch at Holbox on the return. It’s an all-day trip – if you leave your hotel at 6am, you will probably be back around 4pm. Cost as of summer 2008 was around $200 per person.
Alternatively, you can do the trip on your own. From Cancun, take the local bus to Chiquila, and the ferry across to Holbox. As this is an approximately 3.5-hour trip, you would want to plan on spending the night on the island. There are a variety of hotels available, in various price ranges. The trip from Holbox to the whale sharks was about $90 per person as of summer 2008.