Swim with Whale Sharks in Isla Holbox, Mexico

by Stephanie Walsh · 14 comments

in Mexico, North America, Travels

Swimming with whale sharks in Isla Holbox, Mexico

Its not everyday you randomly stumble across the opportunity to swim with whale sharks. When we first heard about the possibility of doing this, we were firstly too preoccupied with finding out what a WHALE SHARK actually is. The name ‘whale shark’ is very ambiguous and leaves you torn between excitement and terror. Swimming with whales I could do. Sharks? No way! So we started researching; “Is it a whale?, Is it a Shark?” No, it’s actually a fish and the world biggest fish too with lengths of up to 12 meters or more!

Swim with whale sharks - Isla Holbox

Isla Holbox Port complete with golf cart taxi's, the main form of transportation on the island.

More research led to us becoming reassured that they are indeed very gentle creatures and it is perfectly safe to swim right along side them. That did not stop the nervousness I felt every time I thought about it, especially after we looked them up on Google Images.

Once we arrived to the sleepy island of Holbox, on the northeastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, whale shark talk was all the rage. Other travelers we spoke to had already booked their tours and most importantly, those who had already done it said it was completely worth the 1000 pesos (roughly 80 USD / 60 Euro). We usually don’t do any tours when we travel as they are so expensive and we prefer to see places independently, without the time restrictions of a tour. However, this was one occasion where there was no other option. The fact that we also happened to be in Isla Holbox just before the whale shark season ended on September 15th meant it was an opportunity not to be passed. We decided to pay the ‘out-of-our-budget’ price and go all in. The next day at 7am we would leave the comfort of the hostel to go swim in the middle of the Mexican Caribbean with whale sharks.

Ocean Bound to Swim with Whale Sharks!

A group of 9 of us departed from the small port in Holbox in the early morning with the two tour guides; the boat driver and the diving guide. We had been warned to either take a pill for boat sickness or just bear the bumps of the ocean as it would be over 2 hours of full speed travel until we reached the area where the whale sharks were now chillin’ and feeding on their favourite snack, plankton. We didn’t take any medication for the journey and thankfully we didn’t need it. The journey wasn’t so rough and no one was sick, unlike many other stories of overboard vomiting we had heard back at the hostel!

Swim with whale sharks - Isla Holbox

Beautiful contrasting green and black in the waters of Isla Holbox

About an hour into the journey, the boat stopped suddenly and the driver pointed over to an area in the ocean. We all stood up and looked when suddenly we saw the fins of a group of dolphins calmly emerging and submerging themselves on the surface of the water. It was incredible to see dolphins in the wild, the way it always should be!

Close Encounters of the Whale Shark Kind!


We knew we had finally arrived to the area where the whale sharks were, when we saw a siege of other tour boats surrounding what we knew would be the group of whale sharks. As we approached, we saw fins cutting the surface of the water. Lots of fins! And they looked very much like ‘Jaws’ shark fins too!

Swim with whale sharks - Isla Holbox

Getting ready to jump in!

The guide quickly gave us our snorkeling gear and picked me and Andres to be among the first group of three to jump into the water with him and the whale sharks. As we sat on the edge of the boat, with our flippers dangling into the water, I was still a bit nervous. The guide counted to 3; “Uno…dos…tres…Vamos!.” I dropped myself into the water and suddenly lost all my fear. The water was surprisingly warm and an adrenaline rush came over me as I dived under the water and witnessed a gentle blue giant gliding along in the distance. Instantly I started chasing him like a three year old chasing a poor puppy around a garden, wanting to pull his tail and rub his belly. Obviously that wasn’t allowed and we also underestimated how fast they swam, despite appearing so chilled out.

Swim with whale sharks - Isla Holbox

The race is on! Us chasing the whale sharks in Isla Holbox

The guide directed us whenever we lost sight of them and we spent a few minutes in the water chasing the most amazing creature I have ever seen. Everything was so clear. The water was emerald green as the sun hit the surface. There was no bottom in sight but just a stream of glowing white lights emerging from the depths. The whale sharks’ skin looked smooth and hard, with patterns of white spots all throughout it’s body. Its’ massive gill’s flapped open and closed as it meandered through the water. They had giant mouth that reminded me of an old man or woman without any teeth, soft and harmless looking despite being 1.5 meters wide. I tried to catch up to their faces many times so that I could look at their tiny eyes and huge mouths but they outswam me most of the time. Andres did good and was able to swim alongside them most of the time, often being alongside their funny mouths, but careful not to get sucked in!

Swim with whale sharks - Isla Holbox

Andres swimming alongside the whale shark

On our second go in the water, me, Andres and Cale from Australia (who took these amazing underwater photos and let me use them!) spent the whole time chasing one giant whale shark in circles. At one point I was far too close to its massive tail and almost got a smack in the face as it spontaneously turned course.

Swim with whale sharks - Isla Holbox

Trying to catch up with the whale shark in Isla Holbox and almost hit in the face!

Despite all of the awkward humans with their much-needed water accessories, chasing the whale sharks, they never seemed to be that bothered by us. They were just so chilled out and calm! Other smaller fish would swim along side them (for protection and cleaning purposes?) or literally just sit on their massive bodies and catch a ride. 🙂

The minute we came out of the water, we wanted to jump back in! We could have starred at and floated alongside these majestic creatures all day! One downside of the tour was that we felt we didn’t have much time in the water with the whale sharks, especially after driving over 2 hours to get there but overall it was still worth it and an incredible experience.

Swim with whale sharks - Isla Holbox

The smile of a man who just swam with whale sharks!

Fresh Fish Ceviche for Lunch

After our little swim with whale sharks (love that I can say that now!), we went fishing for our lunch in another part of the ocean which the guides seemed to know by memory. As part of the tour, we would all attempt to catch some fish with just a hook, some line and a little bait. The guides would then make us a delicious ceviche with the fish that we caught. I caught my first fish ever; a whopper that nearly dragged me overboard!

Swim with whale sharks - Isla Holbox

My catch!

As the tour guides prepared the ceviche, we were let off the boat to go exploring some nearby mangroves. Shallow clear waters filled with birds, small fish and surrounded by green bushes was the perfect place to end the day and enjoy a delicious ceviche prepared with our freshly caught raw fish, lime juice, tomatoes, onions, coriander, the obligatory spicy Mexican sauces, nachos, free beers and cold drinks, all as part of the tour.

Swim with whale sharks - Isla Holbox

The ceviche prepared with the fish we all caught

Free Sangria, Midnight Swimming and Other Splendid Events!

To top off an already incredible day, there was a party organized back at Tribu Hostel, where we were staying, for the owners’ birthday. Free sangria for everyone with music and a huge dance floor! Just when we thought things couldn’t get better, some other travellers suggested we go for a bit of midnight swimming in the beach opposite the hostel. To our surprise and amazement, our hands and feet started glowing like dim lanterns under the water as we swam due of the abundance of plankton in the water. It was the icing on the cake for such a great day in the beautiful remote island of Holbox.

Swim with whale sharks - Isla Holbox

An ocean oasis in Isla Holbox

 

Whale Shark Tour Details
The whale sharks appear in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico between May 15th and September 15th. Tours can be arranged from Isla Holbox, Isla Mujeres and Cancun from multiple tour operators or from within the hotel or hostel you are staying at. Although the journey is much shorter to travel from Isla Mujeres or Cancun, it is cheaper to go from Holbox and definitely worth seeing too. Do not touch or swim beneath the whale sharks when in the water.

Would you like to swim with whale sharks? Is this something you would definitely put on your bucket list?


 

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Andrea September 20, 2012 at 12:24 pm

This looks like an amazing day out! Ceviche made out of the catch is a nice touch – yum!
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2 Stephanie Walsh September 21, 2012 at 12:42 pm

It was incredible! And the ceviche was so delicious! So glad we did it 🙂

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3 Dustin@WeGoRTW September 24, 2012 at 6:21 pm

So jealous and upset that we missed this while in Mexico. We are in Puerto Madryn, Argentina right now and excited just to see whales 30 yards off the coast, but to swim with them would be amazing! Jealously 🙂

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4 Stephanie Walsh September 25, 2012 at 4:55 pm

I’m sure seeing them will still be amazing Dustin…although nothing beats swimming right along side them! 😛 Come to Mexico next year, as they’re very reliably present every May to September! 🙂

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5 Audrey September 25, 2012 at 8:52 pm

Ahhhh! That sounds like such an incredible experience! I want to do it. 😀 The smiles on your faces says it all.
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6 Stephanie Walsh September 26, 2012 at 10:30 am

It’s definitely been the highlight of our trip around the Yucatan and Chiapas! It’s so surreal when you’re there under the water, swimming beside a giant whale shark and you just think about whats actually happening!
Thanks for reading Audrey! 🙂

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7 Liz October 5, 2012 at 1:26 am

Awesome post! I’ve always wanted to swim with the sharks, but was worried about the safety aspect. This sounds like a good initial option! In the Caribbean, on Grand Cayman, they have places where you can swim with sting rays, which I highly recommend!
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8 Stephanie Walsh October 7, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Wow sounds amazing Liz! Although I think I’d be more afraid of sting-rays now than these big guys! Are they dangerous at all?
Swimming with whale sharks is perfectly safe. I think I heard somewhere that there has never been an accident in all the many decades they’ve been doing the tours!

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9 Liz October 10, 2012 at 8:14 pm

I think you’re probably right that the whale sharks are safer… Though we didn’t’t have to sign our lives away to swim with the sting rays, they are wild and in theory could lash out if threatened.
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10 Stephanie Walsh October 11, 2012 at 1:29 pm

Wow, scary! But I would still love to do that now…:P

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11 Swimming Goggles May 2, 2013 at 4:40 am

You are so so lucky to swim with these amazing creatures, Mexico looks stunning, I plan a trip there one day. Thanks for sharing this brilliant post, I am looking forward to your latest journey.

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12 Stephanie Walsh July 15, 2013 at 9:36 pm

Thanks very much “Swimming Goggles”…

We were very lucky indeed to swim with the turtles! They are amazing and gorgeous! Hope you make it to Mexico one day! 🙂

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13 Arianwen April 29, 2014 at 12:49 am

I’ve been wanting to do this for years, and I’m finally planning to head to Mexico in August! Your post has got me even more excited! I had read that the water clarity was better at Isla Mujeres, but after seeing this, I’m back to my original plan of Holbox and staying at Tribu too 🙂
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