Swimming with the Whale Sharks in Holbox

Jul 8, 2008

Last week we took a couple days off to head up to Holbox (pronounced "Hole-Bosh"), an island off the northern tip of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. It's about a 4 hour drive from Playa del Carmen to Chiquilá where you can take a ferry across to Holbox.

There are many things to do and see in Holbox, but our reason for going was to snorkel with the Whale Sharks. They are the largest living species of fish (since whales are mammals, not fish). Whale Sharks are actually sharks, they have cartilage instead of bone and their tail is oriented up-and-down rather than side-to-side, but they are filter feeders, which makes them similar to whales. The locals used to call them Dominoes because of the patterns on their skin.

The Whale Sharks come to Holbox every summer (July and August being the best months, though the season runs May 5 - Sept 15). The currents from the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico collide just off the coast, bringing plenty of yummy plankton to the surface. They can also be seen in Honduras at different times of the year. They have been spotted all over the planet, but since they can dive extremely deep, they're still being studied to determine their migratory patterns.

Holbox island is a retreat in itself. There are plenty of quiet hotels and gorgeous beaches. Because it is located on the Gulf of Mexico, there are no waves and the color of the water is milky and different from the waters of the Caribbean Sea.

We stayed in Hotelito Casa las Tortugas and highly recommend it for anyone looking for some serious downtime or a romantic getaway. The hotel is composed of several beautifully constructed and artfully arranged cabañas. We stayed in a simple room that had a queen sized bed and an extra single bed for $85 US a night. Our room had a bathroom and a balcony with hammock. My in-laws stayed in a two story efficiency with a little kitchenette for $140 a night. They also had a deck with hammock and ocean views. The hotel offers Whale Shark tours for $90 US per person.

The ride out to the where the Whale Sharks eat takes about an hour and a half. Along the way our snorkel guide pointed out the various lighthouses and fishing camps and showed us several sets of sea turtle tracks. Summer is also the time when sea turtles lay their eggs. Holbox is very active with sea turtle conservation, so there is undoubtedly lots to do for sea turtle aficionados.

Once we found some Whale Sharks (we probably found about 7 or 8 different ones) we would pull the boat near them and two people would jump out to snorkel, accompanied by the guide. It's quite a bit of work to keep up with them. They're just cruising along scooping plankton off the surface of the water, but to us they're moving at a decent clip.

The Whale Sharks we saw were about the same size as the boat we were on, so I would say they were probably about 30 feet, maybe larger. The captain and guide let us get in as many times as we could take. By about 11:30 we were pretty pooped. By noon we decided we should head back to the island.

I have swum with the Whale Sharks twice now and both times we have made the same mistake: deciding to leave the island on the same day as the swimming. Once we got back to the hotel we were pooped and all enjoyed some fruity cocktails and a snack at the hotel bar. The next time I go I will stay at least two nights. We didn't want to spend the money and wanted to get on to Valladolid to see a colonial town. It was very hard to say goodbye to the beach.

If you go to Holbox, I highly recommend you also take a tour of some of the surrounding islands. We took a 3 hour tour the afternoon we arrived which took us to Isla Passión (which is very small), Aguas Dulces (an awesome spring-fed cenote on a nearby island), and Isla Pájaros (for bird watching). In another week or so the pink flamingos will be in town, so it's a bird watchers fantasy.

Plan to bring bug repellent, as the mosquitos are very hungry. We also learned a trick for the sand fleas. Apparently, if you rub a little baby oil on your skin the sand fleas suffocate on contact and can't bite you.

We will definitely be going back, possibly this summer. Hans and I would like to go for three days to really relax and get some better photos of the Whale Sharks (I mentioned that hubby was photo-obsessed, didn't I)?


CancunCanuck said...

Fab fotos! I've had a couple of friends go recently and they commented on how hard it was to get pics as the animals move so fast and you are so close to them. Some of the pics just look like a big spotted blur, lol, so great job! We love Holbox too, maybe we'll have to have a blogger meet up there some time. :)

mexpat said...

Ooh! Ooh! Blogger Meetup in Holbox sounds AWESOME!!! :)

We had my point and shoot camera and it didn't get any good photos, but hubby had a wide angle lens on his camera and he set it to motor drive so he just held the button down and took a series of photos. He's the one who's really into the whole photo thing- I'm more into just the experience!

Anna said...

Fantastic pics. Brings back nice memories from last year - also too short a trip.

Steve Cotton said...

Another spot to add to the to-be-visited list.

Charles Sipe said...

Thanks for sharing your experience. That sounds like a great adventure although I'm petrified of sharks. Was it scary at all?

mexpat said...

Charles- It wasn't actually scary aside from the fact that they're so big. Knowing that they're vegetarians helped!

guaya said...

Hola, The taco place is Now open, yesterday was our fist day, God it was a madness. I had no body to cook so I had to cook, serve, be a waitress and sometimes bartender. Ja ja ja ja. BUT WE ARE FINALLY OPEN, after a month of hard work. Our place is on the same street of Posada Amor, but one and a half blocks to the left. when yo enter puerto morelos the first thing yo see is the park, so just turn to the left in the corner where the police station is. and is just half a block more, we are in front of Cantina Habanero. I'll love to see you the net time your are around.

Ps. GREAT PICS of the whale shark.!!!

Essi said...


I think I found this blog through the Thorn Tree, and I'm really happy I did, since I will be in Cancun in less than three weeks =)

I will definetly aim for Holbox after these photos! Hopefully the whalesharks will hang out until then.

Greetings from Finland!

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General Viagra said...

It sounds very interesting. I think that is amazing to watch this kind of animal so big and majestic. It is hard to watch this animal and you don't expect that they are harmless.