Each May through November, a small miracle occurs in the waters north of Cancun. Whale sharks arrive at their summer breeding grounds in the warm, plankton-rich waters off Isla Holbox. If you're planning to visit this area, don't miss the opportunity to swim with these beautiful, majestic creatures—the largest fish in the sea at 20 tons and 40-feet long—during a boat tour departing from Holbox.
Sometimes the chance of seeing whale sharks can be slim. Since whale sharks are 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.
What to Expect
To see the sharks up close, make an advance reservation with a tour outfitter. On the way out, the tour guide will explain the rules of the trip: no touching the whale sharks (not surprisingly, it stresses them), no diving, keep a 10-foot distance and allow a maximum of three swimmers at one time. Tour companies developed these measures to help protect the whale sharks. The creatures arrive in great numbers, and the entire community on Holbox is dedicated to their safety and preservation.
The tour from Isla Holbox travels past the northernmost point on the Yucatan Peninsula, past turquoise shallows populated with blush-pink flamingos picking their way delicately through the mangroves and into deep, dark waters out of sight of land. If you're lucky, you may see a pod of dolphins frolicking before leaping out of sight. Keep an eye out for the sharks though; if you see dozens of boats gathered, you've probably found the whale sharks.
Swimming With the Sharks in Isla Holbox
Now's the time to put on your fins and snorkel and jump in to see the world’s biggest fish. The sharks float languidly as their massive mouths filter plankton. They're carnivorous but much prefer plankton to snorkeling tourists. Note their small black eyes; when they see you, they'll typically regard you without alarm as if you're just another sea creature.
Snorkel alongside the sharks as they gracefully turn their great spotted bodies in pursuit of tiny prey. Watch as the huge gills on their sides wave hypnotically. If you're close enough, you'll feel the extraordinary strength of their massive bodies sluicing through the water. Then, with a flick of their mammoth tails, they speed off, leaving snorkelers behind in their wake.
If you're lucky, you may be surrounded by as many as 100 whale sharks feeding at the surface. You may get multiple swims, but they may only last a few minutes – the sharks are incredibly fast once they get moving and soon outpace swimmers – but while underwater, time seems suspended. Seeing such an incredible creature up close, observing it in its natural habitat and in its element, is an unforgettable and magical experience.
Getting to Isla Holbox
Buses run daily from the main bus station in Cancun to the small port town of Chiquila. From there, catch one of the ferries to Holbox (about $7 and a 25-minute ride accompanied by a welcome video).
How to Swim With Whale Sharks
Tours are approximate $125 and up per person, which includes gear (snorkels, fins, wetsuits), lunch and tour. It’s possible to just show up and book with one of the many outfits who advertise their services around town—some reasonably professional, some little more than a man and his boat. One reputable tour company is Willy's Tours, operated by a lifelong resident of Isla Holbox. Reservations are required.