Whale Sharks Off Isla Holbox, Mexico — July 8-15, 2008

I went to Holbox Island (say "hole-bosh"–the "x" in Mayan is pronounced "sh") to snorkel with whale sharks. The sharks are there from mid-June to early September each year to feed in the plankton-rich waters. This was somewhat similar to my last trip in February in that it was land-based from an island, and I flew into Cancun (on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula) to get there. And while both trips included a ferry ride, this one was preceded by a two hour van ride to the town of Chiquila. So if you’re coming from the San Francisco area–it’s a long travel day (I overnighted in Cancun).

Holbox is located 40 miles northwest of Cancun and is about seven
miles long and a mile wide. There is only a fishing village on the
island–also called Holbox. There are no high-rise hotels, only
"boutique" ones mostly built in the past three years to accommodate
the growing tourist business. An article in the May 2004 issue of
Islands Magazine was the first in a major travel magazine about Isla
Holbox, and more visitors have been coming each year since then as
the word about the whale sharks spreads. Only snorkeling is
permitted with the whale sharks–no scuba diving–so just about any
tourist regardless of experience level can try it.

Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are the world’s largest fish (NOT a
whale), attaining lengths that can exceed 40 feet. Despite their
size, they are harmless to humans, filter feeding on plankton,
krill, small fish and squid through the huge mouth at the front of
the head that can be more than four feet wide. They are found in
warm oceans worldwide. I’ve seen them at Isla del Coco (Costa Rica)
and the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador), and sightings are also common
at Ningaloo Reef in northwest Australia and near Thailand.

The tour leader for our trip was Jacqueline Russell ( She has done this trip many times, and capably handled the transport, lodging and snorkel operator details for our group of six guests. The Mawimbi Hotel where we stayed (outside area shown above) had nine rooms, all with AC. The staff took some effort to keep things clean, though it was hard since we guests were constantly tracking in sand from the beach. The boat we boarded each morning was anchored here, so you had a walk of only about 100 feet from the hotel–hard to get easier access than that, unless you’re on a liveaboard!

Above are some shots of the whale sharks and snorkelers from the boat. The sharks were feeding about 35 miles offshore, which was an hour each way from Holbox. Only two guests were allowed in the water at a time (a good rule), along with a licensed guide. While there were many tourist boats out there, the whale shark population at this time of year is such that there was no problem finding a shark of your own to swim with. As you can see, we were blessed with flat, calm water. While I was told such ocean conditions are common for this time of year, please note that Hurricane Dolly blew through northeast Mexico and the Texas gulf coast about a week after I left–whale shark season here is also hurricane season.

The problem with trying to get a "full body" shot of an animal this big is that you need better water visibility then we generally had. The viz was poor because of all the ‘lil critters in the water that the sharks were there to feed on. So poor viz kinda goes with the whale shark territory here. The shot on the left will give you some idea of how big these sharks can get (this one was estimated at about 38 feet), as you can make out our dive guide just above its head. The shot on the right shows a snorkeler with a juvenile about 18 feet in length.

I had better luck with my photos when I got in close. What some call the "first rule" of underwater photography applied here: "Eliminate the water between your camera lens and the subject." With my zoom lens set at its wide angle maximum of 17mm, I was VERY close in the first four photos above!

At one point, I had just photographed a whale shark as it swam by, and as I turned around, this manta ray (about 15 feet across) also passed right next to me. We saw many of the filter-feeding mantas, as they were there for the same reason as the whale sharks.

The beach in front of our hotel on the island’s north side faced into the gulf and gave us nice sunset photo opportunities as well. This was an enjoyable trip–close (compared to many of my destinations), and whale shark encounters are pretty much guaranteed!

Best to all,


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