As I gulped down my second mouthful of ocean water while struggling to get my snorkeling tube into my mouth, I suddenly heard some frantic shouting behind me. When I turned around I saw our boat captain yelling and pointing at me to put my head under the water immediately. And so I did.
That’s right, I was face to face with a 6 meter long whale shark. He was literally no more than six inches away from me and he was clearly as surprised by my sudden appearance as I was by his. With no other option but to be polite, we both made eye contact and extended a brief greeting, just as if we had run into each other while walking down the street. He acknowledged my existence with a quick wink and I tilted my head slightly downwards in a display of advance appreciation for him not tearing off my face.
With our greetings out of the way, my new pal then decided to continue on his journey while I tried to swim alongside him despite my inability to swim as fast as a whale shark. I did manage to keep him in close view for about ten seconds, after which his massive tail fin finally disappeared into the depths below.
Lifting my head out of the water, the first thing I heard was my guide yelling at me to return to the vessel, but I ignored him for a few seconds as I tried to allow my quick and surreal encounter with a massive underwater beast soak in. And then I climbed up the ladder, removed my fins and took a seat on the edge of the boat.
Over the following thirty minutes, I watched the whale sharks swim all around us as the other six people in our group had their turn at being in the water with these impressive creatures.
Then, after everyone had finished their swim, the guide asked me if I wanted another turn.
Without hesitation, I politely declined, and then spent the next thirty minutes on the boat as everyone else went back in the water once again.
WHY I DECLINED A ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME OPPORTUNITY…
When we had arrived at the shark site, located approximately 12 kilometers off the coast of Mexico, there were a handful of small boats scattered over a large area, with about 20 people ready to swim with the whale sharks. But within ten minutes after I came out of the water, there were suddenly over 40 boats, carrying at least 250 total people, all crammed into a very small section of ocean.
Everybody there had paid for the trip and everybody had a right to be in the water, but in truth, I would never have gone on this trip myself had I known ahead of time the conditions I’d find.
After hearing stories from others, I had assumed (my first mistake!) that swimming with the whale sharks off the coast of La Isla Holbox would involve a more quiet setting, one with maybe a couple of small boats kept at a safe distance from the sharks, where we would be allowed to get into the water and observe them from a distance as well.
I had no idea that the boat captains would be maneuvering their vessels amongst each other at insane speeds in order to try and corner the whale sharks so that their passengers would have a better chance of being directly in front of them when in the water. I had no idea that the apparently not-so-strict rules that require boats to remain 20 meters away from the whale sharks would not be enforced at all.
It was quite a chaotic and dangerous scene instead, and not only for the sharks. On more than one occasion we had to yell out to our captain because he was heading straight towards a swimmer that he didn’t see or because a snorkeler was seconds away from being caught in our engine.
Basically, the combination of people, boats and whale sharks, all crisscrossing each others’ paths in a battle for position, created a situation that just didn’t sit too well with me. I can’t imagine the amount of stress that the three dozen or so sharks must experience every day while facing such an aggressive onslaught of ‘observers’. It wouldn’t be much of a shock if one of them decided to take a nibble out of a snorkeler’s arm, thus putting an end to these trips altogether and allowing themselves to migrate in peace.
My only other experience of being in the ocean with large creatures was in Hawaii during whale season, where regulations are so strict that as soon as a whale is spotted within close proximity, the boat engine is turned off. Neither a vessel nor a swimmer is allowed to be any closer than 100 yards (90 meters) to the whales at any time. Doing so results in heavy fines.
So I guess that’s what I expected on this trip as well, which is why I ended up somewhat disappointed. Of course, the fact that the boat journey to the whale shark site took 3 hours each way instead of the 1.5 hours advertised, also made the trip significantly more challenging. Throw in some heavy rain and 3-meter waves, which the ‘captain’ of our motorized row boat either failed to notice or took delight in causing long-lasting back damage to his passengers, and I was beyond joyous upon returning to the pier at La Isla Holbox.
LA ISLA HOLBOX – AS PERFECT AS IT GETS
Luckily, the island of Holbox (pronounced Hol-bosh) is as stunning a location as I’ve found in Mexico. Powdery white sands, perfect blueish-green waters and a laid-back village atmosphere made for a wonderful stay. It’s the kind of island where the hotel owners don’t care what time you check-out, there’s more hammocks than people, the locals spend their evenings eating crepes and the only vehicles allowed on the handful of sandy streets are golf-carts.
It was a little strange that lobster pizza was more common on the menus than tacos but the warm and friendly local population and lack of anything to do but relax, is a good enough reason to spend some time here. It’s the sort of isolated-from-the-world location where I could easily live for a month or two, possibly more, although my time would certainly be spent partaking in activities other than swimming with the whale sharks.
Photo: Whale Shark – Jon Hanson
Have you gone swimming with the whale sharks off Holbox or anywhere else? How was your experience? If not, I’d be curious to know if this is an activity that appeals to you?