La Isla Holbox - Whale Shark

Swimming With Sharks – Holbox, Mexico

Derek Mexico 36 Comments

Swimming With Sharks - La Isla Holbox, Mexico

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.

This is what I saw:

Swimming With Sharks - La Isla Holbox - Whale Shark

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.


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 go swimming with 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.


Swimming With Sharks - La Isla Holbox, Mexico

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 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?

Since 1999 I've been traveling and living around the world nonstop. Sign up below for personal stories, real advice and useful updates from my adventures. Only good stuff, no nonsense.

Are you ready to earn money and travel?

How to Work on a Cruise Ship and Travel eBooksClick above and get started!

Comments 36

  1. Rodrigo

    Hello everyone.

    I coulnd’t read all the posts to find out if this has been adressed: but whale sharks have no teeth, so I can see how could have a wounded arm.

    Great great blog entry Earl, thank you.

  2. Pingback: 7 Amazing Things to Do on Isla Holbox Mexico - From Shores to Skylines

  3. Les Petits Pas de Juls

    Hi Earl,

    I was thrilled by my experience with the whale shark last september in Holbox (2011); it seems to me that they take much more into account than they did in 2010. although there still were a bunch of boats, they kept a better attitude and didn’t roam around the mighty beasts all the time. Too many people anyway, that’s for sure… your picture is soooo much better than mine, but the memory is everlasting! I’ll take a friend of mine over there again soon.
    Thanks for sharing! Mexico is now my home, I’ll be happy to read more about your adventures there.
    Happy trails to you and congrat’s on the blog and the ebooks!

  4. Theodora

    It’s not just the boats but the sharks’ tails that can cause damage to folk who swim with them. Still want to do it, though, or, better, dive (definitionally less crowded). I’m thinking Honduras, though, not Holbox…

    1. Earl

      Hey Theodora – Thanks for the comment! You’re right about the sharks’ tails. I could see how one whack in the head could do some serious damage. I’m sure it happens as well given the number of people swimming around.

      The diving idea sounds excellent! And I have no doubt that Honduras will offer much less crowded conditions. Let me know how it goes whenever you manage to head that way…

    1. Earl

      Hey Ciki – It certainly helped that I didn’t see the shark before I put my head in the water. Otherwise I might have stayed a bit further away!

    1. Earl

      Hey Amanda – It’s definitely an incredible experience and I would have even been fine with so many boats if they didn’t have a blatant disregard for the welfare of the whale sharks and try to cut them off every chance they got. ‘Chaotic’ is an understatement, but hopefully things will change as I just can’t imagine the whale sharks choosing to subject themselves to this for too long. Thank you so much for your comment!

  5. Dave and Deb

    Good for you for bringing this to our attention. I agree with your decidion, if all travellers start making a point of letting guides know that chasing the whale shark is not acceptable, maybe there will eventually be change. Let’s hope they start to make some sort of regulations.
    On a side note, La Isla Holbox looks beautiful!

    1. Earl

      Hey Dave and Deb – The good thing is that I’m sure regulations will be made quite soon as somebody will realize that in the long run, the current situation is not going to help anybody.

      And yes, La Isla Holbox is one stunning island. I had to keep on picking up the sand and jumping in the ocean just to make sure it was all real!

  6. Maria Staal

    Hey Earl, I’m so glad that you are able to tell things as they are. I think there are people who wouldn’t say they were disappointed.
    I am glad that you had a nice encounter with a whale shark. It must have been a great moment to come face to face with it.
    The rest of the story makes me a bit sad. It shows that travelling has an etiquette as well. It’s great to see new things, but if there are too many tourist it might endanger/harm local wildlife. On the other hand locals might earn a bit of money, which they might not otherwise do. So it’s a difficult question.
    Anyway, your post made me think, and that’s a good thing. 🙂
    .-= Maria Staal´s last blog ..A New Title For My Book! =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Maria – The fact that these tours do provide money for people who otherwise wouldn’t have any source of income, does make it a tough situation. I would just like to see some tighter restrictions to ensure that the animals are as protected from stress as possible. If they could implement such rules, and make things a bit more orderly out there, then I see no problem with continuing these tours. Hopefully they’ll realize the need for some changes before it’s too late!

      Thanks for the comment as always and enjoy the rest of your week!

  7. Dena

    Hey Earl! While it sounds like a lovely adventure, I also understand your disappointment. Sometimes we do things that seem like a good idea at the time, only to realize later — what a mistake.

    This was the case for me a couple of years ago when I went swimming with the dolphins in Jamaica. At the time, it was one of the most amazing experiences in my life! I enjoyed it so much that I cried tears of joy before, during, and after. (Yes, I love dolphins that much.)

    The problem came a year or so later when I watched the documentary, “The Cove” for the first time. I had been assured that the dolphins we swam with were all rescued dolphins before we ever signed up for the package. But after watching the cove, my heart breaks knowing that I supported such an industry.

    If only human beings could learn to live, love, & respect our fellow creatures of the earth & the sea. Perhaps, sharing stories like this one is the first step in the right direction. Thank you so much for writing this.

    .-= Dena´s last blog ..Ask Dena- Should We Stay Together for the Kids =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Dena – When I worked on cruise ships we would dock in Ocho Rios quite often and swimming with the dolphins at Dolphin Cove (not sure if its the same place you went to) was the most popular activity for passengers. But after the ‘real story’ leaked out, the cruise line stopped promoting these tours. I haven’t seen the documentary you mentioned but I’ve heard enough of the story to know what’s really going on.

      There are some great places out there that do respect the marine life and treat them well, but it’s hard to know which is which. And it seems that people don’t really care too much and so the industry survives. But I agree that sharing stories with as many people as possible is the best way to change the situation!

      1. Dena

        Yes, it was Dolphin Cove. While the documentary itself is not about Dolphin Cove in Ocho Rios (it’s about a small fishing village in Japan) the message spreads to all dolphins in captivity. You really should check it out when you have a chance. I also made a post about it (Bleeding Dolphins & Sacred Cows if you are interested.

        Once again, thank you for sharing this important message. 🙂
        .-= Dena´s last blog ..Ask Dena- Should We Stay Together for the Kids =-.

        1. Earl

          Thanks Dena, I’ll definitely read your post and watch the video. I figured it must have been Dolphin Cove where you swam with the dolphins. I know the owners quite well but it does seem that they are strictly in it for the money unfortunately.

  8. Cam

    That’s a pretty incredible story. I’ve always wanted to swim with whale sharks, but we planned to do it in the Philippines. It’s kinda sad how our thirst for curiousity puts innocent creatures in jeopardy. Kudos for sticking to your principles!

    1. Earl

      Hey Cam – I definitely still recommend the experience, and I’m sure there are other places around the world where you can swim with them in a much better setting. I know they can be found off the coast of almost every continent.

      I think the problem is when we combine that thirst for curiousity with a greed for money, which tends to lead such experiences down the wrong path. And rarely do they realize the damage done until it is far too late. Such a shame really.

      If you ever do swim with them somewhere, let me know as I’d be interested in the conditions you found…

  9. Nate

    Seeing that chaotic scene would have definitely turned me off as well.

    That place looks incredible, though! Like wow. Is it an expensive destination? The way you described it made it seem quite affordable.
    .-= Nate´s last blog ..reasons =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Nate – “Wow” is about as spot on a description as you could give this island! It’s not an expensive place to stay for a while, mainly because you would have no expenses at all apart from accommodation and food. I can’t even think of what else you might have to spend money on. A small, simple apartment in the tiny, tiny, tiny village (there’s only one village) would be around $700 month or you could rent a room at a posada for much less. You can also rent rooms/apartments in the handful of houses that are scattered along the beaches. Food was surprisingly cheap.

      And of course, unlimited use of the white sand and perfect waters is completely free!

  10. Emily

    That picture is incredible! I would have been TERRIFIED to be that close to a shark, though it sounds like that type is very docile. How disappointing that the boats crowd in like that–it definitely sounds unsafe for everyone. It probably overwhelms those poor sharks, and it’s scary as a swimmer to know that a boat might hit you! I didn’t know about Hawaii’s strict regulations–I think that’s awesome and wish it was like that everywhere.
    .-= Emily´s last blog ..Guest Post- 5 Hip Las Vegas Attractions Not to Miss =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Emily – Luckily, I wasn’t expecting to be so close when I put my head in the water or I probably would have been more frightened. I barely had time to even comprehend what was going on!

      But something definitely needs to be done about all of those boats. It’s a disaster waiting to happen and whether it ends up being a swimmer or a whale shark that gets injured, it would be an absolute shame considering that a few enforced rules could easily protect both the people and marine life.

    1. Earl

      Hey Jennifer – The whale sharks actually are not endangered. I did some research and apparently there are very few statistics available on their numbers. Certain animal rights groups do list the whale sharks as ‘threatened’ but they can still be found in over twenty different regions of the world.

      I can see how the BP oil spill would have affected those in this region, especially as their migration has been in full swing for some time already and they pass right along the edge of the Gulf. Hopefully most of them managed to pass through without trouble.

  11. Osborne


    I always wanted to swim with sharks, though I want to swim with Killer Whales, Great White Sharks, and Tiger Sharks. The Whale Shark picture looks amazing and to get that close would be an incredible experience. The first question that pops into my mind..did you pet it? I know I would have tried.


  12. Andi

    Yes, you are right, definitely an interesting trip! At first I was super jealous. On my bucket list is to swim with a whale shark in its natural habitat. I swam with a bunch in the Atlanta Aquarium and it was AMAZING! But, then reading further I realized what a terrible situation it was for the poor creatures. I’m proud of you for not going in. Great capture of the whale shark though!!! Btw, when the heck can I come visit you? You take me to that beach and I’ll buy you all the margaritas your heart desires. 😉
    .-= Andi´s last blog ..Brasil- Day 1 Part 2 =-.

    1. Osborne

      I was just at the Atlanta Aquarium this past week. I didn’t get to swim with the sharks sadly, though I really wanted to. I saw others do it and it looked amazing.


      1. Earl

        Hey Osborne – I didn’t pet the shark. Oddly enough, that was the one warning we received from our guide before getting in the water. But even so, I pretty much froze when I saw his face in front of mine so it never even occurred to me to reach out my hand! I was just happy that he didn’t open his mouth…

    2. Earl

      Hey Andi – I read about the whale sharks in the Atlanta Aquarium. So at least you know what it feels like to be face to face with one of these creatures. And you’re welcome down here any time, especially if the margaritas are on you! 🙂 I’d love to go back to Holbox, the beaches were too perfect!

  13. Moon Hussain

    Wow, Earl, that looks amazing–encounter with the whale shark and the beach looks ridiculously nice!

    I agree with Jonny…. color me jealous. However, as you mentioned, it’s not safe for the people nor the whale sharks the way those trips are being conducted. Unfortunately humans only see the monetary gains, selfishly until it’s too late 🙁
    .-= Moon Hussain´s last blog ..Random Ramblings- Confronting Fear &amp Doubt =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Moon – It was an amazing few seconds, even more so because I had no idea what to expect when I put my head in the water. But like you said, if the tour operators keep up in this manner, the whale sharks are going to go somewhere else…

    1. Earl

      Hey Jonny, Raam, Alan – You can find the whale sharks all over the world, so I expect you’ll come across them during your travels at some point!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *