Thursday, 15 August 2013

Isla Holbox: Swimming with Whale Sharks

Just off the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula lies the island of Holbox, home to brilliant white shell beaches, bird watching and fantastic whale shark viewing. The island is just a short ferry ride from the mainland and costs 80 pesos one way for the 30 minute trip. The ferries leave from a little town called Chiquila which has many bus connections. Getting to and from here to Cancun is only three hours, however they aren't that regular so best to check times at the bus terminal first.

Finding accommodation is easy enough as there are now plenty of options on the island, the place fills up at weekends, and during holidays it is a very popular destination for Mexicans, but if you walk around the small town which occupies the centre of the island you'll soon find something.

As for activities there are a few on offer here from deep sea fishing to bird watching, but none more popular than the whale shark viewing. There are loads of tour operators who pretty much run the same operation, as usual, just walk around and enquire and when you feel you've found the cheapest/best place, go with them. We paid 1000 pesos which is on the low end of the spectrum, many places were charging up to 1300. Just shop around.

The tour begins with an early morning start at the dock where you join up with the rest of the group, your captain and guide. It take about two hours to get to the spot where the whale sharks are feeding, the plankton which was so prevalent only a couple years ago close to the coast is now all gone so the whale sharks have to go further out to sea.

It is possible to see schools of these beasts from some distance off, with their fins popping out of the water as they swim around and surround the nearby boats. At time of arrival, there must have been some 30 whale sharks in the general vicinity, quite incredible really and a real treat for me since I have wanted to see one since my first scuba dive in Thailand. For a week every other boat on the island saw this one solitary whale shark chilling in the area, I think I can safely say this makes up for that disappointment and then some.

Groups are small on the boat and you have to be with a guide, this isn't a problem anyway as he was able to figure out where they would be just by looking in the water and seeing something we couldn't. If you didn't follow his lead you had to attempt to listen out for people on the boat telling them yelling directions or suddenly bricking it and swimming away as a 30ft whale shark came out of nowhere with it's mouth wide open. I know they're not into eating humans but as if you would bother playing chicken with one of them.

Whale sharks at Isla Holbox in Mexico
Whale sharks at Isla Holbox in Mexico Whale sharks at Isla Holbox in Mexico

Whale sharks at Isla Holbox in Mexico

Whale sharks at Isla Holbox in Mexico Whale sharks at Isla Holbox in Mexico

You get about a couple hours or so at the site, and by the end you're pretty tired from kicking your fins in a pathetic attempt to catch up with a fish, and just from the exhilaration of the experience itself. In comparison, the rest of the day doesn't hold a candle to the first activity of the morning: there's a stop at a lagoon, plenty of flamingo viewing and ceviche, which on any other day taken on their own would have been great, but whale sharks are just cooler. The ceviche was delicious though, and the captain was good enough to give me a second bowl.

Aside from these aforementioned activities, the only other thing to do here really is to relax. There are plenty of hotels along the beach and if you buy drinks or food you can make use of their deck chairs, failing that take your own booze and wait til someone asks you to pay a rental fee, this only happened one time in four which made for very pleasant drinking and lounging.

My trip may be coming to an end but I was happy to come to a place which would rank among one of the highlights of my trip: it was peaceful, there was affordable day drinking, the sun shone endlessly and the beach was right on my doorstep, what's not to like? I would definitely come back here on holiday.

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