Swimming with whale sharks has been on my bucket-list ever since I found out it was an actual “thing.” Since then, I’ve waited for the right season and opportunity to schedule a swimming date with these giants. That date finally came when I booked a tour with HolboxIsland.com. Here’s a review of my experience of swimming with whale sharks off the coast of Holbox Island, Mexico (near Cancun) and some tips to help you have a great experience when you decide to swim with whale sharks.
Scheduling the trip
The communication from HolboxIsland.com’s staff from the very beginning was great. If you’ve read any of my other tour reviews, you know I’m huge on pre-trip communication (especially when crossing international borders). We worked out all of the specifics for transportation and scheduling via email and everything went as smoothly as I could hope for. It always makes me a little bit nervous when I agree to let a tour company arrange for all of my different legs of transportation but with HolboxIsland, I felt I was in good hands.
HolboxIsland.com offers a number of different tour packages and we ended up booking the whale shark tour + air transportation option and flew in from Cancun. It’s a full day affair that starts with being picked up at your hotel at 6am and ends with you being brought back to Cancun at about 3pm.
Instead of going by private plane, you can also get to Holbox Island with a combination of taking a taxi/bus, ferry, and golf cart. We went with the plane option for the convenience and for the great views of the area. You can look more into options of how to get to Holbox here.
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The plane ride
A nice SUV picked us up from our hotel in Cancun at 6am on the dot and took us to the airport about 25 minutes away. We arrived at a small section of the Cancun airport that operates private planes. A rep from HolboxIsland.com met us there and introduced us to what would be happening for the day. He also went over a lot of the ecological restrictions that the company follows to ensure the welfare of the sharks, which made me feel even better about my decision to go with HolboxIsland.
We then went through security and even though this was a small private plane, were forced to throw out our 3 water bottles. Tip: if you’re flying in from another airport, inquire with someone about purchasing water when you arrive in Holbox. While the boat will have some water, it’s always a good idea to have some of your own.
Our plane ride was a much more enjoyable than our last experience with a puddle jumper where we were packed like sardines. This time we had the cabin for ourselves and the interior of the plane was actually nice, roomy, and comfortable with plenty of room for us to stretch our legs.
The flight to Holbox from Cancun is only about 20 to 30 minutes. You’ll fly over a lot wooded areas as you leave the Cancun area but once you reach the coast of the peninsula the scenery becomes much more dynamic with different shades of blue and green reflecting from the saltwater flats extending down the coastline.
You’ll know you’re close to the Holbox airport when you notice the large plume of smoke where they burn huge piles of the island’s trash. Be ready for a little bumpy landing, as the runway at Holbox is more of a cleared out dirt path than a paved runway. Still, for being a dirt runway the landing wasn’t that bad.
We hopped out of our plane and within a couple of minutes one of the instructors appeared with a golf cart and told us to hop in. The ride through downtown Holbox is a bit bumpy and we worked our way through a fair amount of sludge to get to the beach, but it was actually pretty fun.
The docks where all of the boats depart from stand over some beautiful light green water. Our boat was called the “Glendy” and it sat 10 people not including the instructors. Thankfully, it comes with a canopy so you won’t be completely exposed to the sun while you are out at sea. However, you will still be exposed to the sun much of the time and for that reason, make sure you bring sunscreen and/or clothing to cover your neck and arms.
As soon as we had everybody on board, our captain told us it was time to head out. But first, we’d have to put on life jackets. And on top of that, we’d have to keep those on while swimming with the whale sharks. I was very bummed about my diving/photography being limited by a life preserver, but I understand why that’s a strictly enforced regulation and it’s probably better for the whale sharks in any event. So kudos to them for enforcing the rules.
With our life jackets strapped on and everybody boarded, we finally took off.
Shortly after departing, our instructor took us through the different rules for encountering whale sharks and also walked us through how the tour would be working, where we’d be sitting, etc. The most important rules are pretty simple: keep about 6 feet from the whale sharks, don’t touch them, keep your life jacket on, and try to stay out of their way if one’s coming for you.
Finding the sharks can take a while
One thing that you have to remember about doing an activity like swimming with whale sharks is that you’re dealing with the unpredictability of nature. With that in mind, it’s hard to know for sure how long it might take to reach the sharks.
Our guides told us that after about one hour and 20 minutes at sea, we were in the “feeding zone” where we might find whale sharks. At that point, everyone’s attention was piqued and we scanned the ocean for signs of these giants.
One person quickly spotted something pretty big breaking the surface of the water. It took a while to get close to enough to figure out what was splashing around but as we got closer, it turned out to be two massive sea turtles just hanging out.
The next guest appearance came when some other plankton-eaters came our way — huge manta rays!
We saw several manta rays swimming along the water’s surface, taking in mouth-fulls of zooplankton. It’s hard to get a good look at the manta rays because they are so flat and sort of blend in with the water at times but they are magnificent creatures and their wings spanned much wider than I thought they did.
After a few meet and greets with the manta rays, the anticipation to see the whale sharks grew tremendously.
That anticipation would soon subside greatly over the next hour, however. As I stated before, when it comes to nature, you can’t ever forget that you’re on its time — not yours. Although we entered the “feeding zone” there was no sign of the whale sharks. So we continued to speed through the ocean, bouncing along as we cut through the waves.
Arriving to the shark area
After close to 2.5 hours at sea, our captain told us we were approaching the zone where all of the whale sharks were. At that point, we were pretty far out into the open ocean — I couldn’t see a single sign of land in any direction. That was my first time to ever be that far out at sea (in a small boat) and while it was a little unsettling to think about all the things that could go wrong (I’ve watched too many movies), our captain reassured us that everything was going to according to plan and I felt fine.
Once we came upon the site where the whale sharks were feeding, we saw a number of other small boats lining the horizon in the area. We stopped pretty far from the nearest boats, however, so we never felt overcrowded. Also, I never saw any of the boats (including ours) intrude too close to one of the sharks (they have to stay about 10m away) so it made me feel good that boats weren’t interfering with the sharks as they fed upon the plankton.
Putting on our snorkeling gear
Once we arrived to where the sharks were, we slipped on our snorkeling gear and flippers and got ready to jump in.
If there’s one thing that could be done a little better it’s the distribution of the snorkeling equipment. Don’t get me wrong, everyone had snorkel gear to dive with but when it came to distributing the gear out between dives, things got a bit confusing with some using gear that was originally used (and fitted) by someone else. I simply kept my gear next to me at all times to prevent this but if you’re able to, it might be a good idea if you can just bring your own snorkel gear to avoid any potential problems.
At one point, I’d forgotten that I was wearing a GoPro head strap and when I took my goggles off to clean them, I knocked my GoPro into the ocean! Strapped tight into a snug life jacket that I couldn’t slip out of, I knew there was no way that I’d be able to get it off in time and catch the GoPro so I just watched it quickly disappear into the blue oblivion.
But that’s when our instructor — without hesitation — dove into the water off the side of boat and after a few seconds, popped up with my GoPro in his hand! Moronic feeling aside, I was stoked he was able to get it and became all the more ready to jump in with the sharks.
Finally time to swim with the sharks
Swimming with the whale sharks is a little bit more difficult than I expected. That’s because while the whale sharks appear to be moving along slowly, they’re covering a lot of ground pretty quickly. Combine their speed with somewhat limited visibility and you’ve got roaming giants that can be a lot more elusive than you might expect. But once you finally get your timing right and you’re in the right spot, there’s nothing quite like laying your eyes on one of these giants.
How the swimming part of the tour works is that the captain positions the boat in close proximity to where a whale shark is headed and then he’ll tell everyone to “jump!” (slide off the side of the boat) and “swim, swim, swim!” to the shark.
If you’re lucky, you might get a shark that is going a bit slow or that might remain slightly stationary for a short while. But most of the sharks didn’t bat an eye to us and continued on at a speed that required us to kick pretty fast to keep up. When we were able to keep up, the results were astonishing….
Our instructor did a superb job of keeping us rounded up and directing us toward the sharks. It’s not that easy to locate the sharks when you’re in the water so the guidance provided by the instructors was often crucial for getting up close to the sharks.
You’re not allowed to touch the whale sharks and I believe the recommended distance to be kept from them is about 6 feet. Sometimes a shark will approach you and just be within a couple of feet of you, though, and in that case just remember to not touch them (it can cause infection) and just enjoy marveling at their massive bodies — they absolutely dwarf us humans and the fish around them.
The swimming session consists of about 4 to 6 attempts to swim alongside a shark for as long as possible without venturing too far from the boat. It might take a couple of attempts, but the first time you get one of the sharks to head right where you are and you take a look into their little eyes from just a few feet away, it really is quite the feeling and one of those travel moments that you will always remember with vivid recollection.
Something else that fascinated me were the streaks of light rays that danced underwater. The water was about 150 feet deep where we were and so at times you’re just looking down at endless blue abyss that adds to the mesmerization of the entire experience.
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Photographing whale sharks
I recommend using a GoPro on a selfie stick to photograph the whale sharks. I have an underwater point and shoot that takes superb reef shots in clear water but didn’t do very well in these waters which were full of plankton and huge whale sharks (and snorkelers) thrashing around. However, the GoPro footage we took came out great.
The tour continues
After sprinting about the ocean chasing these gentle giants, we climbed back onto the boat and awaited our next stage of the tour. Before we left the sharks, however, the captain made sure everyone was satisfied with their whale shark encounter. With everyone in agreement, we set off for the next stages of our tour.
The next stop for us was a little snack shack located right on the coast. There we could buy drinks (beer) and snacks like potato chips. The guy and kid tending to the place only took pesos so make sure you have those on you if you plan on purchasing anything.
After that, they took us to a small reef area for some snorkeling. The visibility of the brownish waters isn’t the best due to run-off from the island (my guess) but it’s still a decent side-trip to enjoy some snorkeling on your way back. Two of the highlights of the reef area were the multi-colored starfish that were everywhere and the large stingrays that patrolled the reef.
After about 20 minutes of snorkeling, you’ve pretty much seen it all and it’s time to move on to the next place.
Flamingos and ceviche!
We then arrived to an interesting saltwater flat with tons of birds and juvenile fish. The water is only a few inches deep at certain points and we spotted little fish like needlefish darting around. A couple of times, we also saw some large pink flamingos flying overhead, which was a first for me (I didn’t even know they could fly).
After we waded around in the warm, clear waters for about 15-20 minutes, we got back into the boat and our instructor served up some of the best ceviche I’ve ever tried. You don’t want to pass it up, either, because it’s really fresh and with some chips and a little bit of chili sauce, it’s the perfect little lunch on a boat.
Speaking of food, I suggest you take some snacks and water with you on the boat. They will provide you with some water and soft drinks but it could be a number of hours from the time you start the tour before you’re able to eat the ceviche, so I suggest eating a big breakfast before you board the boat and bringing along snacks.
This bucket-list experience went about as smoothly as I could ask for. While it required us to have a little patience out on the open ocean, the sights from our tour that day will always live fresh in my memory. If you’re considering swimming with whale sharks in Mexico, I highly recommend booking through HolboxIsland.com.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.