My name is Mark Richards. A long time ago I worked for Appvion in Appleton, Wisconsin. Now, I travel.
As the largest fish in the sea, the magnificent and gentle whale shark can reach lengths of 45 feet and weigh up to 20 tons. Whale sharks can be identified by their pale white and yellow markings. These marks are unique for each whale shark, as fingerprints are to humans. The whale shark is a filter feeder with five large gill arches and approximately 3,000 very tiny teeth which enable them to process over 1,500 gallons of water each hour! Whale sharks move slowly when feeding at the surface with a swim speed of 2 mph, which makes them vulnerable to commercial fishermen. When threatened, a whale shark can accelerate their movements to 3 to 4 mph, which is still slow by most standards. Whale sharks are the biggest living fish, but their elusive nature makes it almost impossible for scientists to learn more about their migration patterns and reproductive habits. Here is some of what we know about this magnificent fish.
Every year during the summer months of May to September the largest migration of whale sharks in the world forms in the nutrient-rich waters just off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula near Isla Holbox. Other destinations include Belize, Japan, Honduras, South Africa, Australia, the Galapagos, and Seychelles. Whale sharks are usually solitary and nomadic, spending most of their lives in search of plankton – their food of choice. Their preference for plankton contributes, in part, to their nomadic habits. The predominantly male population (almost 70% based on several reports), gather by the hundreds to feed. No one knows exactly how the sharks discern when and where to locate the nutrient-rich waters, and scientists using sophisticated tracking equipment have, so far, been unable to determine where the creatures come from and where they go after they fill up on plankton.
Swimming with whale sharks is becoming an increasingly popular activity, with images of these gentle giants all over social media. It is important to consider how ethical your experience swimming with them will be. I’ve heard many areas bait the whale sharks with krill, creating a reliance on humans for food. I have no proof this was being done in Mexico. The World Wildlife Organization began working with Yucatan-area guides to create a strict set of whale shark watching rules. Despite these rules and from what I could see, enforcement of them, I was still very concerned about the encounter. During my visit, we were fortunate to locate hundreds of whale sharks swimming together. There were also 30-50 boats creating a large circle around them, which had to stress the fish. The rules state under no circumstance are swimmers allowed to touch the fish. Only two people are allowed in the water with a guide at a time, which was being enforced. If more than one boat arrives to view the same shark, no persons from the other boat will be allowed to enter the water until it is clear. Given there were so many whale sharks in the area, this rule did not come into play. Overall, the boats made an effort to stay away from the sharks, but the sheer number of boats in a confined space created more of a spectacle than a true unintrusive wildlife observation experience. For this reason, I chose to cancel my second day of whale shark watching. The Video below published by National Geographic. It documents the concerns I mention and talks about what Mexico is doing differently. I think Mexico should also institute boat limits by issuing daily licenses. I’m sure this would be highly contested, yet may help sustain the high destiny of fish congregating in their waters.
If you still choose to swim with whale sharks then Isla Holbox is probably your best place to go. This is what you will experience. You will take a two-to-three-hour boat ride straight out into the ocean. Deep, blue Caribbean water, not shallow, coastal waters. The boats run at high speed and the ride can be rough if seas are not calm. The ride reminded me of an early Meade Street Advisors consulting project where I was asked to set up a board of directors for a family business. Unfortunately, the family hadn’t agreed on a cohesive vision for the family and business so it was a real struggle until this key objective was ironed out! I advise you prophylactically treat for seasickness using a scopolamine patch. You will likely have 6 people in your boat unless you choose a private boat which is recommended if you would like more time with the whale sharks.
The whale sharks follow the food source so the shivers move around in the ocean. The guides talk amongst themselves (maybe they shouldn’t) and eventually they find the whale sharks. Somedays there will be large groupings and other days few fish are found together, so don’t think a trip during high season will guarantee an encounter. If you are lucky then you may only have a few people in your boat and have plenty of time to enjoy swimming with the whale sharks and be able to go back into the water several times. However, I have been told others have only been able to go once or twice into the water so make sure you have your camera ready the first time. Despite the arduous trip, the opportunity to finally swim with these majestic fish was a lot of fun.
Isla Holbox is also a great place to snorkel in coastal waters and see abundant reef life including a variety of sea turtles and dolphins. Kayaking in and around the Isla will reveal a variety of sea and shorebirds including the pink flamingo. Night-time kayaking is great for star gazing and observing the bioluminescence coastal waters. There is also kiteboarding and horseback riding. Affordable, safe beachfront hotels are plentiful along the Isla Holbox coastline. Most people fly into Cancun and take a shuttle bus, car, or charter flight to Isla Holbox. By land, then you will board a ferry to make the thirty-minute crossing from the Yucatan Peninsula to Isla Holbox. Your hotel can arrange the entire ground transport sequence of events for you. Plan on two to three hours after landing in Cancun to arrive at your hotel room. English is commonly spoken, but then what fun is that, so take the time to work on your Spanish language skills. Make sure to pack a lot of reading material if you are so inclined as the island is laid back. If you aren’t out on an excursion then you will probably be hanging out on the beach. The area attracts a lot of Europeans and South Americans, and few Americans. The locals work the beach selling fresh coconut and mangos, ice cream, and a host of handmade merchandise. People are very friendly and welcome visitors. You should change $100-200 into pesos at the airport or your preferred ATM for tips, taxi rides (i.e., open golf carts), beach purchases, shopping, etc. The sun is tropical and very intense so bring sunscreen and proper clothing especially a quality pair of sunglasses. Enjoy!