The whale shark is the largest fish on earth, usually measuring between 15 and 50 feet (5 -16 m) in length and weighing as much as 10 tons. These gentle sea creatures range all tropical waters and infrequently stray into temperate ones.
The whale shark’s body is stout but streamlined, like that of a shark. In fact, they probably got their name because they look like a shark with a whale’s head. They are dark brown or grey with white or yellow spots, with a white or yellow underbelly.
The whale shark has nothing in common with whales except for its size and the fact that it only eats minute plankton by scooping it up with an open mouth. Unlike most sharks, the whale shark has its mouth at the front of its head rather than on the underside and unlike other sharks, it does not eat meat. It normally feeds on or just below the surface by literally vacuuming food from the water.
Very little is known about whale shark reproduction, with most information coming from a single egg found in the Gulf of Mexico. It is thought that the young develop in egg cases that are retained in the mother’s body until hatching. Despite their large adult size, whale sharks are very small at birth, probably 40 to 50 centimeters.
The whale shark is a docile fish that will not attack, even on provocation. Despite their impressive appearance, they are harmless to humans. They are mainly solitary in nature, they roam widely, and are often difficult to find. The expedition from Isla Holbox is an exceptional adventure. Being in the presence of these great creatures, with enough time to observe and enjoy them, is a special privilege indeed. Please look, take pictures, enjoy, but as with many of the wonders of the ocean, please do not touch them or harass them in any way!
For several years now, whale sharks have been coming to the northern tip of the Yucatán peninsula to feed and mate during the months of May through September. Tourism based on whale shark watching has increased dramatically in the last few years and government agencies have taken steps to protect these magnificent animals so that the species will not be harmed and so they will continue to return to this area.
For that reason, Isla Holbox has recently been named by the Mexican government as the only port that can offer trips to swim with the whale sharks and there are strict rules against scuba equipment being used to view them in the area. Local guides have been trained to give tours that are as safe for the whale sharks as they are for their human visitors.
At a conference in 2010, Pronatura declared that at least 1000 whale sharks were counted in 2009. This national treasure must be protected. Many whale sharks have been seen with injuries caused by the propellers of passing boats.
If this protection is guaranteed, the whale shark can continue to provide tourism opportunities in the area. Pronatura is doing studies on the impact from tourism on these inoffensive animals, and creating a management plan to determine how many boats and humans can approach these animals so that they don’t feel threatened and migrate to another area.
Aware of the importance of this species and its protection, past President Felipe Calderon decreed a marine reserve of 160,000 hectares added to the reserve of Yum Balam.
Ask around at the docks or downtown for someone to take you to the whale sharks. Be prepared to spend about five to six hours on the water, with all that entails. Most tour guides will provide drinks, but be sure to ask before you go. And don’t forget a hat and sunscreen!
From a reader: “As scuba divers, we have always wanted to see a whale shark. Having spent a whole week in Roatan without seeing even a glimpse of one, we made it our mission to find one and were pleased to learn that we might get lucky on Isla Holbox. On a sunny day last September, we drove to the coastal town of Chiquilá, parked our car, and took a boat to Isla Holbox. Once there, we easily found a fisherman with a “lancha” (a small motor-powered wooden fishing boat) who used his not-so-quaint GPS locator in order to find the spot where the whale sharks, known locally as Dominos, were feeding the next day. After about an hour of motoring, we found ourselves in the middle of the ocean, with no land in sight. Suddenly, there were four or five whale sharks slowly swimming around us (and three other boats that were there to observe). They were joined by a large manta ray that was also fishing in the area.”
How to get to Holbox:
From Mérida, you can take a bus (“Oriente”) that leaves at 11:30 pm (the terminal is on Calle 69 x 68 y 70 and the cost is 186 pesos) and gets to Chiquila at 5 am, where you catch a ferry to the island. The return departs at 5:30 am arriving to Mérida at 11 am. The other option is with Noreste, departing Merida at 10.15 am and arriving Chiquila at 4.15 pm, cost is 150 pesos, from their station at Calle 67 x 50. This bus returns at approx. 5.30 am, arriving Merida 11.30 am. If you go by car, it is better to take the libre (free) Mérida-Cancún road to kilometer 80 to the Customs building at El Ideal, where you turn to the left until you reach Chiquila. Parking costs 50 pesos per day but they charge by day, not by night, so if you stay overnight you will be charged 100 pesos.
Bus from Cancun: 80 pesos for the milk run, and 150 pesos for the direct bus to Chiquilá. The direct bus to Chiquilá leaves at 2:30 pm from ADO in Cancun.
From Holbox to Chiquila: 5 am, 7 am, 9 am, 10 am, 11 am, 1 pm, 3 pm, 4 pm, 6 pm, 8 pm. During peak vacation dates the ferry is hourly.
From Chiquila to Holbox: 6 am, 8 am, 10 am, 11 am, 12 pm, 2 pm, 4 pm, 5 pm, 7 pm, 9:30 pm. During peak vacation dates the ferry is hourly.
The cost is 80 pesos per person.
From Holbox to Chiquila: 7 am, 11 am, 1 pm, 4 pm, 7 pm.
From Chiquila to Holbox: 8 am, 12 pm, 2 pm, 5 pm, 8 pm
The cost is 50 pesos per person.
If you don’t want to wait, you can hire a “lancha” from one of the men waiting around the dock. That will cost you about $350 pesos from 1 to 6 persons (450 at night), but you might be able to share it with someone else who is waiting.
You can also fly to Holbox with Aerosaab Airlines air tours from Playa del Carmen, Cancun and Tulum.
Whale Shark Tours:
Phone: (984) 875 2435
Fax: (984) 875 2435
Cell: (998) 734 8442
Whale Shark season on Isla Holbox is from May 15th until September 15th. The gentle whale shark is the largest fish on earth.