BackgroundFor our birthdays in 2009 we each choose a long weekend destination. For my birthday we spent a leisurely, gluttonous weekend in Sonoma and Napa. Andy chose something a little more adventurous.
For years he has wanted to swim with whale sharks, the largest living fish species. He had read about a tiny, mostly undeveloped island in Mexico that had high concentrations of whale sharks in July and August, so as with many of our previous trips we figured what the heck.
Getting ThereGetting to Holbox was not easy and involved almost every imaginable form of transportation. When we arrived in Cancun, we were met by a transfer service (arranged by our hotel) who drove us about two and a half hours north to the town of Chiquila. I'm sure there are cheaper ways to get to Chiquila but this way seemed the fasted and most comfortable. In Chiquila we boarded a small boat with four other people headed to Holbox for the 20 minute ride to the seven and a half mile long island (they were headed there for the fly fishing). When we arrived in Holbox ((which means "black hole" in Yucatec Maya and is pronounced Hol-bosch), we were met by a golf cart taxi for a 10 minute ride to the hotel. The island has essentially no cars (only golf carts or mopeds) - the streets aren't even paved - just sand.
LodgingThis was a fairly last minute trip, so we checked Trip Advisor and emailed a few places to check availability. My criteria were fairly simple: air conditioning and a view. A few places tried to sell me on the "cool ocean breezes and ceiling fans" hooey, but the new Houstonian in me was tired of sweating so no A/C was a dealbreaker.
We wound up at Villas Paraiso del Mar which turned out to be fabulous. It is located far enough down the beach that it is quiet, yet only a 10 minute walk down the beach into town for dinner (restaurant at the hotel was nothing to write about). Our ocean front two-story villa had more space than we could possibly need, and was steps to gauzy-draped lounge cabanas and the tranquil turquoise sea.
The Whale SharksWhat drew us to Holbox was the alleged high concentration of whale sharks and it did NOT disappoint. We didn't know how busy the boat situation was, so we booked two excursions in advance with Holbox Whale Shark Tours. Rodrigo - aka "Whale Shark Daddy" - had a good website and offered a money back guarantee that we would see the big fish.
We were told that we would be picked up at the hotel at 7:30, but 7:30 came and went with no Rodrigo even though he had confirmed the day before. We approached every nearing golf cart, and every passing boat on the beach, but no luck. We walked to the other side of the hotel, and to yet the other side of the hotel, but no luck there either. The island was SILENT with the exception of a passing golf cart every now and then.
Close to 8, a golf cart arrived and took us to a lodge near the pier where we met the other adventurists. We quickly spotted the ones we did not want to share a boat with and did the mental "please not them, please not THEM" when we were being divvied up ammonst the several boats going out for the day. The travel gods were with us: we wound up on a very seaworthy craft, though the six other passengers, captain and guide only spoke Spanish. Tiburon = shark. Ballena = whale. Tiburon ballena = whale shark. Vamanos.
My elementary school Spanish told me that something was going to happen in about twenty minutes. The water was amazingly calm and I began to second guess that half dramamine that I popped a few hours earlier as it and the warm sun were making a nap seem imminent. As soon as I got situated for a little snooze, the boat slowed because we were in the midst of a school of dolphins ! We watched them for a little while and then continued onward in search of the tiburon ballena.
It didn't take long before the boat slowed again, this time for GIANT manta rays swimming right near the surface. In the distance we also saw mantas jumping clear out of the water. I remember seeing a postcard of this behavior when we were in Cabo, but seeing it in person was unreal. Impossible for us to photograph of course, but check out these pictures if you haven't seen this type of thing before.
The guide explained (I think) that we were in the area where the whale sharks were usually spotted, and he climbed on to the top of the boat to get a better vantage point for spotting. We saw that a few other boats in the area had found sharks so it was only a matter of time and within about 10 minutes we were circling one of our own.
Swimming with the sharks is not an elegant event. You don an awkward personal flotation device, put on your mask/fins/snorkel, and sit on the side of the boat as it drives fairly close to the whale shark. You wait for the guide to yell, "go, go go!" and then you jump from the moving boat and swim as fast and as hard as you possibly can towards this creature who is almost as big as the boat. When you can no longer keep up with the giant spotted filter-feeding fish, you pause and the boat comes to fetch you. Then you wait for the other folks on the boat to go before you can go again.
This particular day we swam with three separate sharks and learned that we prefer the older ones :) They are less skittish and then to just hang out. Sometimes they even turn so you are staring right into their four foot wide mouth !
Today we decided to walk down to the pier, and when we arrived we, and a couple from the Netherlands, were directed to wait for a smaller blue boat (seems there was some subcontracting going on...). Moguel, the captain, arrived shortly with four other passengers on board (a couple from Italy and a couple from, you guessed it, Houston - and not only Houston but about five minutes from where we live.). Our first stop today was on a beach a little ways down from our hotel to see where the giant turtles haul themselves out of the water at night to lay their eggs. It was really interesting but I was getting eaten alive by the local mosquitos so back to the boat !
And then it was off to find the whale sharks. Again, the boat headed off towards the horizon and about 40 minutes later the engine slowed and we donned our gear. We had several good whale shark encounters and even got to swim with a manta ray !
We'd only plan to go out two days, but decided to book a third because, well, we were there. This time we booked directly with Moguel (his "office" is in the little grocery store on the main square) and saved quite a bit. The other passengers this day included a couple from The Netherlands and two teenage girls with their dad who had an apparently waterproof yet awfully obvious toupee.
When the weather is sunny, the plankton that the whale sharks eat is at the surface, and therefore so are the whale sharks. We lucked out our first two days because the sunny weather kept the whale sharks calmly feeding at the surface. On the third day, it was overcast (and later downright stormy) so there were fewer whale sharks because many were feeding at lower depths. At least this is what we gathered based on broken English / Spanish / Dutch.
We still found whale sharks, but there were several boats at each sighting making it seem much more harassing. I guess we were spoiled on the first few days :)
OTWS - Other than Whale SharksWe came to Holbox to swim with the whale sharks, though we heard that the island is also known for fishing and birding. Holbox is one of those hidden gems - no Starbuck's, no McDonald's, most places don't take credit cards, there is one ATM on the island that does not always have cash, and a lot of people don't speak English. The streets are not paved and there are no cars. The restaurants often run out of most things on the menu :) We LOVE places like this. Other than the whale shark expeditions, and lounging in the sun, there is not a whole lot else to do except determine what to eat (bliss).
We ate three lunches at Edelyn, located on the square and famous for its lobster pizza. This is hands-down the best pizza that I have ever had. After our first day of whale sharking, we were in town and worried about going to eat (I had on a cover-up but, Andy was wearing swimming shorts and a t-shirt, and neither of us had on shoes). Let's just say it wasn't an issue (and nowhere was air conditioned so the more comfortable the better !).
We had four dinners; Pelicanos (Italian) was our favorite, Pirate something or other (on the main square), Zapata Grill (upstairs on a side street - we got the last lobster - yummy), and some place on the water that took forever and was out of basically everything. The only traditional Mexican food that we had was at the Cancun airport...