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Prepare for cage diving with Great White Sharks by swimming with Whale Sharks

Prepare for cage diving with Great White Sharks by swimming with Whale Sharks

Old Nov 25th, 2007, 07:50 AM
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Prepare for cage diving with Great White Sharks by swimming with Whale Sharks

Disclosure: I won’t be practicing what I preach because I’ll be on deck, not in the shark cage. My husband has made three demands of me in 20+ years of marriage. #1 Replace the toilet paper when you use it up. #2 Don’t lean over the side of the shark boat. #3 Stay out of the underwater shark cage. Since my compliance with #1 is at times shaky, I feel compelled to be totally compliant regarding #2 and #3.

Promise: This is the last of my reports that prove every excursion can be remotely related to travel in Africa. No more titles like “If you like wildebeest herds, you might like the sheep herds in New Zealand.” Or “Daga Boy fans, visit the wilds of New Mexico where you may spot the occasional lone bull ambling around.” No more of these, honest.

The Whale Shark trip came about when I met up with some friends that I had made while tracking gorillas in Uganda. We got together in Chicago and went to 2nd City’s 47th birthday show. They took me out, got me drunk, and when I came to I was tattooed and signed up to swim with the Whale Sharks in Holbox, Mexico.

That’s not entirely accurate, but it sounds good. Actually, I remain tat-free, drank nothing stronger than hot chocolate, and I had been contemplating the Whale Sharks for some time.

40 Photos: 1-27 are of the Whale Shark outings. 28-40 are of Casa Amigos (where we stayed) and Holbox, Mexico.

The underwater shots are compliments of Jim, who had a Nikon with a good underwater housing. None of the shots with my two disposable underwater cameras turned out well enough to keep. Walgreens has a nice policy of “if you don’t like the photos well enough to keep them you don’t pay for them” and I took advantage of it for all those blue-green blobs that didn’t look much like whale sharks.

For the best underwater Whale Shark photos, the person who is the strongest snorkeler and swimmer should be given the role of photographer.


There were four of us—Beckie, husband Jim, daughter Jamie, and me. We booked the land transport, lodging, and the whale shark trips through Kathy Kopelman, listed in the Lonely Planet Guide, Rough Guide

From outside Mexico:52-987-872-3868
Inside Mexico:01-987-872-3868

Kathy owns Casa Amigos in Holbox, which we rented for $100/night, or only $25/person. It is about four blocks from the beach, in the small fishing village of Holbox. We really felt part of the friendly neighborhood staying there.

The walk to the beach was interesting, unpleasantly hot midday, very enjoyable at sunset or at night, and completely safe. It required maneuvering around lots of deep potholes filled with mud puddles, some of these spanning the entire street after a rainstorm. In fact one of these mud puddles resulted in a minor mishap upon arrival when the golf cart driver who collected us from the ferry dropped my net snorkel bag in one of the puddles. It was my only luggage so everything from my clothes to my towel contained netting-patterned mud stains. My white towel still does as a memento.

If I were going alone, I’d stay at one of the several hotels on the beach. For the four of us Casa Amigos was perfect. The house has a bedroom downstairs and upstairs, plus a separate building with a fully equipped family room (TV, DVD, leather couches) that could sleep more people and a complete kitchen with fridge and microwave, utensils, etc. A filled water cooler was provided. There is a rooftop area for sunbathing. Daily maid service is offered.

There was air conditioning in every room but Jamie and I did not use it in the room we shared. Beckie and Jim had it on and it worked very well. Brrr. There were a total of 3 lovely bathrooms and showers.

~~Make sure you put in a request with the housekeeper for the warm water to be turned on in the showers. Somehow we neglected this step.~~

The grounds were fenced with a cement walkway, very soft mossy grass, some papaya trees (a hit with iguanas and geckos) and ample clotheslines. The place was extremely clean and charming.

Kathy arranged the whale shark trips with Captain Willy, actually it was Captain Willy’s brother who was our captain. Captain Willy’s wife, Maribel, did the housekeeping at Amigos and his nephew ran golf cart transfer from the ferry dock to Amigos. His nieces Ruby and Ingrid were our English speaking contacts who worked at the nearby market, Super Besa, and Ingrid accompanied us on the boat trips as interpreter.

Before booking, I had talked with several references, some of whom had stayed at Casa Amigos a couple of times. Some of these references chose Holbox specifically for the Whale Sharks and others just used the place during the winter for a remote getaway. All the references were very happy with Casa Amigos and the Whale Sharks. So were we.

Best time for Whale Sharks in Holbox: Late July or early August. Our dates were: arrive July 25, Whale Shark outings July 26, 27, 28, fly home July 29.

Approximately June-Sept is the entire season. Unlike other places (Belize, Australia) where the phases of the moon are key in the behavior of the sharks, that is not the case in Holbox.

How we got there: We flew into Cancun from 3 US locations, arriving within a couple of hours of each other. Kathy Kopelman arranged for a driver to meet us and take us in an air-conditioned van for the 2-hour drive from the airport to Chiquila.

There is a bus that runs this same route twice a day and takes several hours. I believe it is air-conditioned and the cost is minimal. It would give you a good overview of the countryside and be a rather fun way to get to the ferry that leaves from Chiquila, but it did not fit with our tight flight schedules.

Then to get from Chiquila to Holbox, there’s a 30-minute ferry ride that departs approximately every two hours. Our van driver bought the ferry tickets for us. It is also possible to hire your own private ferry transport, which Kathy could arrange. We needed this private ferry on the way back for smooth connections to make our flights. When we arrived at the ferry dock in Holbox, our golf cart transport guy awaited us, loaded up our bags (with mine taking a dip in a mud puddle) and drove us to Amigos, about 5 minutes away. The entire transport cost was about $75/person or $300 total, before tips.

Here is Willy’s Tours email: [email protected] We booked Willy’s boat for the four of us for around $450/day through Kathy Kopelman. You could book directly with Willy. You can also go as a single guest for about $90 on one of the many group Whale Shark viewing trips that depart each morning from Holbox.

Our boat crew consisted of the Captain; another boat driver who could steer the boat, look for Whale Sharks, or join us in the water; and Ingrid our interpreter. They were a lot of fun and were willing to stay out as long as we wanted. I’d definitely seek out Willy’s another time and highly recommend them.

Here was the daily whale shark routine: We were told not to eat breakfast to prevent seasickness. I cannot skip breakfast so I ate some granola bars or fruit we had brought with no ill effects. I did take a part of a Bonine pill, though.

The captain picked us up each morning around 7:00 am in the golf cart and brought us to the boat--Boston Oiler--one of about 50 boats that go out each day. When I saw all the Whale Shark viewing boats docked, I was concerned with the number of them, but out on the ocean, we did not encounter each other. Only once did another member of the Willy fleet and our boat approach each other and share a couple of Whale Sharks for a few minutes. At times other boats could be spotted at a distance or on the horizon.

After boarding the boat, we’d motor to where there were some Whale Sharks, which took about an hour and a half. A Whale Shark orientation lecture was given and strict rules were explained to us along the way. No suntan lotion, no touching the Whale Sharks, wet suits or life jackets required, only two snorkelers allowed in the water at a time--plus the captain, etc. On the second day when the captain realized we were all comfortable in the water and with the Whale Sharks, he did not come in with us, which allowed a third person in his place. But I found three people swimming frantically to keep up with the Whale Sharks generated a lot of obscuring bubbles.

Definitely bring at least a skin because the water is cold and if you don’t have a skin or wetsuit, you must wear a life jacket, and that makes maneuvering cumbersome. We all had our own snorkel gear, but I think they provide everything. I believe there was a shorty wetsuit or two also.

When a whale shark was spotted, two (or three) people would sit, with flippers and mask on, at the edge of the boat while the boat driver or captain would motor us into position. Then the captain would yell “Go! Go! Go!” and you’d fling yourself into the water and swim as fast as you could toward the whale shark. They are so swift that you’d only be able to keep up with them for a few minutes most of the time. That’s when a life ring would be thrown out and we’d grab on and the boat would drag us back to position and you’d hear “Go! Go! Go!” again and you’d swim to keep up with the
Whale Shark.

Throughout all of this, the Whale Sharks did not seem bothered by us but had no interest in approaching us or interacting. That differed from experiences I have had with dolphins or manatees where these animals sought out people.

Unlike most snorkeling, which is relaxing and at your own pace, this snorkeling was usually exhausting and yielded a few moments of outstanding underwater views for each approach. Our second day we were very lucky to be surrounded by Whale Sharks so once you lost one of them, you could turn around and another one would appear.

Even when there was only a minute or two of viewing, those were amazing moments with magnificent creatures and it was not at all intimidating. We repeatedly got to see their giant mouths open up underwater to take in the plankton or small fish.

Photographing this phenomenon was much tougher than observing it, but it went on continually all around us. The friends I went with were experienced scuba divers in oceans all over the world and they felt that snorkeling with the Whale Sharks was one of the coolest things they have done. I agree, absolutely awesome.

For a beginning snorkeler it could be very frustrating having no time to adjust your mask in the water, being shouted at to “Go!” or you’ll miss the whale shark, and swimming madly to reach and then keep up with the creature. Another factor was the amount of plankton in the water, which not only fed the Whale Sharks but could gunk up the snorkel tube so all of a sudden you could not get a breath through it. It just meant lifting your head out of the water to breathe, but again for someone not comfortable with snorkeling, suddenly sucking on a vacuum tube that provides no oxygen can be disconcerting.

It was nice there were such excellent views from the boat. So often on snorkel trips, non-snorkelers going along for the ride are told they’ll have a lot to look at from on deck, when in fact all they get is seasick. Not so with the Whale Sharks. The views from the boat were equal to the underwater viewing. (I am hoping that is the case for the Great White Sharks as well, and I think it is.) Since only two/three people at a time could go in the water, that was a good for those remaining on board.

In addition to Whale Sharks, we saw giant rays both while we were in the water and from the boat, at times swimming with the Whale Sharks. Huge schools of fish at the surface attracted these bigger creatures.

Lunch was served on the boat—usually a sandwich, fruit, and small treat.

After two to three hours of fun with the Whale Sharks, we’d head back, returning about 1:00 pm and be driven by golf cart back to Amigos. Each of our three days out in the ocean was different and it was worth going three times. In total we saw at least 75 Whale Sharks, though some were at a great distance and barely visible. We snorkeled with about 15-20 different ones and had good views of probably 50. From what I could tell, our experience on Days 1 and 3 was fairly typical. Day 2 we had exceptional viewing when the Whale Sharks remained in one area and we were in their midst.

We were lucky with weather, having only one post-whale shark viewing shower on Day 1 and daily calm seas with no white caps. Calm is typical in late July and August. The partial Bonine tablet I took probably was not necessary. One of our participants who admitted to “hurling in a hearbeat” did not take any seasick medication and felt a little uncomfortable one of the three days on the way back, but managed not to hurl.

One day we boated to an island with a spring and flamingos in the afternoon, at an additional charge. It was a worthwhile excursion and this was the only place I needed binoculars for the flamingos and cormorants, though I took them on each Whale Shark outing.

The island of Holbox was laid back, wholesome, and very family oriented. Not a wild party town by any means and we all really enjoyed that atmosphere.

We ate at a variety of restaurants from a fancy Mexican restaurant to a pizza parlor to restaurants in hotels to outdoor cafes on the beach to street vendors to take away tortillas with guacamole that Beckie and Jamie made in the well-equipped kitchen from avocadoes and tomatoes bought at the market. All food was delicious and no stomach problems.

Holbox is an up and coming destination that will appeal to wildlife lovers, divers (though scuba diving with the Whale Sharks is prohibited), snorkelers, nature lovers, and budget minded travelers. I hope the Holbox community does not change too much. I noticed Natural Habitat did an exploratory trip just before we arrived. We checked out the hotel they used, Hotel Villa Delfines, and it looked like the most luxurious on the island. We still liked Casa Amigos, though.

atravelynn is offline  
Old Nov 25th, 2007, 10:17 AM
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im so excited you posted this here. my dream is to snorkel with whale sharks and ive been researching a bit about holbox lately. Thanks for all this info!
jenbertoni is offline  
Old Nov 25th, 2007, 11:14 AM
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I'm forwarding this to my husband who is the "water" person-thanks for the details.
moremiles is offline  
Old Nov 25th, 2007, 11:36 AM
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I never realized that you could snorkel with whale sharks in Mexico. I was aware of the trips off Roatan and Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, and I was "saving" a swim with whale sharks for when I visit Djibouti in December 2009 (that's as far as I've planned ahead), but this seems like an easy trip from New York. I try to get to a different Mexican state each year, and I just (last week) booked a trip to the Copper Canyon for next October, and was planning on visiting Baja California Sur for the grey whales in February 2009, but this looks enticing, so I may been a return trip to the Yucatan.

Thanks for posting -- looks like an amazing trip.

thit_cho is offline  
Old Nov 25th, 2007, 03:43 PM
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Praia de Tofo between September and February are prime months to see whale shark as well. So if in Africa and this is your bent, Mozambique should have your name all over it.
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Old Nov 25th, 2007, 04:55 PM
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I was not aware of the Whale Sharks in Mozambique. But that's another option and it would make an interesting addition to a Mozambique itinerary or as an add-on to a safari elsewhere.

The reason I picked Holbox, Mexico over Australia and Belize was:

-easier to get to from US than Australia.
-colder water and rougher ocean in Australia.
-this reason is a bit silly, but there are more Great White Sharks off Western Australia and I did not want to encounter them while swimming around, even though odds are low.
-Belize Whale Shark activity seemed to be more around North American springtime and I wanted warmer summertime water temps.
-I've talked with people who went to Belize and also read that seeing the Whale Sharks is more hit and miss there. In Holbox in high Whale Shark season, you are pretty much guaranteed seeing them.
-I knew getting to Cancun would be easy with lots of flights.
atravelynn is offline  
Old Nov 25th, 2007, 11:19 PM
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Thanks Lynn! As you know I've been anxiously awaiting this report -- as always thanks for the great details. Love the pictures and glad it was so successful for you. This is something I am definitely doing at some point.
PredatorBiologist is offline  
Old Nov 26th, 2007, 06:40 PM
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Thanks for checking it out Predator. Now I'll be awaiting your report. But no hurry with the holidays and everything else coming up.

Thit Cho, it won't be long before you will have gone everywhere else in the world except Churchill during the summer (I know you've been in Oct). Then you'll have to snorkel with those belugas and tell me about it.
atravelynn is offline  
Old Nov 27th, 2007, 03:32 AM
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Sign me up!!!!!
Ericka is offline  
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