Years prior to that, I was in the Galapagos swimming with sea lions when the guide told me a story about a time he was leading a group through the same area when a whale shark unexpectedly decided to join them. The guide was new to the area and not familiar with this particular species, so in an inspired show of bravery and leadership, he high-tailed it out of there, leaving a very freaked out group to fend for themselves. I took this as a cue to constantly keep my eyes peeled, certain that I would have my chance to see one. Armed with the knowledge that big as they are, whale sharks are gentle vegetarian plankton eaters, it mattered not one whit to me if the guide chose to stick around or not. Again, I was left wanting. Until now...
That is because last week, joined by my intrepid pal, Ivon, we headed down to Holbox (pronounced Hol-bosh), a small island off of the Yucatan peninsula. And by headed down, I mean we flew into Cancun, took a 3+ hour bus ride to Chiquila and followed that with a 30 minute ferry to this wonderfully under-developed isle. The reason for this mini-odyssey is because from mid-May to the end of August, the waters surrounding Holbox become home to, you guessed it, loads and loads of whale sharks.
After planning this itinerary , breathlessly entitled- what else- "WHALE SHARKS 2011!!", I found out that it is also possible to see them off of Isla Mujeres, a much closer ride from Cancun. This would mean, however, that you would miss out on what has be the most laid-back island I've ever come across. Seriously, the stress level of the inhabitants has to fall somewhere between zero and help me, I'm slipping into a coma.
The island has hardly any cars. If you want to get around, you'd best have a golf cart, a bicycle or a pair of feet (just the feet, blissfully, shoes anywhere on Holbox are strictly optional). The few roads are unpaved and no building over 3 stories mars the scenery. Even the dogs, of which there are plenty, are so chill, you except them to bust out with a Bob Marley tune at any moment.
It would also mean missing out on the best thought-out hostel I've ever encountered. Built from scratch by a fun-loving Slovenian/ Italian couple, the Tribu hostel is the kind of place that forces you to rework your travel plans in order to stay longer. It's spacious, cheery and happens to have the most happening bar on the island. Most of the locals we'd seen in "town" turned up for the hostel's Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n Roll theme party.
It was the through the hostel that we booked our whale shark tour, at a fraction of the cost I'd seen online. And, they were able to put us on one of the few boats that did not include fishing on its itinerary, since I did not want the magic of sharing time and space with these magnificent creatures tainted by a subsequent fishy massacre.
Come morning time, the few tourists on the island sleepily gathered on the dock to set off in search of Spot and his marine buddies. This was finally happening!! There was a total of six of us on our vessel, Ivon, myself, a couple from Mexico and another from Pittsburgh plus a guide and a captain. The ocean wasn't exactly calm but it wasn't anything too dramatic, either. Or so I thought.
By the time, an hour into our voyage, that we slowed down, having received reports that they were in the area, the two guys on board chose to expedite the detection process by vigorously and repeatedly chumming the waters. It was synchronized puking from bow to stern. Not to make a gender bias statement here, but I should point out that the four of us females on board spent this time cheerily scanning the horizon and itching to get in the water. It did not take long before we spotted our first whale shark. Measuring only about 12 feet, it was a baby, but s/he made an impressive polka-dotted sight. Ivon and I were the first to go in. The instructions were simply enough. Don't touch the whale shark, just wait until he passes you and swim like hell. I excelled at the first part, but was so awestruck watching this beautiful, graceful "thing" pass right by me, that by the time I remembered the swimming part, s/he was long gone. And once they are gone, I don't care if you are Michael Phellps, pre-bong hit, you are simply not catching up to a whale shark. The entire episode lasted about 2 minutes. Back on board, the guys maintained their sickly green pallor, so Ivon went back in with one of the girls to swim with a new bigger whale shark and reported a better sighting the second time around.
Then, it was my turn to go in with the other woman and the new whale shark. This time, I was ready. The Captain gave the signal to jump in and immediately there was this gorgeous, plankton-happy whale shark swimming directly underneath me (not to mention, a large school of sardines seeking protection underneath him/her) . It's tail was swishing by so closely, I was prepared to get thwacked at any moment but luckily, s/he had a much better grasp on depth perception than I. I swam alongside this one for maybe a minute or so, marveling at the sheer size of him or her. I'd expected to feel a tremendous adrenaline rush, swimming with something so massive, but the truth is, at no point was I nervous or scared. The feeling of awe was so over-whelming that all other sensations ceased to register.
The guide tried, in vain, to get the guys to jump in the water and experience this for themselves. No chance. With the weather quickly deteriorating, there was only time for one more swim. This time, 3 of us went in with the guide. The captain had found yet another whale shark for us, there was easily a dozen or so in the area, and positioned us just so. He explained to me that when he gave the signal, I should just jump in and swim- no looking around for the whale shark, just head down and start kicking. I did as I was told and for a few moments, saw nothing but murky darkness. All of a sudden, out of the void, coming head-on was this gargantuan, open-mouthed semi-truck of a fish. It was the biggest one, yet, and here we were, literally face to face. At the very last moment, she dipped down and swam just inches beneath me, giving me ample time to turn and around and swim alongside her, all the while, fascinated by the rhythmic workings of her mega-gills. I stayed with her for a total of probably 3-4 minutes. If the English language has words to accurately describe such an experience, I can honestly say I'm not aware of them. All I am left with is "amazing" and I know I am falling way short.
All told, we put in easily over 10 hours of travel time for what would amount to about 10 minutes of human to whale shark interaction and even if the island had not been as idyllic as it was, it still would have been totally worth it.
But it was idyllic and then some. One tradition we quickly established was the daily trip to a nearby tiki hut/ beach bar with $2 beers, priceless sunsets and the occasional frolicking dolphin.
On our third day, we awoke to the unmistakeable sounds of a downpour. Had this been our first day or had we not already swam with whale sharks, this would have been disastrous. But it wasn't and we had, so it became a perfect day for lazing around, the island's seemingly raison d'etre. We saw plenty of people walking in the warm rain, not an umbrella in sight, and eventually joined them. When the weather began clearing up, I found a guy advertising tours and asked him about visiting some nearby islands. Yes, he had that tour. Yes, we could sign up. That settled, I asked when the tour would depart. His response, delivered in a tone that tip-toed the linguistic line between 'When else would it be?' and 'You're a little slow, aren't you?' was simply "When the sun comes out." Well, it never did. So instead, we hired a driver with a golf cart to navigate the many puddles and drive us around. We covered all the navigable parts of the island. We stopped to look at beaches. We paused to photograph flamingoes. We learned the latest island gossip. All within the span of an hour.
So it was back to the lounging on the beach and we had earned it. After all, following so many failed attempts, we had finally done it. We had hung out with Spots 1, 2 and 3. We had, and I can't stress this enough, swam with WHALE SHARKS!!