Mexico has some of the best dive sites in Central America and the surrounding regions, and it’s also known as one of the world’s best destinations for swimming with whale sharks. These incredible creatures frequent the east coast for a few months of every year and can sometimes be spotted in huge shoals. If you’re planning a trip to Mexico and swimming with whale sharks is on your list of top activities, you need to know where is best to do it, right? I visited two of the top sites to answer the question on everyone’s lips: Where is the best place to swim with whale sharks – Isla Mujeres or Holbox?
WHAT IS A WHALE SHARK?
Before I get into the nitty gritty of which location is best for swimming with whale sharks, I’d like to clarify something.
A whale shark is a shark.
You wouldn’t think it would be necessary to have to point this out, and the clue really is in the name, but I was bowled over by the number of people I heard saying things like…
‘I’m going to swim with the whales tomorrow’
‘Is a whale shark more of a shark or more of a whale?’
It’s not some kind of hybrid. It’s a shark through and through. In fact it’s the biggest shark – and the biggest fish – in our oceans.
CAN YOU SCUBA DIVE WITH WHALE SHARKS?
For some reason, when you Google the whale shark experience, a lot of people refer to it as ‘diving with whale sharks’. This is somewhat misleading. It is not possible to scuba dive commercially with these gentle giants – at least not in Central America and Mexico.
The best reason I’ve heard for this is that people get too absorbed in following them that they neglect to check their depth and can reach dangerous limits without even realising it.
Aside from this, you can see them very clearly when they’re feeding on the surface, so there’s really no need to dive down with them unless you’re a scientific researcher. For that, I presume they would make exceptions.
WHERE IS THE BEST PLACE TO SEE WHALE SHARKS?
There are a few famous spots around the world to view whale sharks.
Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia is one good option. The sharks can be seen from mid-March to mid-August and the tour operators tend to have a good understanding of the measures necessary to help protect the species and the reef.
In the Philippines, from December to May, Donsol and Cebu are the top choices; however, Cebu is gaining a bad reputation after reports have circulated that the tour operators lure the sharks by hand-feeding them small shrimp. This practice affects their behaviour and should not be encouraged by tourists.
Although sightings are less common than at other sites, the island of Utila off the coast of Honduras has sporadic whale shark sightings. Utila is famous as one of the cheapest places to dive in the world. I was there in late September and on my first two days of diving our boat stopped in the deeper water for excellent sightings. Bear in mind, though, that sightings here are by no means guaranteed.
Whale shark season in Mexico generally lasts between June and mid-September. There are two sites from which to visit them. Isla Holbox is a small island just off the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsular. Isla Mujeres is to the east of Cancun. Both are worthy of a visit regardless of their shark-watching merits, but if you only have one chance, which should you choose?
ISLA MUJERES OR HOLBOX?
MUJERES OR HOLBOX: WHO TO BOOK WITH AND WHERE TO STAY
I took two whale shark trips – one from Isla Holbox, which I booked from my accommodation at Hostel Tribu, and one from Cancun, via Isla Mujeres, which I booked through my accommodation at Hostel Ka’Beh. For the record, both of these hostels are absolutely fantastic.
Tribu is discussed frequently on the backpacker scene. It’s a colourful beach-side castle with themed nights, comfortable air-conditioned dorm rooms and helpful and friendly staff.
Ka’Beh is one of my top three hostels in the world, primarily because it attracts a great crowd and achieves the perfect atmosphere for meeting like-minded travellers. If you’re arriving by aeroplane, you can easily take a Cancun shuttle directly to this hostel from the airport.
MUJERES OR HOLBOX: WHAT ARE THE ISLANDS LIKE?
Both islands are laid back and stunningly beautiful. Most people get around by bike or golf cart.
Isla Mujeres is a little more built up, with some paved roads and more in the way of night life, hassling souvenir vendors and restaurant touts, while Holbox is quieter and its roads are more akin to compact sand tracks.
Other than the whale shark tour, there’s not a lot else to do on Holbox, although horse riding tours along the beach are offered. Isla Mujeres has a bit more going on. There are some good dive sites, especially MUSA – an underwater museum where sculptures of human figures, houses, cars and landmines have been placed on the seabed to encourage more coral to grow there.
MUJERES OR HOLBOX: HOW DO YOU GET THERE?
If you’re visiting either Isla Mujeres or Holbox, you will probably fly into Cancun. At the time of writing, Thomas Cook Flights from UK airports start from as little as £212.
From Cancun, Holbox is more of a mission to get to. You need to take a public bus north for approximately three hours to Chiquila. These buses only leave at 7:45 or 12:40, with the occasional extra service at around 10 am. From Chiquila, the ferry ride takes about half an hour, costs around US$7 and leaves approximately once every two hours from very early in the morning until 9:30 pm.
Isla Mujeres is an easy 20-minute crossing from Cancun. There are various ferry services from three different ports running between 5 am and 11:30 pm, so ask at your accommodation which is most convenient or cheaper for your location. Check if your ferry ticket is a single or a return, as this isn’t always made clear and you wouldn’t want to pay twice! Another option, if you’re not keen to see much of the island itself, is to take a whale watching trip from Cancun.
MUJERES OR HOLBOX: THE TOUR ITSELF
The Holbox tour was slightly cheaper, but when you factor in the additional cost of getting to the island there wasn’t much in it. Both tours had additional activities.
Since there are restrictions on the amount of time you can spend in the water with the whale sharks, we visited other locations after swimming with the sharks on both occasions. Both tours offer snorkelling opportunities. The Isla Mujeres trip included a beer, which we drank as we floated in the turquise water by the island’s beach.
On the Holbox tour, we tried our hands at fishing and then the captain made a delicious lunch of ceviche from the catch. We also visited some sand bars known for having large numbers of pelicans and flamingos.
ISLA MUJERES OR HOLBOX: VERDICT
All things considered, I would be tempted to give Holbox the edge if it wasn’t for one very important point. The tours that leave Isla Holbox head towards the same waters as the tours that leave Cancun and Isla Mujeres, except that, as soon as they encounter one shark, they stop. If you take a tour from Cancun or Isla Mujeres, you’re more likely to see shivers of sharks (I admit I Googled the collective noun), and you will probably have more time in the water with more individuals. Given that that’s the whole point of you being there, my recommendation would be to take the tour from Cancun or Isla Mujeres. And if you need more persuading, on the Cancun trip, we saw about 30 of these manta rays!
THINGS TO REMEMBER
There are a lot of rules to follow to make sure you’re being ecofriendly. Your guides should brief you on your personal responsibilities before you enter the water, but in case they don’t, the following rules are important.
Stay at least three metres away from the shark and swim away if it heads in your direction
Never touch or obstruct the sharks
Avoid flash photography
Only enter the water in groups of eight or fewer
Each vessel is only permitted to give its occupants two in-the-water encounters. If you remember that you’re dealing with wild animals and that their behaviour is somewhat unreliable, and if you’re aware that your time in the water might be short-lived, you’re much less likely to come away disappointed and much more likely to appreciate it for what it is – an incredible privilege.
One final tip – swim as fast as you can and stay ahead of other snorkellers. Also, try to be on the other side of the whale to anyone else. As soon as you get stuck behind someone else, the bubbles kicked up by their fins will more or less destroy your chances of seeing anything at all!