Sharks of Holbox Island, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Mary L. Peachin with photography by Jan Hanson, David Lovitt, Bill Kimball and Mary L. Peachin
Vol. 9 No. 4

Click here to see the video.

Entering the water directly in a whale shark’s path, I peered into its approaching mouth. A few feet away, its eyes appeared to check me out (that might have been anthropomorphic).

The surface boiled. As many as sixty whale sharks moved slowly, mouths agape, in the plankton rich waters. Some fed in circles, giving us a second or even a third encounter, close up views of attached remoras dining on parasites. Schools of sardines, a frenetic bait ball breaking the surface, gobbled anything escaping the gaping mouth. Cobia, playing the roles of pilot fish, kept pace with the shark s strong strokes.

In August, my friends Bill Kimball, David Lovitt, and Jan Hansen and I visited Holbox. Two of us would slide into the 79-degree water whenever one or two whale sharks approached just for the thrill of observing and photographing them. Visibility ranged from 25-30 feet, enough to give us a great view, but not enough to capture the shark’s full length with our digital and video equipment. We each made at least half a dozen entries, lasting up to fifteen minutes each. As two of us came out, the mate helped us up a side ladder while the boat idled.

We never had to wait to find the next whale shark. Viewing the whale sharks from the boats was almost as exciting. It was thrilling to watch my buddies share this incredible experience. The higher vantage boat of the boat allowed us to tell them, “swim to your left or right”, if we spotted a shark heading in their direction or there was a whale coming that they could intercept.

As comfortable as the polka-dotted creatures—the locals call them dominoes—appeared(they were barely moving), their strong bodies swept through the water faster than we could fin—the current from their sweeping tails often pushing us forcefully through the water. After a tail hit Jan’s leg, she wore her bruise like a badge of honor.

One whale shark snuggled along the side of the boat like it wanted to be petted—could I resist giving it a gentle pat? Did I? Sometimes we heard excited hoops and hollers echoing across the water from passengers on other boats. When the afternoon wind picked up, the plankton descended deeper and the dominoes followed, so we returned to shore.

Holbox is a tropical Mexican island where restaurants serve pasta and pizza, and chips and salsa are almost an afterthought. A three-hour drive then a six-mile ferry crossing from Cancun, the dusty village (pronounced ólbosch) isn’t on most folk’s itinerary, save a few Texans and a handful of Italians who, for reasons only they know, have settled there.

There is a Spartan basketball court, a small white cathedral, and a few vendors around the central plaza. Each evening, someone pulls the church bell rope sending riveting chimes through the quaint village. Palm-thatched huts, some without plumbing, contrast with brightly painted block homes.

Lobster and squid fishermen comprise most of the 800 inhabitants, few of whom speak English. Locals walk, bicycle, or use golf carts to navigate unpaved streets. It’s hotter than hell, and just as humid during the summer (90+F degrees), and mosquitoes outnumber the residents.

And, for as long as anyone can remember, the fishermen have tolerated the scores of forty-foot sharks that ply their waters in July and August, just making sure to keep alert so they wouldn’t capsize their small craft. Besides, Mexican women are “winky-winky” about whale sharks, or so the captain said.

An Eritrean woman by birth, Ornella Alemanni isn’t “winky winky”. Years ago, Onny married an Italian named Carmelo. While vacationing in Kenya, the Alemannis went diving in a popular Italian destination, Malindi Marine National Park. While there, they had some very exciting whale shark encounters. Years later, traveling from their home in Italy, they visited Holbox, eventually returning to buy waterfront property and open a posada with eleven thatched roof huts, they named it Mawimbi.

Recognizing the value of the scores of whale sharks that came to feed on upwellings of plankton each summer, Onny began taking a few tourists to view them on her 25-foot launcha. Soon, fishermen who couldn’t swim were selling whale shark trips to the tourists and now, just three years later, it’s on the verge of being discovered.

Each morning at 7:00 a.m., we walked 25-feet across a white sandy beach from our thatch-roofed huts. Wading knee-deep into the water, we climbed over the gunwales and into Captain Miguel Vega small launcha, Buena Onda, (everything is great).

Our first stop was the pier just minutes away, where officials of the Yum Balam Reserve check each outgoing boat for its permit (every boat must have a licensed captain and a certified guide; 32 boats were granted permits, but only 12 are active) and verified that passengers were wearing life jackets (which we doffed once out of eyesight).

Miguel Vega then revved up his single 150 hp engine to speed 40 minutes south along the beach, then turned east for 20-minutes into the Gulf of Mexico. Using his hand-held GPS, he homed in on the spot where whale sharks tend to congregate, joining up with ten other small boats carrying off-the-beaten-path tourists who paid $80US in the plaza for a tiburon balleña tour.

Our guide Juan reminded us of the rules (written last year because people were grabbing the whale sharks and speeding boats were frightening them): no touching, only two snorkelers in the water at once, and only one boat per whale shark.

The next morning we departed earlier to beat other boats, but, damn, the sharks were gone! When other boats arrived, we all fanned out in search of them. Miguel speculated that they might have headed south toward the uninhabited island of Contoy, a bird sanctuary (flamingoes, roseate spoonbills, cormorants, pelicans, ibis and herons).

A seamount rises to a depth of 5 feet five miles north of Contoy, a place that also attracts the whale sharks. But we had a slight problem. We didn’t have enough gas to make the hour round trip. When Miguel said we could chance buying fuel from a fisherman, without hesitation we said, vámanos, let’s go!

As we headed south, the other boats followed. Soon we were again surrounded by whale sharks, so many we could have floated in the water and waited for one to swim by. We were now 48-miles from Holbox. Since we were flying to Cozumel at 3:00 p.m. that afternoon, around noon we sadly departed.

Luckily a fisherman’s gas barge was near the south end of Isla Holbox. Siphoning gas into a plastic container, Miguel passed over some money and refilled our nearly empty tank. Our whale shark experience was clearly worth kinda roughing it in Holbox.

At the Mawimbi, only one room is air-conditioned. Onny has no confidence in air conditioning because Holbox s generator frequently shuts down. That’s a problem for the few air-conditioned hotels, because some don’t have windows that open. Mawimbi has the benefit of gentle ocean breezes. Its thatched roof huts have a rustic charm, twin serape-covered beds, but no amenities other than small refrigerators, but the place is immaculate with tile floors, wooden beams, and large bathrooms with painted ceramic sinks. And the price is right; $50-90/night, and all rooms were taken.

Onny’s whale shark trip is $120 per person per day and includes a ham and cheese sandwich and water or soft drink.

Holbox restaurants are not air-conditioned. At Cueva del Pirata, across from the plaza, we sat at a table along the dusty road to enjoy the evening breeze. The food was okay. Around the corner is Villa Zapata, an upstairs restaurant that also serves Italian food.

Across the plaza was a busy pizza place. Oddly, the Ringling Circus was in town. Tents had been set up next to Mawimbi, so after dinner we listened to blaring techno-music before drifting off.

While one can easily drive their ferry to Holbox, we had arranged a six-passenger Aero Saab charter plane for $1200 round trip from Cancun. We were to be met outside customs, but when no one showed, we hauled our gear about a quarter-mile in the heat to the General Aviation terminal.

Though we had explained in advance that we each had close to 100 pounds of luggage, the pilot took one look at our dive bags and said they were too bulky to fit in the baggage fuselage of our single engine Cessna 206. We rummaged through our baggage, took what we needed, and sent the remainder to our next stop, a hotel in Cozumel.

Thirty-five minutes later we landed on the 2000-foot dirt runway in Holbox, where a golf cart- taxi met us. The airstrip was only a few minutes from the hotel. On the way out, our taxi driver took us on a tour of the village. He was actually headed to the ferry landing when we reminded him we were headed to the airport. He had never been there.

If you go:

From Cancun: Continental flies out of both Cancun and Cozumel. America West flies non-stop from Phoenix only to Cancun. It’s a three-hour drive on a pothole-riddled road, in a rental car or cab. Take Highway 180 to Nuevo Xcan then north toward Kantunilkín and the port of Chiquilá. Park your car in the ferry lot. It’s $2.50 for the 30-minute ride. The last passenger’s only ferry is at 5 pm. If you’re late and lucky, you can hire a launcha from one of the men waiting around the dock for $20.00

Posada Mawimbi 911.52.984.875.2003 or email or go to Aero Saab: 911.52.984.87.30804 or Holbox Island