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 It is difficult to appreciate how huge these creature are until you are next to one. photos by Matt Scott. It is difficult to appreciate how huge these creature are until you are next to one. photos by Matt Scott.

Swimming with Sharks in Yucatan, Mexico

By Matt Scott

The fin was directly in front of me, perhaps thirty meters away as it broke the surface of the water. Behind the fin a tail slowly moved from side to side, propelling the shark forward. The boat I had been in was a short distance away and everyone on board was shouting or pointing; looking at what was coming towards me.

With water splashing on my face I was finding it hard to take deep breaths and relax; I put my snorkel in and looked under the surface to see what was ahead; the water was murky and visibility was not more than a few meters, but I knew the shark was very close by now. There were a few last moments of the water around me appearing empty before I saw a huge mouth starting to open.

The shark’s open mouth, over a meter wide, was just in front of my face; I could do nothing except stare at this huge fish as it sucked in whatever came between its jaws and wonder if I would meet the same fate.

The shark dived slightly and swam underneath me; I watched as over twelve meters of its roughspotted body swam just below the surface.

I only had to move to avoid the huge tail fin as it came through the water next to my side.

While the whale shark appeared to be moving slowly before I came into such close contact, as I tried to follow, its tail quickly disappeared into the murky water. Looking above the surface, and taking what I thought to be the first breath in a long time, I could its fin moving slowly away.

My only injury from the encounter: a small graze across my chest where the shark’s rough tail had brushed against me.

Whale Sharks are Fish

Whale sharks are fish; the only similarity to whales is in their size; up to 15 meters (50ft) in length. Where the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea meet is one of only a few places in the world where regular visits from these giants can be expected. Millions of plankton, that attract the sharks to this area, turn the normally crystal blue water a murky brown and with it comes marine species of all varieties: manta rays can be seen performing their mating rituals; leaping out of the water to display their huge white bellies before splashing back to perform other acrobatics underwater.

Whale sharks often swim with their huge mouths open; sucking in thousands of small plankton.Whale sharks often swim with their huge mouths open; sucking in thousands of small plankton.

Bait balls of sardines are seen as a wave, moving along the water as rainbow fish prey on them. Hundreds of rays and fish can been seen around the Laguna Yalahau while flamingos, frigate birds, pelicans and a host of other wildlife find a home on the islands nearby.

Isla Holbox, a small Caribbean island close to the Mexican mainland is a base for the many boats that operate excursions to see whale sharks; it is just a thirty-minute ride in a water taxi from Chiquila on the mainland. The island is an idyllic retreat, without large hotels or an abundance of concrete to serve tourists’ need and is a perfect base for this unique experience.

The island is a year round retreat with wildlife preservation areas close by and top class water sports. Day trips can also be taken to the mainland to see the main sights of the Yucatan: Cancun, Celustum, Merida and Chichen Itza. There are also miles of deserted beaches from which to enjoy the Carribean; just be careful if you go swimming: you never know what you might see.

Getting there and away:

The main airport for the Yucatan is in Cancun. Chiquila is about two hours by road from where water taxis offer a service to Isla Holbox. Several hotels will also offer transport from Chiquila or Cancun if you organise this in advance. Private transport from Cancun to the island is $75US. There is also a small airstrip on the island; most flights need to be organised by hotels on, or near the island.

 A fin, a slowly moving tail and a huge mouth is all you can see coming toward you. A fin, a slowly moving tail and a huge mouth is all you can see coming toward you.

Where to Stay:

All hotels on the island are within a short stones throw of the beach; they are all built sympathetically to the local surroundings.

Far Viejo, is one of the most reasonable hotels; all rooms have balconies overlooking the sea and air-conditioning from $50US

Tel: (52) (984) 875 2217 E:

Seeing the sharks:

Whale sharks are migrant and can never be guaranteed; they usually come to the Gulf of Mexico between June and September.

As such tours are made by local fishermen and not dedicated tours, the best way to book a tour is to organize it through your hotel (all hotels on Isla Holbox offer this service). It is easy to get on a turn up and go tour.

A full day tour with boxed lunch and all equipment included costs $80US through the Far Viejo. Prices can be negotiated with some operators.

Matt Scott writes from England.


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Location: Mexico, North America
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