Isla Holbox and the search for whale sharks

Leaving Valladolid we took a bus with our new friends to a random intersection on the road between Valladolid and Cancun. The only thing there was a tienda, a taxi stand and a bus assistant to assure us that there was another bus on it’s way to take us to onwards to the island. So the five of us camped out in the shade of the tienda to wait for an hour or so. The bus finally arrived and we were on our way to the ferry terminal to get to Isla Holbox.

Isla Holbox panorama

Isla Holbox panorama

Arriving to the island

Arriving to the island

Holbox (pronounced Hol-bosh) is a small island off the northern coast of the Yucatan. It has sand streets so golf carts are the main type of transportation, and a lot of mosquitos. Surprisingly we had actually made a booking for a place to stay so we had no stress as we made our way there to be welcomed (or not) by a rude, unhelpful and unfriendly staff member. Luckily his morning counterpart was the opposite; cheerful and friendly. After settling in we went for a walk to get to know the town and get dinner. That evening we ate fish at a restaurant on the beach with the sand between our toes while we watched the sun set. But food and drinks don’t come cheap on Holbox so for the remainder of our stay we cooked for ourselves.

Beautiful sunset

Beautiful sunset

The main purpose of visiting this island was to go see the whale sharks. We asked around about the tours and discovered that they all sounded pretty similar so we booked one of them for the next day. The tour wasn’t the cheapest at 1000 peso each for 5-6 hours but also included snorkelling, seeing flamingos and fresh ceviche. We hoped it would be worth while and we would see one of these illusive animals.

For the afternoon we shopped for dinner ingredients before heading to the beach. No other fancy excursions for us. The water at the beach was like being in a bath; flat, shallow and warm. We splashed around for an hour or so while watching a huge storm out at sea. Though the sky was dark and foreboding the storm passed to the west of the island and we only felt a few stray raindrops.

Stormy sky

Stormy sky

The next morning we woke up excited to go see and swim with the biggest fish in the world! After a 5 minute walk to the beach we were ecstatic to see that the water was flat as glass, it was a stunningly beautiful morning. We were soon in the boat with a small group of 9 and flying over the smooth surface of the sea. I was particularly happy with the conditions as it would mean that I wouldn’t get sea sick. After a 45 minute boat ride we arrived at the feeding grounds of the whale sharks, now the hunt was on. The guides looked out for a large bubbling type disturbance that indicates that there are a lot of fish swarming. Not that the whale shark eat fish but they do however have a rather large entourage of them. We were all alert and waiting in anticipation for our first sighting and it didn’t take long until we got a look. We took turns of five minutes to jump in with our snorkels, masks, life jackets and flippers to swim with the giant fish. I’ll never forget my first sight of it; disoriented at the change from air to water I looked around seeing all the small fish but then as my eyes adjusted I definitely got that ‘WOW’ moment. Tom has said numerous times since, “It was only a baby one” but at around 6-7 metres (rather than up to 13 metres) it seemed rather large nonetheless. It struck me as quite a peaceful creature just hovering in the water, but with only a slight movement of it’s tail we were all madly swimming to follow it as it glided away. This was a little frustrating for photo opportunities, as were the other tourists from other boats who found the same fish constantly sharking our photos.

It was so big we had trouble fitting it in frame

It was so big we had trouble fitting it in frame

On board our whale shark boat

On board our whale shark boat

After two turns in the water each it was time to head off for our snorkelling closer to the island. It was at least a 30 minute ride until we sighted the shore again and found a place to stop. In the area we were told that we could see nurse sharks, turtles, stingrays and other fish. Because the sand was quite fine the visibility wasn’t the best but we still saw a few turtles which are really cute amongst others. Tom was happy because he found a shark hiding under a rock. He came and found me to show me that he could swim down and touch it’s tail. This sounds scary but we have since touched another nurse shark, they are quite gentle and friendly.

Turtle

Turtle

Our guides called us back to the boat and we zoomed off to our lunch destination; a estuary with heaps of flamingos and catfish. We had fresh ceviche with lemon juice, coriander, tomato, onion and green pepper and it was quite tasty. On this backpacking adventure I have discovered that I don’t actually mind fish, especially when it’s super fresh in the coastal Mexican towns we have visited. It’s something I’ll have to learn how to prepare and cook once we have returned home to the real world (house, job etc, etc). After lunch we all waded out to try get closer to the flamingos without success. They seemed a bit skittish and flew away in all their gangly legginess. Silly looking birds.

That is about the extent of our Holbox adventures and once we had been dropped back at the beach we relaxed for the afternoon. By this point in our travels we had started playing the card game 500 more frequently. I found an app to do the scoring and we have been keeping tabs on our wins/losses. The current scoreline is quite depressing with Tom having thrashed me in most games, but it’s still fun.

We had one more day on the island before continuing onwards and we again did a whole lot of nothing. I think the most we managed was a walk to the beach where we bobbed around in the warm water but as there was no waves and no reef we soon bored of this and walked back to the hostel. We did however manage to consume a whole bottle of rum during our three nights here…

Tom in the water

Tom in the water

So the next morning we packed up, had breakfast and took off back to the ferry dock. While waiting for our bus to leave on the mainland our friends from Valladolid arrived. We would all be travelling together again. So off we went to Cancun where we would spend a grand total of 30 minutes before boarding another bus to Tulum. Our whole trip we have known that we wouldn’t be spending any time in Cancun. It just ticked all the boxes of things we don’t really enjoy: expensive, super touristy and Americanised.

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One thought on “Isla Holbox and the search for whale sharks

  1. Pingback: Tulum and seaweed | Two Stray Kiwi

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