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We Went To Swim With Whale Sharks In Holbox We Had No Idea How Much More Was In Store!

Juanita Rodriguez 09-15-2016

A guide to swimming with whale sharks on Holbox Island, Mexico

Updated Mar 18, 2024


Waking Up In Paradise


I awoke early and tiptoed out to catch a glimpse of the sunrise in all its pink and orange grandeur. Looking out to the sea, I sighed deeply feeling grateful for the front row seat to the spectacular event. After living in nearby Playa del Carmen for four years, I wondered why I had waited so long to visit this picturesque island. Although I had only been in Holbox for a few short hours, I was already completely captivated.


Beach on Holbox Island, Mexico


A Wild Adventure At Sea


August on Holbox Island means whale shark season, hence the reason for our trip. It was almost time for the highly anticipated tour. We looked forward to boarding the boat that would take us to swim with the majestic, spotted sharks. By late morning, we had gathered the group together to walk to the nearby dock. There, we were greeted by a stalky, Mexican man with blue eyes and a gold tooth. Capitan Cholenco invited us onto his boat and introduced us to his assistant, Misael.


Cholenco's Tours, Holbox Island, Mexico

We settled in, strapped our life jackets on, and listened to Misael run through the safety instructions and precautions. As we listened, the captain’s assistant made no mention of any dangers of swimming alongside these sea giants. Despite growing to an average size of 7 meters long, whale sharks are serene and gentle fish. In order to sustain their energy levels, they need to consume about thirty to forty pounds of plankton daily.Therefore, Misael advised that we refrain from using sunscreen, a water pollutant that ultimately kills their food source.

Along the hour and a half journey towards the whale shark area, Captain Cholenco spotted a sea turtle. His knack for noticing a change in the appearance on the water’s surface a hundred yards out was astounding. He slowed down and circled back so that we could view the mid-sized turtle. It bobbed at the surface then vanished into the underwater abyss. While spotting the sea turtle in its natural habitat was thrilling, we would soon discover far more waiting in store for us!

Wildlife on Holbox Island, Mexico

This bird caught a ride with us for the last 1/2 hour of our trip.


Soon after, we arrived at the feeding area of the school bus-sized fish. Within minutes we were geared with flippers, masks and snorkels, ready to join the grey and white whale sharks. Two by two, we jumped nervously into the water. With our heads submerged, we swam alongside these marvelous giants. We witnessed feeder fish tagging along on the beast’s belly, eager for leftovers that spilled out of the sides of its enormous, gaping mouth. After sharing a few rounds of priceless underwater encounters with the whale sharks, we were called back to the boat. Without a doubt, it was a bucket list moment. We were all reluctant to climb aboard, hoping the magic of the breathtaking experience would last a little longer.


Whale Shark


Of course trying to keep up to the whale sharks required a lot of energy and we were ravenous. The Captain had a surprise up his sleeve that would satisfy our hunger. Pulling up to a small fishing boat containing three good-natured fishermen, Cholenco purchased a few red snapper. The fish-market in the middle of the sea was a very surreal experience in itself. Still, there were many more enchanting scenarios ahead. Fifteen minutes later, we came upon a rustic beach. As we floated towards the white sand, the vast views of transparent, aqua-blue water rendered us speechless.

Lunch Island Style


Fishermen near Holbox Island, Mexico

Buying fish from the fishermen in the middle of the sea


Rustic beach paradise near Holbox, Island in Mexico

A secret paradise near Holbox


Across the crystal clear water, various bird species were perched on a sandbar. Catfish darted up to the boat to great us as we leapt into the refreshing, shallow water.  At this awe-inspiring inlet, we enjoyed three hours of bliss without another boat in sight. The kids snorkeled and tried to catch fish with their bare hands. We sat in the glistening water, sipping ice-cold beverages while Misael and the captain prepared a batch of fresh ceviche. Indeed, Cholenco’s secret, patented sauce made it the best ceviche we have ever tasted.


Fresh ceviche off the boat

Misael prepping the ceviche

More Surprises To Come!


As the sun headed west and began its descent, we realized that our grand adventure would soon end. But, just when we thought we had seen it all, we came upon a pod of five dolphins. Giddy and wide-eyed, we observed the graceful creatures explode through the surface in perfect synchronization. We seemed to share an equal curiosity because they circled the boat twice before swimming off in haste.


Dolphins in the wild


It had been a scorching, hot day. Cholenco patiently obliged our periodic requests for pit stops and a chance to cool off in the turquoise waters. At the final leg of our journey, just a few minutes from the marina, we saw hundreds of poised pink flamingos. The tour operators explained that the rosy-colored birds obtain their bright pigment from eating mainly shrimp. The captain killed the engine so as not to startle the flamingos. He fascinated us with more facts. For example, due to the fragility of their long, thin legs, the birds need a proper take off to fly. Without a gradual ascension their legs can break, usually resulting in death not long after.


Pink Flamingos

The flamingos come to the island usually from April to October


Coasting into the dock, we thanked Misael and the captain for a thrilling day at sea. Settling into our beach hammocks at our hotel, we recalled the many highlights of our memorable trip. Later, after cleaning ourselves up, we ventured onto the main street of the small town. Vibrant murals covered entire buildings, golf carts motored across the gravel roads, and seafood aromas filled the air.

Colorful street art on Holbox Island, Mexico

El Chapulim enticed us with its promise of fresh catch of the day offerings. There was no menu, however the chef recommended four choices of main entree. One selection included a filet of succulent white fish with a poblano sauce. As well, we savored a prawn dish sautéed with zucchini, mushrooms and chiles in a garlic butter sauce. To drink, we ordered the house mango and rum cocktails. The delectable meal was an ideal end to our final evening on the heavenly island of Holbox.


A dirt road on the island of Holbox, Mexico

Important Tips For Your Holbox Trip:

The whale shark season typically runs from June 1 to September 15 each year. Likewise is the season for bioluminescence (the glowing plankton.) During the off season, there are also year round fishing, diving, snorkeling and sunset cruise tours offered for fun and adventure.

Getting to Holbox from Playa del Carmen


There is a toll highway from Playa del Carmen (cost around $300 Mxn Pesos CASH depending on size of vehicle). The travel time to Chiquila Port is approximately 1.5 hours.

The ADO bus system is very efficient, presenting comfortable, air-conditioned rides. The cost from Playa del Carmen to Chiquila Port is around $276 MXN and takes about 2.5 hours.

In Chiquila, there is an abundance of overnight parking options. 2 ferry companies, 9 Hermanos and Holbox Express, can take you on the 25 minute ride to Holbox Island. Prices are $220 Mxn Pesos/adult and $180 Mxn Pesos/Child. The first crossing to Holbox Island is at 5 a.m. and the final is at 9:00 p.m.


What to pack for your tour


Included with Cholenco’s Tours is a selection of non-alcoholic beverages, sandwiches, a piece of fruit and the freshly prepared ceviche. Also, snorkel equipment and life jackets are provided. It is recommended that you bring towels and something to counter nausea such as non-drowsy Gravol or Dramamine.

Bring cash. On the dock, you may be to pay a small entrance fee ($50 MXN) to the Yum-Balam Biosphere Reserve. This was a separate cost not included in the whale shark tour.

Pack hats, biodegradable sunscreen sunglasses and long-sleeved swim shirts for the children. Our boat offered some shade.

Do pack non-toxic repellent with you to lather on at dusk when the mosquitos come out.

Where to stay and eat


We stayed at the Amaite Hotel and Spa, which was approximately a 20 minute walk from the ferry dock. Conveniently, there are golf cart taxis that will take you to your destination. The Amaite Hotel and Spa is ideally situated in the town center, offering sea views and spacious family rooms which accommodate up to 6 people. A continental breakfast was included with our stay, but a restaurant and bar provides a full dining menu and beverage service. On-site massages can be booked with advanced notice and yoga classes are given twice weekly. In addition, this ocean-front hotel is less than 100 meters away from the tour boat dock.

For excellent fish tacos, a reasonably priced cocktail menu and exceptional live music, we suggest Viva Zapata.