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Fin to fin with whale sharks, Holbox Island, Mexico 2016

My brother Florent and I booked this trip a little bit at the last minute. I needed some time off in a sunny and laid back location, and British Airways had a sale on. It turned out that the return flights from London to Cancun were Β£350 and there is an island only a couple of hours drive plus a short boat ride away. With no cars and no roads but golf carts and white sand tracks, it’s Holbox Island! One additional attraction, from June to September, the surrounding seas host the largest congregation of whale sharks in the world. Do I need to say any more? πŸ˜€

We land in Cancun airport at 5:30pm on Saturday the 5th of June. I’ve been told there is only one cash machine on Holbox, which, consequently, runs out very often. Our first objective consists of taking enough cash out to subsist for a week and a half so we don’t have to come back to mainland. Our wallets full, we exit the airport to realise that it’s pouring rain outside… But we’re only a few hours away from the paradise island I’ve been waiting for. And before we know it, we arrive at Hostel Tribu on time for a good night sleep to overcome jetlag.

The first few days are almost identical to one another.

I wake up in the morning, feeling particularly happy that there is nothing on the programme for the day. We head to the town centre for a relaxed breakfast. No need to hurry, I can just drink my coffee without any rush whatsoever. So around mid morning is the time to go and be lazy on the beach. πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ But the thunderstorm we saw when we arrived is over the island and, usually, not long after we’ve dropped our towels on the sand and have gone for a swim, rain drop starts to fall. We head back to the hostel, just in time as the skies open up.

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The breaks between rainfall are the opportunity to explore the not-so-big island. But the first wildlife we encounter is nothing that I was expecting. It’s not the giant whale sharks or the pink flamingos but a prehistoric animal called horseshoe crab. They’ve been around for 450 million years which makes them the 5th oldest animal species on earth, only beaten by the cyanobacteria, the marine sponge, the jelly fish and the nautilus. Another incredible facts: the horseshoe crab has 9 eyes in multiple areas of his body. OK, maybe I’m getting over excited but I think that’s pretty cool to find such a peculiar creature. πŸ˜€

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Next, we do encounter flamingos and their bright pink plumage.

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But the sky reminds us that his mercy is soon over as the dark clouds block the horizon above the fluorescent sea lit by the very last sun rays.

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It’s completely soaked that we return at the hostel, having walked under pouring rain for a little over an hour. So much water has fallen from the sky in the last 36 hours that the white sand streets are completely flooded.

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I got used to not wearing any shoes at all, the sand is quite pleasant but the muddy streets, not so much…

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The weather here is like clockwork, the rain stop in late afternoon, the perfect time to head to town for a few beers and a mexican dinner.

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And on the bright side, the most beautiful sunsets occur after storms.

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Luckily for us, the sun returns for the second part of our holiday and reveals the beauty of Holbox.

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Taking a nap on the beach also becomes particularly enjoyable.

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The colours of the village become so much brigher.

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The turquoise sea is at the end of every street.

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It is also the time where the internal football season starts: the Copa America and the Euro. The days continue to be very much alike: coffee and breakfast, nap on the beach, football, another nap on the beach, dinner and some more football. And of course, a few beers all along from the hostel bar, the Tribu Bar πŸ˜€

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Let’s not forget that clear and sunny days also give way to pleasant sunsets.

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Ah, almost forgot what we came here for: whale sharks. Well, it seems that we’ve come a little bit too early in the season. We’ve been out twice looking for the largest fish but have been unsuccessful every time. The snorkeling afterwards was OK: turtles, stingrays, great barracudas and a nurse shark. If I was to see all that during a scuba dive, it would certainly be a fantastic one. But having spent 6 hours at sea scrutinizing the horizon for a fin, twice and not seeing anything is pretty frustrating. Although I do enjoy not having anything on my agenda other than relaxing (in theory), I’ve realized that I’m hyperactive. I cannot stay inactive for longer than a few days. No way we’re spending the last couple of days like this.

The second day before last, we take the boat back to mainland and drive to Puerto Morelos for a bit of scuba diving. The first dive on the programme is the wreck of a Mexican gunship, the C56. The current is strong at the surface but as soon as I reach the buoy, I can see the wreck, 30m below… That’s dramatically different to what I’m used to in the UK where the visibility is rarely more than a 4 or 5 meters. Having reached the bow, a couple of eagle rays swim around us. I’ve never seen any before, this is really cool. Their back is covered in white dots and their movements are very graceful, they’re beautiful creatures. The wreck itself is quite recent and well preserved, which make for a very good dive. The second dive is a shallow reef, full of life. There are litterally fishes everywhere, covering rocks, nice one too.

But that’s still no whale shark. And as every other trip I’ve done looking for wildlife, I do not give up until the last minute. Our last day is also our last opportunity to find the giant fish, we’re going to take it! Although it starts as every other day, I’ve got the feeling that this one could be different. And it is… we locate a whale shark feeding at the surface fairly quickly… that’s amazing, my heart is beating at a hundred miles an hour as I gear up and sit on the edge of the boat, ready to jump in. The skipper is placing the boat near the path of the animal and when the time is right… “JUMP!” I let myself slide slowly in the water and immediately look for the whale shark… But I can’t see it. We need to remember that it’s here because of the abundance of plakton at the surface of the sea, and although not visible to the naked eye, they’re like a cloud of tiny particles which reduces the visibility massively. I raise my head above the water, see the fin about 5 meters away… which means the head has got the be… well… where I am. And it is! It appears out of the blue as soon as I look underwater again. It’s swimming fast. I am mesmerized by the sheer size of this fish. So much that I completely forget about my camera, letting the animal swim right past me, its dorsal fin passing about 50cm away from my eyes… absolutely incredible!!!!!!!!!!

We’re lucky because we got in the water first but as I step back on our boat I realize there are already 10 others around now, and more coming. I knew this was going to be the problem with this experience. Although swimming with these giants is a unique experience, it is invasive and must be extremely stressful for the animal. By the time all of us had gone in the water once, we decided to leave this spot and look for another which hopefully will be more peaceful. This has proven to be the right decision, we did find another whale shark with no other boat around as well as manta rays… This time, I remembered I could film πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€

I return to the pier extremely happy. Our determination has paid off. But it’s not just having been in the water with the whale shark that pleases me the most. It’s that we’ve done it with respect for the animal. The water wasn’t overcrowded, the interactions were calm and peaceful and our presence not too long. But I do worry about the future. As in every natural environment I’ve been to, the impact of humans is also obvious here. Local fishermen tell amazing stories how, no more than 10 years ago, the whale sharks used to arrive in large numbers within hundreds of meters from the shore of Holbox as early as mid-May. Now, their numbers have reduced drastically, they arrive much later in the season and they stay much further away from the coast line. Pollution? Global Warming? Human presence? I guess it’s difficult to say which is the main reason for this change of migration pattern. But one thing is certain, we must act immediately to protect this large gathering of whale sharks and ensure tourism operate according to sustainable practices. I don’t mean that in a selfish way now that I’ve had the chance to experience it, but rather the opposite. I would like all future generations to have the chance to live this magical experience. One that I have dreamed of for a long time and that I will always remember.