Joan Larsen on the Trail of Mexico’s Hidden Secrets: Swimming With Whale Sharks

Posted on January 15, 2014


By Joan Larsen


Excitement reigned as our small plane seemed to skim the clear waters of the almost unknown islet off Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula — called Isla Holbox (pronounced Hol-Bosh).  A bit of  paradise, I thought, . . . and when the pilot further whetted our appetites by saying that the blue waters below were teeming with the largest fish in the world, the docile whale shark, our small group actually cheered.


We knew about whale sharks — well, we had been assured that going swimming with them was completely safe.  All right, their mouths are huge – like 5 feet across – but their esophagus is so small that it would be impossible for one to swallow you.  Frankly, you just don’t interest them!   In fact, in snorkeling next to them, you find yourself completely ignored as they glide silently about 5 miles an hour with that huge mouth open, intent on filtering out their favorite food of krill – the smallest of shrimp – and plankton.

Just so the whale sharks are not ever disturbed, only a small handful of snorkelers are allowed to go out to their warm waters at one time.  To say that we were excited is underestimating this once-in-a-lifetime experience.  When the dive master said “Jump” to three of us, there was no hesitation at all.

Did I mention how large whale sharks are?  Around me, dreamily coasting along, were the largest fish in the world:  up to 40 feet long and weighing 9 tons.   Very often they are accompanied by schools of brilliant small fish who swim along underneath them, knowing this docile giant will forever be their protector.


Their beauty is captivating.  Hundreds of white spots with faint stripes makes their blue backs look like works of art.  In fact, there is a Kenya legend that says that God and his angels scattered gold and silver coins across the whale shark’s back in honor of its beauty.   How could that  beautiful story ever be forgotten?

Far too soon, we felt, our captivated threesome of snorkelers had to let others take our place, letting them also feel the thrill of swimming with the largest animal on earth – the only one that humans can approach in the wild without there being any real danger.

I had been told that approaching the boat’s captain with an added tip might be enough to have him detour the boat until we found the hundreds of rays that also make these special warm waters their own gathering spot.  He agreed, taking us a little further afield.  And then suddenly, all around us was a field of color – hundreds and hundreds of sting rays putting on a show for us that eclipsed half a lifetime of my being captivated by nature underwater.  One look and you will understand:


In our own lives, we know there are days that will stand out forever in our hearts and minds.  This day, spent off this tiny isle,  snorkeling with whale sharks – the gentle giants of the seas – and then with the incredible rays that swam in formation as if parading for our viewing alone, are the “forever” kind.

Never – ever – to be forgotten.


For those who love to vacation in Cancun, Mexico, it is easy to spend one of the best days of your life in nearby Isla Holbox, swimming with hundreds of whale sharks. For those living in or vacationing in Australia, the whale sharks of famous Ningaloo Reef are irresistible. A dozen more warm places on our globe seem to draw them in large numbers . . . and from what I hear, they are more than eager to let you too enjoy a communal swim.  If I were you, I would say “YES”!!!! 


JoanAvatarWriter Joan Larsen has travelled the world for a lifetime, particularly in search of its most remote places.  But it is the polar regions that have become not only her field of expertise but have been the special places that she is drawn back to again and again.