Eco-Travel Tips Mexico

The Ethical Way to Swim with Whale Sharks: Isla Holbox, Mexico

swimming with whale sharks mexico isla holbox ethical

Ever since I started travelling, I’ve done so many things that I would never have done a few years ago. Even little things like going to a restaurant and getting a table for one would have been enough to give me nightmares. Now, I love it and even had a ritual of doing it once a week in Korea! However, the most recent thing that I decided to do is considered much scarier than that, even if it’s a lot less socially awkward. And that’s swimming with whale sharks!

first discovered that swimming with whale sharks was a thing when I was living in Korea and was instantly intrigued. I spoke to loads of expats who had gotten back from holidaying in The Philippines with tales of swimming with the world’s largest fish. However, when we travelled to The Philippines for ourselves, we decided against it. And no, not because I was too scared, but because after doing some research, I realised that it wasn’t actually ethical or sustainable.

You see, in The Philippines, the sharks are baited and I’m not one for doing a cool activity at the expense of our animals, ecosystems or the environment. So, when we started planning our trip to Mexico and I heard that there is an ethical way to swim with whale sharks, I knew we had to do it!

Isla Holbox: The Place to Get up Close with Whale Sharks in Mexico

Isla Holbox is a tiny island north of Spring break central, Cancun. Every July and August the sharks migrate here, seeking warm waters, much like most of the North American and European tourists that also flock there in those months.

swimming with whale sharks isla holbox mexico ethical

We took a lot of care to find a great tour guide who was as passionate about conservation and ethical tourism practices as we are. While the sharks are, of course, there by their own accord, that’s not to say all tour guides are environmentally responsible.

In the end, we chose VIP Holbox as they had great reviews and are dedicated to offering an educational experience for all their guests while respecting the lives and privacy of the whale sharks.

No matter where you are in the world, or what you want to do, if it involves animals, do your homework. The internet is a wonderful thing and you can check a tour company’s credentials and travel with a clear conscience. A tout on the street might give you a great rate and potential to save money, but there’s no way to know what you’re paying for.

Our experience with VIP Holbox was incredible and I couldn’t imagine what our experience would have been like with another tour company.

Here’s a full review of our day with them!

Meeting Our Guide

Our day with the meeting of our guide, Gustavo, and an amazing breakfast of fruit, coffee and pastries to set us up for the day.

As soon as Gustavo started speaking about the whale sharks, it was obvious that he has a lot of respect for these gentle giants! He reminded everyone that we are a guest in the sharks home. The ocean is where they eat their dinner and we should treat them like we would another human eating dinner in their own home- don’t interrupt them and give them the privacy that they deserve. He also made it well clear that VIP Holbox have zero tolerance for anyone touching the whale sharks. After all the nonsense that I’ve read about tourists and animals in the past year, I was glad to hear that any guests caught doing this would be evacuated from the tour.

swimming with whale sharks isla holbox mexico ethical

Gustavo made us care about much more about the whale sharks than just the opportunity to get cool selfies or Go Pro videos. He made sure that we understood enough about the whale sharks to just enjoy them in that moment.

We were also reminded not to wear regular sun cream in the water. A surprising amount of travellers don’t realise that the chemicals in regular sun cream can breakdown and damage coral reefs. Luckily, VIP Holbox had some on board so guests didn’t have to choose between frazzling in the sun and respecting the ocean. Actually, I can imagine that it made a lot of people more aware of the importance of mineral sun cream and encouraged them to pick up a bottle for the rest of their trip!

Swimming with the whale sharks

After a bumpy ride out to sea, it was time to jump in and see the whale sharks. VIP Holbox actually offer seasickness tablets at the beginning of the tour, and, if you do the tour, I would definitely take them! I didn’t think I got seasick but, in all honesty, I’ve not spent much time at sea and actually found myself feeling quite queasy.

When it was time to get in the water, rather than all jumping in together, Gustavo took a group of 2 in at a time while the rest waited on the boat. This is to stop the whale sharks feeling surrounded but also so that Gustavo could keep an eye on the safety of the guests.

When Veeran and I jumped into the water for the first time, we didn’t see anything at all but on our second turn, we saw a whale shark! I actually found the experience really overwhelming: I couldn’t tell how close I was to it and it seemed so much bigger than I expected. Plus, the whole thing was over so quickly, I never managed to take any of it in.

swimming with whale sharks isla holbox mexico ethical

Luckily, on our third try, I was calm, collected and able to enjoy the experience. I even looked straight into its eye as I swam alongside it which has to be the most surreal travel experience of my life to date.

Everyone in our group was able to swim with the whale shark twice and some were even lucky enough to see one standing in a bottle position. Gustavo always reminded us that what we were seeing was nature and it couldn’t be controlled and is completely random. He didn’t use any tricks to force the whale shark to stand up for us but made sure that we appreciated the experience for what it was.

Lunch and Beach Snorkelling

After swimming with the whale sharks, most of us had shaken off our sea sickness to have a big enough appetite for some ceviche. Actually, no matter how sick I feel, I’ve always got the appetite for ceviche! This little break to eat delicious fresh seafood, swim and snorkel in the shallow waters and just chill out on the beach was the perfect come down after the excitement of swimming with the whale sharks.

swimming with whale sharks isla holbox mexico ethical

Fresh ceviche which was prepared on the boat while we swam!

Snorkelling with Sting Rays and Turtles

Before heading back to the mainland, we stopped for more snorkelling again- a more chilled out type of snorkelling than trying to swim along side the world’s biggest fish. The area that we were in was brimming with turtles, stingrays and other little colourful fish. Although I wasn’t lucky enough to spot a turtle, a couple of the other girls in the boat did.

I did, however, swim right over a giant sting ray, which was terrifying! After the death of Steve Irwin, I don’t think anyone will feel the same way about sting rays again! (RIP!)

swimming with whale sharks isla holbox mexico ethical

All in all, we had an amazing time with VIP Holbox! Our guide Gustavo was so passionate about the ocean and went out his way to make sure we felt the same way and that everyone had a great time. You hear so many horror stories about animal attractions these days, and it’s difficult to find one to trust. However, if you’re ever in Isla Holbox and want to swim with whale sharks, I would definitely recommend VIP Holbox!

For more information, check out their website.

swimming with whale sharks isla holbox mexico ethical

Disclaimer: I received 2 complimentary places on the tour in return for this review. However, as always, I only work with and promote companies that I think are amazing (and that you’ll love, too.) All opinions, of course, are my own.

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