Whale Shark season in Mexican Caribbean

Whale Shark season on Isla Holbox is from May 15th until September 15th.

From a reader: “As scuba divers, we have always wanted to see a whale shark. Having spent a whole week in Roatan without seeing even a glimpse of one, we made it our mission to find one and were pleased to learn that we might get lucky on Isla Holbox. On a sunny day last September, we drove to the coastal town of Chiquilá, parked our car, and took a boat to Isla Holbox. Once there, we easily found a fisherman with a “lancha” (a small motor-powered wooden fishing boat) who used his not-so-quaint GPS locator in order to find the spot where the whale sharks, known locally as Dominos, were feeding the next day. After about an hour of motoring, we found ourselves in the middle of the ocean, with no land in sight. Suddenly, there were four or five whale sharks slowly swimming around us (and three other boats that were there to observe). They were joined by a large manta ray that was also fishing in the area.”

The whale shark is the largest fish on earth, usually measuring between 15 and 50 feet (5 -16 m) in length and weighing as much as 10 tons. These gentle sea creatures range all tropical waters and infrequently stray into temperate ones.

The whale shark’s body is stout but streamlined, like that of a shark. In fact, they probably got their name because they look like a shark with a whale’s head. They are dark brown or grey with white or yellow spots, with a white or yellow underbelly.

The whale shark has nothing in common with whales except for its size and the fact that it only eats minute plankton by scooping it up with an open mouth. Unlike most sharks, the whale shark has its mouth at the front of its head rather than on the underside and unlike other sharks, it does not eat meat. It normally feeds on or just below the surface by literally vacuuming food from the water.

Very little is known about whale shark reproduction, with most information coming from a single egg found in the Gulf of Mexico. It is thought that the young develop in egg cases that are retained in the mother’s body until hatching. Despite their large adult size, whale sharks are very small at birth, probably 40 to 50 centimeters.

The whale shark is a docile fish that will not attack, even on provocation. Despite their impressive appearance, they are harmless to humans. They are mainly solitary in nature, they roam widely, and are often difficult to find. The expedition from Isla Holbox is an exceptional adventure. Being in the presence of these great creatures, with enough time to observe and enjoy them, is a special privilege indeed. Please look, take pictures, enjoy, but as with many of the wonders of the ocean, please do not touch them or harass them in any way!

For several years now, whale sharks have been coming to the northern tip of the Yucatán peninsula to feed and mate during the months of May through September. Tourism based on whale shark watching has increased dramatically in the last few years and government agencies have taken steps to protect these magnificent animals so that the species will not be harmed and so they will continue to return to this area.

For that reason, Isla Holbox has recently been named by the Mexican government as the only port that can offer trips to swim with the whale sharks and there are strict rules against scuba equipment being used to view them in the area. Local guides have been trained to give tours that are as safe for the whale sharks as they are for their human visitors.

At a recent conference, April 2010, Pronatura declared that at least 1000 whale sharks were counted in 2009. This national treasure must be protected. Many whale sharks have been seen with injuries caused by the propellers of passing boats.

If this protection is guaranteed, the whale shark can continue to provide tourism opportunities in the area. Pronatura is doing studies on the impact from tourism on these inoffensive animals, and creating a management plan to determine how many boats and humans can approach these animals so that they don’t feel threatened and migrate to another area.

Aware of the importance of this species and its protection, President Felipe Calderon has decreed a marine reserve of 160,000 hectares added to the reserve of Yum Balam.

Ask around at the docks or downtown for someone to take you to the whale sharks. Be prepared to spend about five to six hours on the water, with all that entails. Most tour guides will provide drinks, but be sure to ask before you go. And don’t forget a hat and sunscreen!

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