More Than Swimming with the Whale Sharks August 2009

By Mari Pintkowski

My two amigas and I were floating around the cenote-style pool at La Selva Mariposa, where we live and operate this beautiful boutique hotel, when my husband, Lou, came over with a tray of frosty drinks and an interesting proposal.

“How would you ladies like to join me for a road trip to Isla Holbox? I just contacted Sandra at Casa Tom Tom and she has her two rental rooms available and will book a tour to swim with the whale sharks for us. Anyone game?”

A chorus of “Si, si, si,” sounded from the pool.

A few days later, Ann, Marie, Lou and I said goodbye to the hotel guests and piled into the car and headed west on the Coba Road. We turned right at the Coba/Nuevo Xacan roundabout, heading north to the little coastal town of Chiquila only one and a half hours from La Selva Mariposa.

We were aiming for the 12:00 ferry ($6) and squeaked into town with five minutes to spare. Lou dropped us off at the dock with all the bags, and a friendly tricycle drivers pedaled our gear to the boat while Lou parked the car in one of the secure, private backyard parking lots ($6 a day) and caught a tricycle to the boat. Unfortunately, the ferry had departed early because it was full, and the next ferry was scheduled for 1:00 pm.

One of the small boat operators saw the disappointment on our faces and approached our group, offering to take us across for $7 each. We haggled until he agreed on $5 each or 200 pesos. A deal was struck!

The seas in the lagoon were calm, and we made the journey in less than half an hour to the other side of the Island where the fishing boats dock. Many golf-cart taxis were parked at the dock, but no drivers were in sight. Lou and Marie headed out in different directions looking for a taxi. Lou finally got a response from the men resting under the beer tent when he greeted them in Mayan, and one man quickly found a taxi for us.

The taxi ride to Casa Tom Tom at the north end of the Island cost 20 pesos. This newly constructed house has two beautifully decorated rental rooms with a shared patio facing the calm, turquoise waters where the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico meet. We arrived with plenty of time for a swim, grab a snack at the neighboring hotel restaurant, a stroll on the endless white sand beach, or a siesta in one of the hammocks on the deck before the spectacular sunset presented itself.

At 7:30 the next morning, Sandra, our hostess, drove us in her golf cart along the road bordering the mangroves where we spotted a wood stork, egrets, black-crested night heron, tri-colored heron and a great white heron before arriving at the fishing dock. She introduced us to Captain Joaquin Avila and first-mate Isidro, who were waiting for us to arrive. Many boats were gearing up for the day ahead. Our thirty -foot-long fishing boat, the Jesuri, was freshly painted orange and white, and everything from the cooler stocked with ice and cold drinks to the soft, white cushions were impecably clean. The canopy covering the seats was sturdy and welcoming.

Without a pelican in sight, we motored north at high speed, parallel to the shore. This sixteen-mile stretch of virgen beach, known as Ensenada, now belongs to a group of wealthy investors. When I asked Joaquin if they had plans to develop the property, he said, ¨Not now, but in five years, maybe.¨

At the end of this sandy outcropping, known as Cabo Catoche, we headed out to deep water to look for the gentle giants. We passed a small pod of dolphins and noticed a baby swimming between two larger dolphins. We also encountered a number of manta rays with a span of twelve to fifteen feet across. We marveled at the leaps they made into the air close to our boat, but none of us took the offer to swim with them and later regretted it. Joaquin told us that they were not dangerous, but the memory of the Australian actors death by a sting ray was way too fresh in our minds.

From a distance, we could see the color of the water change from turquoise to an ochre yellow. Our guides explained that the plankton that brought the whales to the area was abundant in these coludy waters. The whale sharks troll the waters with their four-foot.-wide mouths open, taking in the plankton while filtering out what is not needed through the baleen, rows of flat flexible plates on the upper jaw that look like combs of thick hair.

We spotted our first whale shark before we reached these waters and motored along side of the thirty-foot long creature as he took no notice of us. Joaquin let us know that this was the largest one they had spotted this season, but in August they expect to see whale sharks as long as fifty feet. To our disappointment, he drifted into the cloudy, plankton-filled water before we were able to jump in and swim with him.

Another boat and crew were in the vacinity, and we worked as a team to herd the giant into the clearer waters. At this moment, Isidro, first mate and dive coach, was suiting up and Joaquin passed out masks and snorkles to our group. No English was spoken, but we were able to follow our instructions with the help of Marie, one of our group who had a strong grasp of the Spanish language.

Only two divers, plus the guide, are allowed in the water with the sharks at a time. He alerted two of us to prepare to embark and sit on the edge of the boat with our mask and fins on and wait until we were told to jump in. He gave us a signal and the three of us made a spash into the chilly water.

Isidro immediately guided us to the side of the shark and held onto us until we were relaxed and in sync, swimming within a foot of the magnificent creature. We had been told not to touch the shark, but once my hand rubbed against his skin and it felt smooth and rubbery. The surface of his enormous browinish body was covered with white dots that seemed to glow in the sun-streaked turquoise water. We all had as many turns as we wanted to swim with the whale shark and could even tell Isidro what type of experience we were looking for. Once, I swam above the shark as he descended and then came up with the fin just below my stomach. It was a humbling experience to share the space with such a large, yet gentle creature.

We were ready for the next experience and left the whale shark to swim with a few other boats, which had recently arrived on the scene. We headed north into the cool waters and all tried our hand at fishing. Ann, one of the friends, commented on how simple and effective the method was: simply a roll of fishing line outfitted with a baited hook and a sinker. Within minutes, mero, snapper and rubio took the bait and were soon to be our afternoon snack. As each fish was caught, it was tossed into a bucket and Joaquin removed one at a time and fileted it and tossed the wiggling remains of the fish into the sea.

We were all starving from our hard work, when tasty ham and cheese sándwiches,made by Joquain´s wife, were passed around the boat along with frosty soft drinks. We all laughed and shared stories with our new Mexican friends before motoring off to snorkle at a third location. A short distance away, we anchored near two other boats and joined them for a snorkle in the warm waters beside a reef. Isidro helped us locate the areas with the most abundant tropical fish, while Joaquin finished preparing the civiche that we all enjoyed once we climbed back into the boat. When asked about beer, Joaquin said that beer is allowed if the customer wants to bring some along themselves and put it in the ice chest.

We stopped for one last photo op at the mouth of the river, but the few dozen pelicans, egrets, herons and other water birds did not prepare us for what we were to see next.

Our group silently marveled at the thousands of pelicans we saw perched along the sixteen miles of virgen beaches that we passed on our way back to the dock in Holbox.

There are few words to describe such a unique and exceptional day tour that left us with memories to last a lifetime.

My husband and I returned home to our little oasis in the jungle, La Selva Mariposa, and our friends shared a taxi the next day to the Cancún airport for $80.(photo:LSM)

Tours range from $90 to $100 USD and vary with the tour company guiding the journey. Our contact was Manola at 984 807 9709 or 984 875 2088. Casa Tomtom is listed on

Mari Pintkowski and her husband own and operate an elegant jungle B&B, La Selva Mariposa 15 minutes from Tulum. Read more of Mari´s stories in sacbe or order her book, Embarking on the Mariposa Trail on