travelog 126

Travels with Kyra and Kaspar I: Snorkeling with Whale Sharks

White sand beaches, loungers under coconut palms, crystal clear, turquoise water all the way to the horizon. Perfect sunsets. Nice hotels, sandy streets, and too many souvenir shops. Nonetheless, Holbox Island is still absolutely worth a visit for people who hate mass tourism, amongst other things to see the whale sharks that visit here from May to September every year. When my brother Kaspar planned a trip to Mexico for the summer of 2015, snorkeling with whale sharks was on top of his list; in fact, it was the only thing on his list.

From time to time one deserves a good vacation: from the garden, the chickens, the band of cats, and the hubby - in this order. Such a vacation gets better when you can spend it with the best niece and the best brother in the world. Without hesitation I can call them best niece and brother, because I have only one of each. Joking aside, after the three-week vacation they are still on top of my list of favorite people!

There was not much planning involved in our trip. Kyra and Kaspar flew from Germany directly to Cancun with a charter airline; i.e. they almost did not fly because Kyra's arm was still in a cast. At check-in at the airport in Frankfurt they said that it was dangerous to fly with a cast. Why they let her board the plane in Zurich remains an open question. In any case, Kaspar was lucky to reach his doctor in Switzerland who confirmed that Kyra's cast was not a problem. After signing a few papers saying more or less "you do it at your own risk", they were let on board. They had booked three days in an all-inclusive hotel in Playa del Carmen to relax a little and get acclimatized. From Cancun they flew to Guadalajara with Volaris where I picked them up at the airport. We spent a relaxing week in our garden, mostly at or in the swimming pool and the lounge chairs. Lene, one of our cats, became Kyra's new friend on the first day, and the two were almost inseparable. Every night my favorite niece sang a good night song to the chicken flock which was rewarded with an exceptionally abundant egg harvest.

After this very pleasant week, the three of us flew back to Cancun. Martin stayed home. After all, somebody needed to take care of the chickens, pet the cats, and keep the garden in order. We had a reservation for a rental car in Cancun with a company we had never heard of before. As soon as we had landed and started walking outside, our clothes stuck to our bodies and we started sweating profusely. July on the Yucatan peninsula is one of the hottest and most humid months; but, unfortunately, Swiss summer vacations didn't comply with the Mexican climate. Besides, we were instantly besieged by people wanting to offer us just about anything, only our rental agency was nowhere to be seen. After some back and forth it turned out that the company was part of Hertz and that we needed to get on their shuttle bus. That's how we reached the hidden rental agency after all; but first our car still needed to be washed. When we finally headed off and drove west to find a hotel along the road, it was late in the afternoon. Finding a place to stay was more difficult than imagined and, in complete darkness, we eventually ended up in Kantunilkin. The hotel was typical for Mexico but at least it had a working A/C in the room. Kyra was astonished that there was no restaurant in the hotel; instead, we found a little place on the main square where we had tacos and quesadillas.

The next morning we drove on to Chiquila from where the boats took off to Holbox Island. Around the harbour one parking lot was next to the other and boys yelled and waved their hands to attract clients to their parking place. We treated ourselves to a private lancha, a fishing boat, which was not a lot faster as promised, but arrived on Holbox at about the same time as the regular boat. On Holbox you get around on foot, by bicycle, golf cart or on an ATV. With our luggage the golf cart was the most convenient method of transportation. We crossed the island on sandy streets to get to our hotel La Palapa de Lino where I had rented a bungalow. The hotel lies on a beautiful beach with deck chairs under coconut palms and the clear blue see directly in front of our noses. There was a small restaurant and a bar, all outdoor of course. We spent the rest of the day in the loungers in the shade of the palm trees, and swimming and swaying in the warm water. Kyra had already good practice keeping her arm and the cast out of the water from our swimming pool, besides there were no waves in these calm waters. Kaspar organized the whale shark tour for the next day. Then we strolled through town and explored the souvenir shops where Kyra quickly learned how to bargain for a better price. Some restaurants looked pretty nice but they all seemed too touristy. Kyra had other plans for dinner. She wanted to have pizza, no discussion. So we sat down at a Pizzeria and ordered two beer while Kyra devoured her Pizza Margarita. Then we went around the corner to a busy taco place with chairs and tables. At the corner we bought a big bottle of beer. The tacos were al pastor, which is somewhat similar to a Greek gyros but the meat is served with a piece of pineapple and spicy salsas, of course. My brother was in heaven with all this spicy food, and Kyra was pleased to see his face turn red because of all the Habanero chiles he had stuffed in his tacos.

The next morning we got up early to get breakfast in the village. The restaurants were still closed, though, and food was only served at a few street corners. Brother and sister decided instead for fresh Ataulfo mangoes and Pitahaya, or dragon fruit, the fruit of Hylocereus undatus. Kyra made an even healthier choice: a package of vanilla cookies. At 7:30AM someone picked us up in a golf cart at the hotel. Many boats were already ready to take off at the pier, and official looking, uniformed people scurried around the waiting crowd with notepads and lists of names. We jumped on a boat that we shared with the captain, his chubby assistant, and eight more passengers. I didn't count the boats but there were too many leaving the harbour towards the open sea. All of them with the same goal, to find a whale shark as fast as possible.

Whale sharks are the largest sharks and the biggest known extant fish species. With a thickness of 15 cm (6 inches) it has the thickest skin of all living things on earth - another record. The largest ever measured animal was 13.7 m long (45 feet), but there are reports of bigger individuals. Whale sharks can weigh over 20 metric tons (44'000 pounds). They feed mainly on plankton and other micro-organisms which they filter through their huge mouth by sucking in water. The animals prefer water temperatures between 21-25° Celsius (70-77 F) and are found around the world in almost all warm, tropical and subtropical waters. In the area between the Golf of Mexico and the Caribbean, huge amounts of plankton from the cold regions of the Atlantic reach the surface, making this area one of the richest feeding places worldwide. Sardines, tuna, marlin, dolphins, sharks, and manta rays are attracted by the plankton, and of course the biggest of them all, the whale sharks. This is excellent business. On a good day, the tours can supposedly yield up to US $400'000.

After we had all got our live jackets and our captain said a few introducing and explainig words, we set off. As said before, whale sharks are big business and there are offices at every corner, sales people at every beach and at all the hotels on Holbox offering tours. The going price is between $100-150 per person, depending on what's included. Alas, we were not alone but in the company of many colorful boats - one of them was even named Julia - that all set off in the same direction. Our companions were a mother and daughter (both non-swimmers), three elderly friends with a nephew (the nephew a swimmer, the friends didn't go into the water), and a father with his son (the latter a non-swimmer). On our way we saw a few dolphins and yellow manta rays. By now the fat assistant had climbed onto the roof to spot the famous shark fins, but without luck. After about one hour the bulk of the boats gathered around a whale shark but we were heading further out into the sea. Fishermen in a boat hadn't seen any whale sharks, but then our captain received a radio message that there was one not far away. You see, the captains of the boats are required to inform the other boats of shark sightings via radio.

While we were now heading for the position, the first divers were selected. It should definitely be good swimmers. My brother and the other young man were the chosen ones, had to put on flippers and diving masks and were ordered to sit down on the edge of the boat. They were told over and over that they needed to jump into the water as soon as the order was given, and that they had to follow the signs of the assistant all the time. There were a few boats lined up in front of us, and again and again pairs of tourists jumped into the water with their guide. At this time we did not see much of the whale shark. Suddenly it was our turn, the captain yelled "Vamonos!", and off they went. Now we saw the huge contours of the animal and sometimes its fin surfaced. My brother was beaming when he climbed out of the water. Laughing, he told us about the chubby guide who pulled his arm several times pointing towards the whale shark like a maniac, as if one could have overlooked the enormous fish. Now we had to circle around until it was our turn again. I saw a dark shadow in the distance when I jumped into the warm water. We were headed towards this shadow, or better the shadow came swimming towards us. Then I saw this huge mouth in front of me and the whale was slowly gliding by. If it had not been forbidden, I could have easily touched it. That's how close I was. It is difficult to describe the emotions that come over you when you are so close to such an elegant and gentle giant. For a long time, at least that's how it felt, I was able to swim with the animal, admiring the white dots on its dark gray skin. The local fishermen call the animals Domino because of these dots. Then the guide signaled that it was time to go back to the boat. Again, the boat was chugging around in a big circle. Then it was showtime for the non-swimmers. Unbelievable, or perhaps very Mexican, that it was allowed to put non-swimmers into the deep water. In any case, much convincing, and a gentle push from behind, was needed to get mother and daughter into the water. They thrashed the flippers like crazy while the guide grabbed them and tried to pull them as close as possible to the whale shark. These two came out of the water broadly smiling too. This routine continued until everybody had been in the water twice. The group on board tried in vain to convince Kyra to risk the "jump" into the water. The assistant offered to take her on his shoulders so that her cast wouldn't get wet while she could get a good look at the huge creature. A convinced NO! was the answer. Her father offered the same but he too got a negative answer. Perhaps the whale shark was simply too big and too scary for my eleven-year old niece, especially because she couldn't really move around in the water at her own will. Since it had been so beautiful for everybody, my far-travelled brother was allowed to jump in a third time. Then, the captain maneuvered the boat exactly next to the giant creature and we were floating at its side for a while to take pictures. It was surprising that this animal let itself be bothered for such a long time and so patiently by us dwarfs in bright orange life jackets. At least it now had the afternoon to itself until the hustle and bustle started all over again the next morning.

Too soon the fun was over and we got on to the next part of the day. This was a tourist excursion after all, and the people had to be kept happy and entertained, although it would have been perfectly fine with us to snorkel a few more times with the whale shark. The assistant now became the cook, sat down in the back of the boat and started preparing a Ceviche that was later served with tortilla chips. On demand, they even pulled out spicy Habanero chiles. Next, we anchored close to the shore where people could snorkel in the crystal clear water. Unfortunately, the corals were pretty much destroyed by all the boats that anchor here every day, but there were still many colorful fish to be seen - a purple moray hid under a rock, and even a couple of turtles swam about. For the next attraction we drove along mangroves into an elongated, shallow bay where the light blue water was not even knee-deep. Small catfish were already waiting for us, or rather for the leftover Ceviche. Then we were headed back towards Holbox. On the way, we also saw a few flamingos standing in the shallow water although their breeding season was already over. The most fascinating thing about this ride back along the shore was the light turquoise color of the water contrasting beautifully with the dark blue of the sky. In the afternoon we arrived at the pier in Holbox happy, sunburned and exhausted.

After relaxing in the loungers of the hotel, we strolled through town again. This time we explored other streets with new souvenir shops. By now Kyra was haggling like a pro and successfull at it too. That night she discovered a few food stalls around the main plaza that sold Marquesitas, a Yucatan style crepe. They were stuffed either with queso bola, a Dutch Edamer cheese, or more to Kyra's taste with Nutella. After she was fed, we moved to the taco stand from the night before, got our beer at the corner store, and enjoyed another delicious dinner. Before we retreated to our bungalow, we climbed up to the roof terrace of our hotel where you could swing and relax in hammocks. An app on my cell phone even showed us the names of the many stars in the night sky.

Now that we had snorkeled with the whale sharks, the goal of the trip was achieved. Since we had already travelled that far, we continued our vacation with a roundtrip through the Yucatan Peninsula. With Kyra and Kaspar, we visited cenotes, Merida and Izamal, the hammock capitol of the world, former sisal plantations, a beach where turtles lay their eggs; and Kyra's favorite animals, horses, particularly as horse carriages, were on our agenda too, but I will tell you all about these adventures in the next travelog.

July 2015

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen