WHALE SHARK TRIP REPORT
HOLBOX ISLAND, MEXICO
JULY 6-22, 2009
July 7, 2009
Our first day on the water, it was a calm day and we were blessed with smooth glassy seas. It felt good to be back in Holbox again, here on the island everything was the same, as if time is of no consequence here. The only thing that was different was the lack of sharks. July is the heart of whale shark season here and it is not uncommon to see 10-15 sharks in a day. But today we were having trouble finding sharks to interact with. We finally found a shark but we had to share it with other boats that were also having trouble finding sharks. So we took turns swimming with the shark. Anywhere else in the world seeing one whale shark is a great day, but here at Holbox Island, it is considered a very bad day of diving. With all the whale shark activity in these waters it is easy to be spoiled.

Surrounding the sharks in Holbox are hundreds of fish, they use the sharks to help them find food, and for protection from predators. Here they are feeding on the plankton on the surface. It is a flat calm day and the fish are churning up the water all around the shark.

Despite the slow shark activity, we had a good day at sea, we encountered and swam with 2 different whale sharks. But I was concerned about our shark encounters, this was not normal and I was fearing for our beloved sharks. Upon our return to the island, I was walking back to our golf cart to load up gear and head back to our beach house when I ran into a friend of mine Rafa Parria, one of the local researchers that is studying the whale sharks. He mentioned a recent aireal survey to count whale sharks, where they spotted a huge aggregation of whale sharks about 3 hours from here. I felt it was a good sign and that the sharks would soon be here.

Nat Geo shooter, Brian Skerry rented a spotter plane to shoot the whale sharks from the air.

The following 2 days brought us more of the same activity; flat calm seas, thick soupy plankton rich water, and very few whale sharks. Rumors of a large gathering of whale sharks out in blue water were becoming more and more frequent. My good friend Gerardo blogged about seeing them around Contoy, and then I spoke with National Geographic photographer, Brian Skerry. I ran into him while he was having dinner and he mentioned seeing something like 180 whale sharks out in blue water. That was all the information I needed, I decide it was time for us to check it out.

Contoy
We aquired the GPS coordinates and woke up super early for the ride out. The ride to Contoy, (the area where the sharks were) was going to take about 3 hours to get there. So we settled in, and got ready for our 3 hour trek. It was a beautiful ride out; a nice breeze, beautiful glassy seas, and we watched the sun rise, which was picture perfect.

A Holbox sunrise


Upon arrival we quickly spotted our first whale shark. We stopped the boat and prepared to enter the water, when 2 more sharks surfaced near by. I was pretty excited at how fast we found sharks, I thought "this is going to be a great day." (I had no idea at the time.) In the distance, I noticed that there were a lot of boats really close together. I was really curious, wondering why all these boats were right there in the same general area. At first I figured they were sharing sharks, but with all the rumors and us spotting 3 sharks so quickly, I felt it might be something else. I asked the captain to go and check it out just to satify some curiosity. I was not prepared for what we encountered when we motored up to the area...

Everywhere you looked were whale sharks, and I mean everywhere! We turned our boat off, and just stayed there staring at the sight before us. Dorsal fins, and tail fins, and the upper dorsal surfaces of sharks were all over the place. In just one area around our boat, I counted 40 plus sharks. Boats were spread out among us, all within a distance of about 3 football fields, around 25 boats in total. Every single boat was surrounded by sharks. It was an emotional moment for me and David, our boat captain.

Captain David has been taking people out to see sharks since Holbox's eco-tourism started, over 6 years now. He has been out almost everyday and he has had some great days out in these waters that has left him humbled, but he had never seen anything like this before. Both of us were almost in tears, ovewhelmed with the beauty of it all.


I was so blown away with the sight that I ripped my camera out of its housing, so I could shoot topside footage of the spectical. I was dizzy with emotions, trying to shoot everything. I have experienced many types of shark dives and have had some amazing days in the water, but this was easily the best day I have ever experienced. This was also a first in whale shark history. Never has such a large gathering of whale sharks feeding together ever been recorded, and we were there helping to document this historic day. We later found out that the reason for this gathering was because the fish were spawning and the sharks were there feeding on the eggs. Our guests that were with us were amazed but not really blown away, because this was their first trip out there, so they did not really know what to expect. To them I guess this seemed normal, but for those of us who have been coming out here for the past five seasons, this was a special day.


The day was beyond amazing, and we returned to port dizzy with excitement. On the ride home we ran into a school of golden rays and we jumped in to swim with about 200 rays. I was happy to see them, I had not seen a school this size in a couple of years. I was afraid that they had all been fished out. (The locals eat the golden rays here.) We jumped in and swam with them for a while. My buddy Jeff is a total ray freak and he was hoping hard for an encounter with them, but he left Holbox a day before, so I was a little down that he missed it. But I was also happy that the rays are still around in big numbers. It was a great way to end this amazing day.


The following morning we returned to Contoy and had more of the same EPIC action. But today there were more sharks, and I am not exagerating when I say there were more sharks, we had at least another 100 whale sharks join the fun, so it was easily over 300 sharks in the general area. It was mind blowing stuff. I dropped in with my camera to film the sharks and I filmed frame after frame of sharks feeding side by side. We literally had to be cautious when we ducked dived, because when we would surface to get a breath of air, we would surface underneath a shark, which happened a few times. There were just so many sharks in the water! I think one of our guests said, "It seems like there are too many sharks." It was so much fun. I remember floating there in the water, just thinking "how did I get so lucky to experience a day like this?" The only thing that comes to mind is 'time in the water.' Put in the time and great things happen.

The folowing days were more of the same, except the numbers died down. The feeding frenzy was ending. There were maybe 100 sharks hanging around, which is still an EPIC number of sharks, but after what we experienced the previous days, it was a slow day for sharkin. I have said it before, it is easy to get spoiled in Holbox.


SDM shooter Tom Burns killed it! He captured the entire event underwater, including shooting a cover shot for one of our upcoming issues.

On the last days of our adventure this season we decided to hang around closer to the island in the green water, which was a bit of a let down after our blue water experience with hundreds of sharks. I figured we had seen it all and was sort of preparing myself mentally for a let down. I was so very wrong. We had such a great time out there. The whale shark numbers around Holbox were right where they were supposed to be, and we encountered over 15 different sharks, with quite a few players. But today everyone really had an amazing time interacting with the manta rays. The manta ray numbers were at an all time high, and we saw over 30 individuals out there. The seas were flat calm, and the mantas, although normally skiddish, were behaving beautifully, so we were able to experience some amazing encounters with them all morning long.




The manta rays were really amped up and were breaching all over the place. I have been chasing after a breaching manta ray picture for years and I had decided that this was the day that I finally achieved my goal. So I went up to the crows nest and settled in for what was a long, long day in the sun. Shooting a breaching shot is so very hard to do. I would be looking one way, and them wham, a manta would breach behind me. Often the mantas will breach twice, which was how I was able to finally get my shots. Time in the water is what it takes, and I finally achieved my goal. Along with dehydration, and a bad sunburn, I shot three really bad images of manta rays breaching! It was one of the highlights of my trip.


This was the best of the three images. It was not a great picture but I was still stoked that I shot one. The manta ray is breaching and falling backwards back into the sea.

This island always surprises me. Every season I come out here, and I a never jaded or worried that it will be the same boring time, I always experience something new and different. It truly never is the same. It is such a beautiful place and I am always amazed and humbled by the beauty of it all... The island, the people, the sunsets and sunrises, and of course the main reason we are here, the sharks. We spent every day swimming with whale sharks, then we sat around in the evenings together, talking shark, drinking beers, and watching perfect sunsets. As I write this, I am imagining next season and the new surprises that are in store for us all... I truly hope many of you will be here to join us!


Holbox sunset

To learn more about our 2010 July trips to Holbox Mexico for the whale shark season, click here.


In the tropics you always get rain, here a passing thunder storm makes for a great photo op.


This was the view from our front door at our hotel room. Holbox is a beautiful island.

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