Before dawn  

Our 4:30am wake-up call is followed by a two-hour journey requiring both a dune buggy and a boat. This sunrise Natural Habitat Adventures‘ excursion from Isla Holbox, located just north of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, is tinged with giddy optimism—and worry. We hope our boat ride through the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean will be rewarded with whale shark sightings—but the conditions have to be just right.

Our intrepid guides are only able to spot whale sharks if they are feeding on plankton near the water’s surface, which only happens if the weather is clear and conditions cooperate. For some of our fellow travelers—including Joe, a science teacher from New Jersey—this is a moment they’ve been waiting for their entire lives. Despite the early hour, our little boat crackles with nervous anticipation.   

Whale Shark in the Indian Ocean

© Alexis Rosenfeld

Luckily, the conditions are optimal. And by some miracle, our boat, one of some 30 vying for spots within the known feeding area, is the first to spot whale sharks. For 20 minutes, it’s just us—two boat captains, one guide, and five travelers—and the largest fish in the sea. In that time, each of us has the chance to leap into the water and, armed with flippers and snorkels, do our best to keep up with the gentle giants below.   

Open water

The idea is to launch into the water as a whale shark passes parallel to the boat. With eyes on the sides of their heads, whale sharks can’t see us if we’re in front of them, but timing our jumps is hard for this group of novices. I gracelessly slide into the water just in time to see a whale shark’s massive, plankton-collecting maw coming straight for me, and while I logically know that its throat is incapable of swallowing anything larger than a golf ball, it does nothing to mitigate my panic as I scramble around to the whale shark’s side.   

The contrast between the frenzy of jumping out of the boat is quickly followed by the eerie calm of swimming parallel to a creature that can be upwards of 30 feet long. Nothing can prepare you for the whale sharks’ size, speed, and grace—or how unbothered they are by the presence of humans. Even the most cynical and marine-averse among us can’t help but be blown away by a close brush with these marine giants. They float along, calmly observing us with their beautiful little marble eyes while small fish huddle close to the sharks’ large dorsal fins, and giant manta rays glide just beyond.   

Nature—and culture—on land   

For two days, we follow the same routine: rising early, journeying out in search of whale sharks, and diving as many times as we can before heading back to Holbox. The whale sharks are the highlight, but Holbox and the Yucatan peninsula offer vivid moments each day of our week-long trip.   

Isla Holbox, Mexico town

© Caroline Prince / WWF

Isla Holbox is the kind of place that makes you want to forsake a 9-to-5 lifestyle and abscond to the tropics forever. A car-free island, Holbox is a tiny strip of land populated by myriad bird species (including flamingos), welcoming locals, and an ever-increasing number of tourists. The restaurants are lively, the beaches pristine, and the whale shark an omnipresent motif at giftshops and in advertisements. The dichotomy between the remoteness of the open ocean and the bustle of the town is an engaging sort of whiplash, one that we welcome each time we return from an open-water excursion.   

Several afternoons are devoted to seaside walks, during which we scout for grey pelicans, herons, and cormorants. Enthusiasm for birdwatching varies among our group, but our guide, Fernando, succeeds in instilling a love of birds in all of us as he giddily spots one species after another, including two of the island’s famous flamingos.    

Unexpected natural wonders

One afternoon, we travel to the mainland to enjoy a cenote—a natural sinkhole resulting from collapsed limestone that exposes groundwater. These beautiful underwater caves, our guide Eric explains, were sacred to the Maya. He urges us to float around in silence, taking in the gentle sounds of dripping stalactites and echoing chambers. It’s a far cry from what many may consider a typical tourist experience in the region at resort-dense destinations like nearby Cancun and Cozumel. Cenote waters can reach depths of nearly 400 feet—and peering down into the clear waters below is an incredible experience for anyone not suffering from thalassophobia.   

Between the cenotes, the whale sharks, the many birds, and even a cuttlefish or two (spotted during an afternoon of reef snorkeling), this region highlights the nearness of remarkable nature to even the most built-up areas—if you know where to look.   

Now, several months after this magical little trip, this adamantly land-based human still daydreams about swimming with whale sharks, wandering the streets of a car-free island, and eating sandwiches on a small boat in the midday sun. She is currently planning her next marine excursion. 

By Caroline Prince, Senior Philanthropy Writer at World Wildlife Fund