Just off the tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is a small island relatively untouched by tourism. Isla Holbox might go unnoticed entirely, except for some high-profile visitors that frequent its warm ocean waters each summer. At an average 40 feet long and 15 tons, the presence of these stately filter feeders is hard to ignore. These are gentle whale sharks—not whales at all, despite their size, but actually the world’s largest fish. Docile and unafraid, they allow us to swim close enough to observe the checkerboard pattern of pale white dots and stripes covering their thick gray skin. If you're looking for a fish tale to trump all others, this is it!

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Why We Love It

Alongside naturalist Expedition Leaders, swim with enormous, friendly whale sharks in the clear Caribbean waters

Explore idyllic Holbox Island, a traditional fishing community with streets of white sand and virtually no cars, in contrast to the crowded resorts down the Yucatan coast

Visit Isla de Los Pajaros—"Bird Island"—teeming with frigates, flamingos, pelicans, herons and egrets, and snorkel over the world's second-largest barrier reef

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Day by day Itinerary

Swimming with Whale Sharks

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Day 1

Cancun - Puerto Morelos

Our whale shark tour begins on arrival at Cancun airport, where you are met and transferred to our hotel. Enjoy a welcome dinner and orientation with our Expedition Leader this evening. (D)

Day 2

Isla Holbox

After breakfast, we drive three hours north, bound for Holbox Island. Along the way we stop at a freshwater cenote, one of the Yucatan’s most enticing natural wonders, where those who wish may enjoy a refreshing swim or snorkel. Cenotes, fed by subterranean rivers, were sacred to the Mayans as entrances to the mythical underworld, and were their only source of fresh water in the jungle. As we continue on our journey, we'll stop at a Mayan community to enjoy a picnic lunch. Once we reach the north coast of the peninsula, we board our boat for the short ride to Holbox Island. Our tranquil destination is home to the tiny fishing village of Holbox, unspoiled beaches, white sand streets and abundant fresh seafood. Our hotel is set amid palm-studded gardens and fronts an inviting sandy beach. (B)(L)(D)

Day 3

Isla Holbox

After an early breakfast, we set off in search of the whale sharks that migrate to this area between May and September. We generally find them 20 to 25 miles offshore, so our boat ride can take up to two hours. When we locate them, we enter the water two at a time with our guide, who helps us swim within arm's reach of the whale sharks for several minutes at a time. Whale sharks aren't actually whales at all, despite their enormous size—they are the biggest fish in the world, reaching up to 45 feet in length and weighing some 15 tons. They feed on plankton near the water's surface and are easily visible with their distinctive gray and white patterned skin. To be underwater with these enormous, gentle creatures is an experience that many describe as life-altering. We may also spot giant manta rays and bottlenose dolphins during our boat rides. This afternoon we travel by motorboat to Isla de Los Pajaros, a protected mangrove island that is a nesting sanctuary for flamingos, pelicans, roseate spoonbills, frigatebirds and cormorants. (B)(L)(D)

Day 4

Isla Holbox

A second excursion offshore offers another magical encounter with the whale sharks. After lunch, we discover the island Holbox-style—in golf carts! Our guides, who have years of experience exploring the island, know just where to take us to observe local wildlife and tropical birds in their natural environment. (B)(L)(D)

Day 5

Puerto Morelos

Bid farewell to Holbox Island's languid charms this morning as we cruise back to the mainland and return to the Azul Beach Hotel. A submarine paradise awaits as we snorkel over the second-largest coral reef in the world, located right in front of our hotel! This is the northern end of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef that stretches some 620 miles to Belize, an underwater ecosystem with myriad types of tropical marine life. Along with colorful coral and huge schools of fish, we're likely to see sea turtles, manta rays and sponges in the transparent Caribbean waters. This fragile ecosystem, like most of the world's coral reefs, is threatened by human impacts of pollution and global warming, and we leave more conscious of the critical need to protect its astounding biodiversity. This evening we'll enjoy a farewell dinner together. (B)(L)(D)

Day 6

Puerto Morelos - Cancun

Our whale shark adventure comes to a close as we leave the Riviera Maya behind and transfer to the airport this morning for departing flights. (B)(L)(D)

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