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ISLA HOLBOX :: MEXICO
As we walk from our seaside cabana toward the water, the salty ocean breeze dusts our faces. We wade out knee-deep in the turquoise water to board our panga. The anticipation in the air is palpable as we motor comfortably across the glass-smooth ocean. When the captain slows the engine, the excitement rises and we perch on the edges of the boat on high alert, searching the horizon for the telltale fins of the gentle giants we’ve come to visit.
We are just off the tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula near Isla Holbox, a delightful, little-visited island with streets of white sand and virtually no cars. Our mission? To swim with the world’s biggest fish, whale sharks, which gather off Mexico’s coast during the summer months to feed on plankton.
Having spotted a pair of these harmless behemoths, our captain positions our boat directly in their path. Outfitted with fins, mask, and snorkel, two of us and our guide slide off the edge of the boat. As the bubbles from our plunge dissipate into the water, we stare forward, waiting eagerly for the huge fish to appear.
Suddenly, our guide points animatedly. The whale shark emerges out of nowhere, square head coming nearly right at us, mouth open. Paralyzed by awe, we are motionless as the shark swims gracefully off to our side, seemingly docile and unafraid.
Our eyes dance, following the intricate checkerboard pattern of pale yellow dots and stripes on its skin, which shimmers in the sunlight. It’s a fantastical image, an underwater leopard. I feel like it takes a full minute for the shark to swim by, but as the tail fin sways past our masks, I realize that I had better start swimming myself, if I want this magical moment to last any longer.