Yucatan haven's balancing act: Whale shark ecotourism

The whale shark can grow up to 50 feet long and weigh up to 15 tons. It's non-agressive and poses no threat to humans, feeding mainly on plankton, sardines and anchovies.
HOLBOX ISLAND, Mexico -- Millions of people will soon flock to the Georgia Aquarium to see two whale sharks, the largest fish in the world, swimming behind a two-foot-thick window.

But 800 miles south of downtown Atlanta, in this sleepy Yucatan fishing village, a few, plucky souls already have found a way to get chummy with the mysterious creatures in the wild. They dive into the warm waters where the Gulf of Mexico mingles with the Caribbean to swim alongside the gentle giants, which can grow to the size of a school bus.

Every summer, whale sharks arrive by the hundreds off this barrier island, about 100 miles north of Cancun. A few years back, a handful of sandal-shod adventurers discovered the remote town and the heart-hammering thrill that comes from swimming with the polka-dotted sharks that local fishermen call "dominos."

Word, however, soon spread, and more and more "turistas" have found their way here.

"Before, it was kind of a hippie and old-man island," said Rafael De La Parra, a diving guide and research biologist. "Now, a lot of young people are coming here."

Scientists believe that the May-through-September gathering of whale sharks off Holbox could be the largest assemblage of its type in the world. The sharks are usually elusive, solitary animals, but periodically congregate to feed. No one knows where they come from to get here. No one knows where they go when they leave.

The filter-feeding sharks -- they eat plankton, not people -- have spawned a mini-ecotourism boom on this rustic speck of land in just three years. Some think the rush of tourists and money will vastly increase once the Georgia Aquarium opens Nov. 23.

The $200 million-plus fish tank will be the largest aquarium in the world and the only one outside Asia to display whale sharks. More than 2 million people are expected to visit the aquarium each year. Those inspired to see the huge sharks in the wild likely will find their way to Holbox, a bumpy, three-hour taxi ride from Cancun coupled with a 20-minute ferry crossing from Chiquila.

Victor Belacques, who has lived here for 20 years, fears the influx of visitors will overwhelm the small town, which occupies a few square blocks on the island, which is one mile wide and 15 miles long, much of it mangrove swamp.

"We have no crime, no worrying," said the barefoot Belacques, who makes musical instruments, plays guitar and guides tourists. "There are no skinny dogs here. There are no beggars, no hungry children. But things are changing."

An antiquated town

In many ways Holbox (pronounced HOLE-bosh) seems stuck in time.

The village of 1,500 is part of the huge Yum Balam ecoreserve, the island has dirt streets and doesn't allow cars. Locals get around on foot, battered bicycles or a fleet of aging golf carts. Visitors awake to the sound of roosters. Dogs wander freely through the few open-air eateries and sleep fearlessly in the street.

The fishermen's small wooden and stucco houses have roofs of tin or thatched palm fronds. A walk around the village a few weeks ago found Holbox residents lining up to buy freshly made tortillas, mending fishing nets or chatting with neighbors at the island's handful of small stores. One middle-aged man reclined in a hammock strung through the middle of his living room and sang as he held his giggling child above him in the sweltering midafternoon heat, the heat index on that day reached 117 degrees.

Locals say the modern world has come slowly to Holbox. A few decades back, the island did not have electricity. Today, it has three small Internet cafes and a handful of hotels that cater to tourists. But not everyone is happy with the changes.

One local hotel operator recently brought Rottweilers to the island, Belacques said. The dogs promptly chased off a large flock of flamingos that frequented the beach. Belacques worried that a small passenger plane now landing at the grass-strip airport will soon scare off nesting birds.

"These are the things that happen when progress comes," Belacques said with a shrug.

Tons of garbage arrived with the fledgling tourist industry. At one end of the island, the town's starkly beautiful cemetery is flanked by mountains of bulging, black trash bags, clawed at by vultures and large iguanas.

Some residents worry that the current trickle of tourists could become a flood that will forever change their island. About 6,000 tourists visited the island last year; only a fraction of those were from the United States.

Most Holbox residents, including the mayor, have never heard of the Georgia Aquarium or its benefactor, Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, who is dipping into his home-improvement fortune to fund most of the facility's construction cost. The aquarium also is spending about $50,000 a year to underwrite whale shark research off Holbox and assist the Mexican government in its efforts to protect the fish.

When a reporter told Mayor Gamaliel Zapata Moguel about Marcus spending more than $200 million to build an aquarium to display whale sharks, the disbelieving mayor at first questioned the figure.

When convinced it was real, he shook his head and said: "Tell him (Marcus) we need $1 million to clean up our dump."

Tourism fuels concerns

A half-dozen boatloads of well-heeled European and U.S. visitors boarded 20-foot-long open craft called "pangas" at a Holbox dock on a recent morning and headed northeast toward the island of Contoy. There, they spotted a 15-foot-long whale shark busily stuffing itself at the surface on plankton. A large school of bait fish splashed noisily around the shark.

It was late in the whale shark season. The big fish were scarce, and there was fierce competition among tour boats. At one point, six boats circled one animal as snorkelers went overboard two at a time with a guide. Boat captains shouted at each other in Spanish as they jockeyed for position.

Several tourists swam directly over the shark. One grabbed a dorsal fin, something strictly prohibited by guidelines intended to protect the fish.

Watching the spectacle from a nearby research boat was Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., whose Holbox research is partially funded by the Georgia Aquarium.

"We have to be careful that we don't end up loving this fish to death," Hueter said.

About 70 local fishermen carry tourists out to snorkel with the sharks, which swim near the surface, scooping up plankton in their Mini Cooper-sized mouths. Those who pay $80 to $200 per person for an hour-and-a-half boat ride through stomach-churning water to swim with the whale sharks often come back chattering like children. Many vow to return.

"It's the pure magic of watching this huge animal," said Eli Martinez, editor of the Texas-based Shark Diver Magazine, who led an expedition to Holbox this summer. "It feels surreal, like it's almost impossible to be in the water with an animal this large, and it's alive and it's breathing and it's thinking, and it's completely harmless."

Ecotourism stirs debate

Some scientists think ecotourism, if conducted properly, could be the whale sharks' best friend.

At a September conference on Holbox, marine biologist Rachel Graham, who studies the sharks in Belize, said that one whale shark is worth about $2 million in ecotourism over its lifetime. A dead shark (they are a food source in Taiwan and the Philippines) is worth only about $7,000, she said.

Tour operators must obtain permits and complete basic training on things like whale shark biology and how to keep swimmers and boats a minimum distance from the sharks, six feet for swimmers, 30 for boats.

But some scientists worry about the inadequate enforcement of regulations meant to protect the sharks as more tourists take to the waters off Holbox. And many fear that huge numbers of tourists will adversely affect the sharks.

Famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle sounded a note of warning at the whale shark conference, which brought Mexican bureaucrats and scientists together with fishermen-turned-tour guides.

The three-day gathering tried to determine how best to capitalize on the tourism potential of the island's sharks without harming the big fish. Fifty years from now, Earle told attendees, people will look back and judge how Holbox handled this pivotal moment.

"They will salute you for being smart, for being wise, or they will say, 'They had a chance and they missed it,' " said Earle, who celebrated her 70th birthday swimming beside the big sharks just a few miles offshore.

If you go

The cost of seeing whale sharks off Holbox Island:

  • Direct flight (May-September) from Atlanta to Cancun: $500-$700
  • Taxi to Chiquila: From Cancun airport, $120-$240; from Cancun bus station, $70
  • Bus from Cancun to Chiquila: About $6 (cheap, but schedule is unpredictable)
  • Ferry from Chiquila to Holbox: About $4
  • Holbox hotels: $35-$200 per night
  • Tour boat from Holbox to swim with the sharks: About $80 per person (from Cancun it can be $200)

Jim Tharpe writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail: jtharpe@ajc.com.

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