Riding wave of ecotourism without harming giant fish is balancing act for Yucatan haven
By JIM THARPE
Cox News Service
Monday, October 03, 2005
ON 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 2-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
Word, however, soon spread, and more and more "turistas" have found their
"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
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 1 mile wide and 15 miles long, much of it mangrove
"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
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
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
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
"We have to be careful that we don't end up loving this fish to death,"
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
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 , 6 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
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