The idea of swimming with whale sharks made me nervous. I wanted to desperately but the memory of my bizarre reaction to a spinner dolphin in Costa Rica a few years ago haunted me, and I was afraid I’d humiliate myself, yet again.
I’d been completely and utterly irrational. I was in the water near Peurto Jiménez when I saw a dolphin swim toward me, its dorsal fin slicing through the water like a……. SHARK!
Reflexively, my body seized control. Adrenaline coursed through me while a lightning bolt of panic sent me back to the boat and up the ladder gasping for air. My guide couldn’t figure out what happened.
I felt like an ass. Intellectually I knew it wasn’t a shark but I hadn’t been able to stop myself. (This is what I get for watching reruns of Jaws.) Would I respond the same way with a whale shark? Let’s face it, it looks more like a great white than a dolphin. The logical me said of course not but the insecure me said… maybe.
The trip had been filled with beautiful sun-drenched days, spectacular sunsets, hikes, snorkeling, kayaking, swimming with sea lions, a lot of good food, and new friends. Our last excursion was the crescendo to an already unforgettable trip: A morning in the Bay of La Paz communing with the world’s largest fish.
First: Some Whale Shark Facts
Are whale sharks dangerous?
Despite what their name and size might imply, whale sharks are docile and barely seem to notice humans swimming beside them. It’s weird really, it was as if we were invisible.
Is a whale shark a whale or a shark?
Whale sharks are huge, hence the whale reference, but they are sharks. Unlike whales, they’re fish not mammals, they don’t breathe air, have cartilage instead of bones, and propel themselves through the water by moving their tails side to side instead of up and down. They’re also solitary creatures as opposed to swimming in pods.
What do they look like?
They have distinctive white dots and checkerboard markings which make them easy to find beneath the waves. Like the fluke of a whale’s tail or the stripes on a zebra, each pattern is unique. Researchers use advanced star-mapping technology to find members of the population and track their migration patterns. Some whale sharks have been known to travel thousands of miles to different feeding grounds.
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How big is a whale shark?
According to Ocean.org the largest whale shark ever recorded was a 65-foot-long female—twenty feet longer than the average school bus. Average size is 16 to 32 feet.
How much do whale sharks weigh?
It’s hard to imagine, but whale sharks can weigh 10 tons. That’s more than a full grown elephant.
What do whale sharks eat?
Whale sharks are filter feeders, surviving on the smallest creatures: plankton, squid, tiny plants, and other nibbles floating in the water. They swim slowly, mouths agape while 20 distinct filtering pods (mesh-like organs) strain the nutrients.
Sometimes they float perpendicular to the surface—a position described as “going vertical”—sucking in vast amounts of water and creating what looks like from above a small whirlpool. Their gills flush out the excess (nearly 1,600 gallons an hour).
Where do you find whale sharks?
Though endangered, you’ll find whale sharks all over the world in warm, tropical waters except the Mediterranean. They’ve been seen off Australia, Africa, Philippines, Maldives, Mexico, and Thailand, among other locations. They’ve been known to migrate thousands of miles in search of food.
What is a whale shark’s lifespan?
Researchers estimate that whale sharks may live 100 years or more. It’s not surprising really, considering they don’t mature until their 30s.
(sources: Oceana, World Wildlife Fund, Shark Research Institute)
La Paz, Mexico
La Paz is the capital of the Mexican state of Big Sur California, a bustling, quaint coastal town 90 miles north of Cabo San Lucas on the eastern side of the peninsula. (I didn’t have time to explore the city, but I can vouch for the deliciousness of the ice-cream at La Fuente on Paseo Alvaro Obregon across the street from where our ship, the Safari Endeavor, docked.)
The season for whale sharks in La Paz is between October and March when juveniles migrate to the bay for its temperate waters and abundance of food.
Because the whale sharks are endangered, large sections of the area are protected and monitored. The number of boats are limited as well as the time spent in the water and only locally licensed captains who understand the idiosyncrasies of the bay are allowed to take passengers.
Whale sharks skim the surface of the water to feed, making them prime targets for boats and captains must constantly be on the lookout. In addition, the approved region is designated by GPS coordinates. At one time, buoys delineated the protected areas, but they quickly became hazards, tangling the easy-going giants in their anchor lines and thus removed.
Swimming with Whale Sharks: What it was like in La Paz
Passengers aboard the UnCruise interested in seeing the whale sharks were split into small groups and scheduled throughout the day. I and five other guests were the first to go in the morning
Fun Baha, a local UnCruise partner, picked us up in the Carolina, a small passenger boat and our home base for the excursion. Sarah, our ship’s very energetic, husky-voiced naturalist, was our lead.
The journey to the protected area took about 15 minutes, giving us an opportunity to sort out our gear. (Uncruise provided us with wetsuits (which I wore on the boat), snorkels, and flippers for the duration of our seven-day journey.)
Once inside the protected area, Alex, Fun Baha’s guide, gave a short talk on whale shark 101 then went over the rules of engagement:
- Follow her directions at all times.
- Don’t touch a whale shark or let yourself be touched. We’re at fault if a whale shark gets too close.
- Stay at least nine feet from the shark.
- Snorkel closer to the head. The tail can do some damage if you accidentally get in the way.
Once briefed, we were on the lookout for our target megafauna. It wasn’t five minutes before we spied the tell-tale white spots of a whale shark glistening under the waves in the distance.
My breath caught with excitement and a dollop of dread. Please don’t let me freak out again.
The plan was to bring the boat alongside the fish as it swam, jump in the water and swim like one might run next to a slow-moving train. We’d stay in the water as long as we could keep up.
Per Alex’s instruction, the three of us who wanted to snorkel (the rest preferred to watch from the boat) sat at the edge of the swim platform at the stern of the Carolina. Snorkel, mask, and flippers on and ready to go. She pointed to the shark up ahead to our left. Seconds later, she waved us forward like a SEAL commander directing her team and then disappeared into the froth.
I pushed off from the boat and landed in a cocoon of bubbles and the shocking embrace of cold water. When my vision cleared, he was there: Large. Spotted. Glowing from the sun filtering through the murky blue. The other two guests and Sarah were close behind and for a moment we were a jumble of hands and flippers as we each tried to get a good look and not kick each other in the face.
The whale shark was big. Really big. Maybe 20 feet long and moving languidly through the water. A fraction of its size, however, I had kick hard to keep up. Thankfully, I was too captivated to be scared and the worry of reliving the shame of my Costa Rica encounter vanished.
For a moment, I lifted my head to locate Maria and was struck by the difference in views. Above the rolling waves, I could see our boat, my companions’ snorkels, puffy white clouds crossing a bright horizon. In contrast, only a few inches below the surface was a graceful behemoth gliding through its milky domain. Perhaps that’s what intrigues and frightens me about the ocean. It’s so alluring, yet there is so much going on I can’t see.
Our gentle giant banked slightly to the right and then put on the breaks, his lower half swinging like a slow-motion pendulum until he was upright. He’s going vertical!
His mouth opened wide and I could see a little tornado of spinning water form as he sucked in. When his mouth closed his gills rippled as if in a stiff breeze from his exhalation. Again, his mouth opened and closed, and as he did so he rotated until I could see his broad back and the stunning pattern of dots and lines that made up his unique signature.
Swimming again, he came toward us. We backed away furiously and to the side to get out of his way but moments later it seemed as if he were coming at us again. I wasn’t frightened, it wasn’t aggressive. But between the power with which he propelled himself and the waves sweeping me in his direction I thought for sure we were going to crash.
Again, and again we moved and he seemed to follow, swimming in a large circle, drawing in water in slow rhythmic gulps. He spent nearly 20 minutes allowing us to gawk at him.
And then tired of us I suspect, he swam away. Disappearing into the murky blue deep from whence he came.
I was UnCruise’s invited guest in the Sea of Cortez. Words and sentiment are my own.
All images and video were taken with GoPro’s Hero 7 Black waterproof camera.