Each winter, schools of the world’s largest fish, the whale shark, return to the Sea of Cortez. These massive sharks pose no threat to humans – they are filter feeders, which suck in enormous amounts of plankton and small fish as food. Some of the most popular attractions in nearby La Paz are boat tours on which guests have the opportunity to observe and swim with these beautiful creatures.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to join a group of six on a tour to swim with these gentle giants. We chose Club Cantamar, which operates out of the Pichilingue Marina just north of La Paz. Their rates are reasonable, at roughly $50 US per person for a 3.5 hour tour including snorkel gear and sodas.
The tour began 8:30 am with 20-30 minute boat ride from Pichilingue to the whale shark feeding grounds. Within a few minutes of reaching the turquoise blue water, we eyed telltale fins breaking the surface. Soon we could see a dark, spotted hulk sliding through the water. At nearly 10 meters in length and with an aggressively pointed tail and dorsal fins, there was no doubt that this was a whale shark!
The shark swam slowly, and many of us were eager – though a bit nervous – to dive in to see the beast up-close. The captain, however, urged us to be patient. He suggested that we wait to find a shark which was stationary to avoid exhausting ourselves. We spotted several other sharks swimming lazily around the boat and each time the captain asked us to wait. We were soon rewarded for our patience, as we came across two of the giant fish hovering below the surface. The crew quickly situated us with fins and snorkel gear, and we slipped into the water.
It was colder than expected and for a moment I wished I had rented a wetsuit, but that thought passed quickly as I approached the enormous fish. They were easily four meters long, hanging almost vertically with their tails descending. Their enormous mouths opened and closed, gulping huge quantities of plankton-clouded water. Though we knew they were not dangerous, it was unnerving to be so close to such gigantic creatures. We had been asked by the crew not to hang on to or touch the whale sharks, and we were careful not to interfere as we swam around them, continually impressed by their size and beautifully patterned skin.
Soon we climbed back aboard the boat, each of us smiling. We enjoyed sodas while spying several more sharks on the ride back to the marina. The encounter with the whale sharks was one of the most incredible and gratifying adventures we’d ever experienced, and I know I will never forget it. I can’t wait to go back next year!
By Kale Cowell