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Swimming with Whale Sharks at La Paz in the Sea of Cortez




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  • Swimming with Whale Sharks Video


    Swimming with a Whale Shark, La Paz

    Swimming with a Whale Shark at La Paz




    Swimmming with Gentle Giants at La Paz in the Sea of Cortez

    La Paz, on the Sea of Cortez, Baja California Sur

    La Paz, on the Sea of Cortez, Baja California Sur



    Whale sharks, the largest fish on earth, are solitary animals that live in the open ocean. They are generally a rare sight, but during certain times of the year, aggregations of whale sharks occur. These seasonal aggregation sites occur in specific places around the world where there are concentrated zooplankton blooms or fish eggs from mass spawning events.


    One of these aggregation sites is at El Mogote, which is a little sandbar area just off La Paz on the Sea of Cortez. From roughly December to February, blooms of tiny crustaceans called copepods concentrate here from upwellings coming from deeper waters at the edge of the sand bar. Juvenile whale sharks come in from the Sea of Cortez to feed on this zooplankton. This is where I decided to go for a winter trip, to swim among the whale shark aggregation at La Paz.


    La Paz is a small city that partly caters to tourism. Its main draw is the ferry terminal that serves as the main route from Baja California Sur to mainland Mexico. La Paz has a promenade stretching along the water's edge, called the Malecon. The Malecon is filled with local vendors, souvenir shops, bars, restaurants, and tour operators. The tour operators mainly offer day trips to nearby Isla Espiritu Santo, where tourists can snorkel or dive with the resident sea lion colony, swim with dolphins, kayak around the island, or simply picnic on a deserted beach. The operators also offer snorkeling tours with the Whale Sharks during the winter months.


    Most of the Whale Shark tour operators have a simple setup. They take you out in small outboard "Panga" boats with a wetsuit and snorkel gear, and search for either large shadows or tail fins in the water. When something is spotted, they motor over to it and let you jump in!


    To help protect the whale sharks, only designated tour operators are allowed to boat in the area. This keeps the aggregation site eco-friendly, as the giant and slow moving sharks don't get hit by high boat traffic or become overrun by too many snorkelers. Scuba diving is also not allowed in the aggregation site.


    Having limited time for my winter trip, I booked with a tour company, Cabo Adventures, for my first day there. That way, if it got cancelled, I would still have time to rebook. Upon my arrival to the Jan Jose airport, I found that a storm had recently passed through and the winds were still too high to get the Pangas out. It would be a few days before the weather calmed enough to start the tours again. Luckily, on my last day there, the weather cooperated and I was able get out on a Panga.


    The tour guide said there can be around 40 whale sharks here in a given day and we just had to spot one. Unfortunately, the water was a little cloudy due to the recent storms, and the zooplankton was dispersed and diluted. This meant the whale sharks were more spread out than usual. Instead of lazily feeding in groups, they were out patrolling for the plankton.


    Once at the aggregation area, we scanned for giant shadows in the water and tail fins breaking the surface. It was very calm this day, so the tail fins were easy to spot. Within about 20 minutes, someone saw a fin break the water's surface and shouted "Shark!" so we jumped in! Within seconds, the world's largest fish was just a few feet away!


    Although it looked sluggish, lazily swinging its giant tail back and forth, it was moving pretty fast! We had to swim like greased dolphins just to keep up. Some members of the tour couldn't swim fast enough to catch up. After only a few minutes, exhausted and out of breath, we quit chasing and returned to the Panga. Once on the Panga, everything started over again, scanning for fins and then jumping in.


    I saw five Whale sharks during the encounter. They were all juveniles within the range of 15 - 25 feet and all were cruising and looking for zooplankton. Although it wasn't the best of conditions, swimming in the wild with the largest shark on earth is a unique experience. It definitely won't be a once in a lifetime event, as I plan on doing it again, perhaps at a different seasonal aggregation site.




    Pictures from the Whale Shark Swim


    Motoring out to El Mogote, the sandbar area where the whale sharks congregate.

    Motoring out to El Mogote, the sandbar area where the whale sharks congregate.

    A nearby Panga that has just spotted a whale shark fin.  The guide points to the fin while the snorkelers jump into the water.

    A nearby Panga that has just spotted a whale shark fin. The guide points to the fin while the snorkelers jump into the water.

    This is what the tail fins of the whale sharks look like when they break the surface.  Two snorkelers are trailing the whale shark.

    This is what the tail fins of the whale sharks look like when they break the surface. Two snorkelers are trailing the whale shark.

    Swimming with a Whale Shark, La Paz

    Swimming with a Whale Shark at La Paz

    Swimming with a Whale Shark, La Paz

    Swimming with a Whale Shark at La Paz

    Whale shark season is in the Winter months.  This is the Christmas Tree at La Paz.

    Whale shark season is in the Winter months. This is the Christmas Tree at La Paz. "Feliz Navidad"