I visited Southern Baja for the first time in 2015, and among the many cool things I did on that trip, swimming with whale sharks in La Paz was high up on the list. My now husband, Travis, introduced me to Baja (a place he had been frequenting since the mid 1990’s) and that first trip had me falling in love in more ways than one. I boarded the plane to Cabo as the girlfriend, and I went back to Texas as the fiancee. Both the proposal, and the whale shark encounter were memorable, in different ways, of course. Here’s everything you need to know about swimming with whale sharks. Marriage proposals not included.
Diving and Snorkeling in La Paz
La Paz is a short one hour drive from Todos Santos, and yet feels like worlds away. The city is much larger, and it can feel overwhelming in comparison to the small, quaint walking streets of Todos Santos. Yet if you know where to go, La Paz is home to some of Baja Sur’s most beautiful beaches, diving, snorkeling and wildlife.
La Paz is tucked inside a protected, north facing point on the Golfo de California, or Sea of Cortez. This is the ocean that Jacques Cousteau famously referred to as “the world’s aquarium” for its diversity and abundance of sea life. Unfortunately, in recent years, there has been much controversy over Mexico’s failure to prevent illegal over fishing and the loss of critical species. Nonetheless, breathtakingly beautiful experiences are still to be had.
In close proximity to the La Paz shoreline, you’ll find Isla Espiritu Santo, home of a famous sea lion colony, which you can snorkel or dive, as well as many other first-class dive sites. For our whale shark adventure, we snorkeled with Marlin Adventures, a random pick thanks to their excellent Trip Advisor reviews. In recent years, we’ve also come to love Dive in La Paz. This shop offers a 3-hour tour and is managed by a marine biologist, Alexia, who’ll partner your experience with education about the whales.
About Whale Sharks
What are whale sharks anyway? Diving with sharks sounds scary! Well, they aren’t your usual sharks with giant teeth, and they aren’t whales either. A whale shark is the world’s biggest fish. They have been measured at over 40 feet long, weighing in at 47,000 pounds. Unverified sightings say 75 feet. On average, an adult whale shark is 30 feet in length, hence the name “whale,” which refers to their big-as-a-whale size. They are the world’s largest non-mammalian vertebrates! That’s pretty amazing, huh? And since they’re so slow moving and easy going, you can swim alongside, you can get up close. No, they won’t eat you. The Whale Shark is one of just three filter feeding sharks, along with the basking shark and the megamouth, and they feed almost entirely on plankton.
Whale sharks like warm, tropical waters, and are rarely found anywhere the temperature is below 70 degrees. For this reason, the sharks hover worldwide around 30 degrees latitude. While they live in the open sea, whale sharks feed and give birth seasonally at several costal sites worldwide. These large gatherings near shore are referred to as aggregates. La Paz is one such feeding site, with juvenile whale sharks visiting here from winter to late spring each year. Additional Baja aggregates are found in Bahia de Los Angeles and Banco Gorda off the east coast of Cabo.
Whale sharks are attracted to La Paz’s north facing bay for the tiny sea creatures that get trapped there by the winter winds and currents, aka food! The aggregates here and in Bahia de Los Angeles are almost exclusively juveniles. These guys range from 18-24 feet long.
Whale Shark Tourism and Sustainability
I want to be a smart traveler, and as an animal lovers, I don’t want to be part of the problem. Sure, one can argue that nobody should be swimming with the whale sharks ever, and that’s fair. My personal experience has been that the tour operators in La Paz are mindful, respectful, and follow the regulations. Regulations protect the sharks, as well as the snorkelers.
- Tour guides and boat captains in La Paz must complete a 4-day training
- Each tour boat must be licensed
- No more than 7 people are allowed in the water with one shark at one time
- No more than 30 minutes total in the water for snorkelers
- Boats and people must stay at least ten feet away from the shark
- No diving allowed, only snorkeling
- No flash photography
- No touching allowed!
Thanks to the efforts of groups like Whale Shark Mexico, in partnership with non-profit organizations such as ConCiencia Mexico A.C., there is more policing of the waters and tour operators, and greater efforts are being made to educate all parties involved with whale shark eco tourism. In 2003, up to 66% of whale sharks spotted in the bay of La Paz had scars and other markings from outboard motors, this number was reduced to 26% by 2012.
My Whale Shark Experience
As my trip was in February, I wasn’t that stoked about diving in the 65-70 degree (19-22 C) water, so I opted for a snorkeling adventure instead. It’s much warmer near the surface, and in January and February, air temperature in La Paz is in the low 80’s. I still donned a full 3-4mm wetsuit, because I am a baby from Texas. Plenty of folks were out there in shorts and shirts, and they were just fine.
The little panga that took us out consisted of Travis and I, a nice couple from Seattle who had never even snorkeled before, and a family of four from Mexico, many of whom did not know how to swim. They wore life jackets. Here’s where I’ve got to explain a bit about adventures in Mexico…nobody’s going to tell you NOT to do anything. There won’t be a waiver to sign. Know yourself, know your limits, and you’re welcome to push them, or to say ‘no thanks.’ Some people love that kind of freedom. Others fear it and complain. It all works itself out. That gal from Seattle never even got out of the boat. Neither did mom and abuela from Mexico. The rest of the party jumped in the water the first time, and that was pretty much it. They still saw the whales up close and personal, and everybody had fun. This was an all levels, all are welcome trip.
Our personal experience was absolutely fantastic. Sure, it was a grey, cloudy day and visibility in the bay was low, but we saw what we came for. Our boat operator drove safely and carefully around the whales and the other boats. There were two other tour groups in the bay and each took care to communicate and respect each other’s space. Once we spotted a whale close by, the engine shut down, we jumped overboard, and we had a few glorious seconds to swim along side this giant creature until it swam off too deep, or too far away. If I remember correctly, we jumped in for a swim about 4 or 5 times. Exhilarating, beautiful and worth it.
If You Go
Be sure to choose a tour operator who has been certified by SEMARNAT, Mexico’s Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources. Your boat will fly a flag that shows their certification. We also like the added safety precaution of choosing a whale shark tour provider with a PADI certification. I know you’re not diving, but these shops have most definitely been through the ringer of both safety precautions and marine education.
Never hesitate to ask your tour operators to slow down. And be mindful that once a shark has been spotted by another boat, you may just have to wait your turn. While most reports say you’re 90% likely to swim with a whale shark if you book your tour December through March, don’t be that guy who’s not ok being in the 10%. This makes life miserable for everyone, and dangerous for the wildlife. Nature’s on its own schedule.
Tip your tour operator, and then give back to the whale sharks too, by adopting a shark though Whale Shark Mexico, or Whale Shark Research Project. Both sites also offer ways to volunteer and contribute to ongoing efforts in research and conservation. In fact, you can skip a tour all together and intern, or do a volunteer trip! The more we understand about these gentle creatures, the better we’re able to protect them.
Sara-Mai Conway is yoga and meditation instructor with Baja Surf Yoga, and a PADI certified diver who loves all things water-related. To join her on an adventure to Baja Sur, visit our retreats page for a schedule of upcoming events. Or…contact her to plan a custom trip to Southern Baja for your group of 6-20.