One of the most popular activities in La Paz over the last few years has become the whale shark experience. More people than ever are opting to take a drive north from Los Cabos to La Paz to swim alongside gigantic Whale Sharks in the bay of La Paz.
How, Where and When
Driving up to La Paz from Cabo can be done in two different ways. You can head through the mountains up the east coast or go via Todos Santos along the Pacific Coast. You will find the winding Carretera Route 1 up the east coast and around the eastern foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna range very picturesque, but a much longer drive than the Pacific route. From Rancho San Lucas it is a simple matter of continuing north up Highway 19 and past Todos Santos, for well under an hour and a half. Once in La Paz, you can follow the signs for the Malecon, which is the waterfront promenade. There is a small marina from which the Whale Shark expeditions depart on the Southwest end of the Malecon.
As of 2015 private vessels are prohibited from visiting the Whale Shark areas, so it’s best to pre-book with one of the reputable (i.e. licensed and trained) tour operators there, who will also provide you with the snorkel gear you will need. These cold waters will make you grateful for a good wetsuit and the fins will help you glide along with your newfound undersea amigos!
This seasonal expedition can be enjoyed between November and March when the Whale Sharks make their annual pilgrimage to the bay of La Paz. They are lured by the rich nutrients the north winds blow into the winter waters of the bay. Some tour companies will quote availability from September to April, but the number of Whale Sharks will be lessened in the fall and spring months.
So, are they Whales or Sharks?
As far sharks go, Whale Sharks hold the record as the largest on earth. Although the species are technically carnivores, they are gentle giants whose favorite meal is plankton. They scoop up tiny plants, animals, and small fish with their giant, toothless, filtering mouths, much like a whale does. They swim and feed just below the surface of the water, making them easy to spot.
Whale Sharks originated about 60 million years ago. These behemoths can grow to a length of over 40 feet and can weigh as much as 79,000 pounds. The Whale Sharks in La Paz are most often between 22 and 32 feet in length, however, the locals claim having seen 60-foot individuals. Whale Shark longevity also falls into the whale spectrum, as varying reports list them as able to live anywhere from 70 to 130 years. The majority of those you will encounter in La Paz are relatively juvenile, in the neighborhood of 20 years old, while the adults and pregnant females prefer the open waters to the Bay of La Paz.
Be part of the Solution…
Whale Sharks were once plentiful in the world’s oceans but are now an endangered species protected under international and Mexican law. Wonder who their main predators are? If you guessed humans, you are absolutely right. Sadly, most sharks in the bay of La Paz sport numerous propeller marks and other man-made injuries caused by irresponsible tour operators.
The good news is that there are now regulations in place to protect these gentle giants. Tour guides and boat captains must take a mandatory 4-day training course and the bay will be policed to check for boat licenses. In the water, swimmers must stay 10 feet away from the shark’s head. Although not aggressive, Whale Sharks, like any undersea creature, can still turn on a dime and you don’t want to be inadvertently tail smacked! No more than 7 people can swim with one shark at any given time. Finally, no matter how tempting, there is NO touching of the animals allowed, as their skin is so sensitive to your touch it can leave them open to a life-threatening infection.
Let’s Do This!
Now that you the rules, let’s talk about the experience. First off, remember you present far more danger to the fish than the fish does to you, so you can feel comfortable about your personal safety. Remember the distance rule? An underwater camera or video camera will be an asset right about now, as you will want to relive the breathtaking moment when you look into the Whale Shark’s trusting eyes. Photographers/Videographers can also be hired through your tour operator if you prefer. Your photos and videos will:
- Make you an instant and fearless celebrity with friends and family back home.
- Provide lasting memories of your encounter with this graceful, endangered creature.
- Give you an opportunity to spread the word about helping protect Whale Sharks for future generations.
When planning your trip to La Paz, note there are a number of other day trips to nearby beaches and islands for those interested in even more adventure! Balandra Bay, Isla Espiritu Santo, and Isla Partida can provide exposure to such creatures as Seal Lions, Grey and Humpback Whales and Dolphins, but that’s for another post altogether!