Call me Henry.
Captain Ahab may was preoccupied with his white whale, but my oceanic obsession has always been a 40 foot long spotted fish with an insatiable appetite for plankton and krill. Ever since I first leapt from a dive boat 15 years ago and just missed spotting a passing whale shark, seeing one in the wild has been pretty high up on my bucket list. Once Darcie and I made plans to explore Southern Baja over the President’s Day weekend, I was thrilled to realize that while regulations prevent SCUBA encounters with whale sharks here, seeing them with snorkel gear was nearly guaranteed!
Between the months of October and March, whale sharks come into the relatively warm waters of the Sea of Cortez, and are often spotted in the calm waters of the La Paz Bay. Local tour operators have definitely realized that tourists will pay big bucks to view these fish, and you can’t walk down the esplanade without seeing signs everywhere advertising boats to take you out. We’d booked a double tour, with an excursion out to Espiritu Santo Island for some snorkeling with sea lions, followed by the chance to get wet with the sharks. The tour started out early morning from the La Paz beach on a fairly comfortable boat. We had both a guide and a driver, both who were smart enough to have brought warm clothing. With temperatures in the high 60s, it was definitely a chilly and windy 25 miles out to the island.
Within 5 minutes of leaving the beach, we were already stopping to check out a pod of 10 or so bottlenose dolphins that were hanging out at the entrance to the bay. After watching them for a few minutes we kept going for another 30-45 minutes. The wind noise made it tough to talk, but Darcie and I kept grinning at each other with excitement about what we were about to see, or maybe it was just the sheer joy of not being in the office.
Our first stop was to see a seabird colony near an old pearling station. The smell was just like every other bird colony I’ve seen…definitely better left to the imagination than described here. Right after the smell hits you, the noise of the birds replaces the roar of the motor and I could start to identify the various species among the hundreds of birds. My favorites were the frigate birds, and we could even see some resting males with their signature red pouches on display. Other species were common gulls, cormorants, and pelicans, all hanging out doing their own thing.
We headed towards the northern tip where the sea-lion colony was on the islet Los Islotes. On the way we could see beaches with kayak camps set up..something to look into for the next trip. The guide took a lot of pleasure showing us a face shape in the rock that he called “The Mask of the Holy Sprit”. He did a pretty good job of showing off the geology of the island; the different eras of volcanic activity that alternatively both deposited sediment, lava and tilted the layer cake.
Finally we arrived at Los Islotes, and could see dozens of sea lions of all sizes playing on the rocks. They seemed completely unconcerned with our presence; great since we were about to jump in the water with them! We found a relatively sheltered area, and put on our wet suits (did I mention that the water was COLD?) and snorkeling gear. Once the first shock of the water temperature subsided, it really wasn’t all that bad. The lions were extremely friendly, and came up to us looking for attention. We paddled ourselves down the rock walls, watching out for the larger males and eventually found ourselves swimming into a sheltered cave. Darcie was the first to notice that we had SCUBA divers beneath us. We’d considered doing this same dive the next day, but with the water temperature, quickly agreed that one day of cold immersion was enough! 30 minutes was about all that our bodies could handle at these temps, and we climbed back into the boat, with everyone trying to find a sunny spot. We headed back down to find a deserted beach for a delicious lunch of ceviche and sandwiches.
After lunch we headed back towards La Paz for the part of the trip I was looking forward to the most. Before we got there we ran into another pod of dolphins, this time with about 100 spinner dolphins. These guys were amazing! They kept hanging out around the boat, leaping out of the water, and just skimming beneath the surface. We probably spent about 15 minutes slowly motoring around to keep them in view before they took off for good.
Finally the captain heard on the radio that a whale shark had been spotted, and we were off to find it. There were already 3 or 4 boats that had gotten there first, but we immediately got in line and divided into two swimming groups. Even though we’d be in the water with about 6 other people, there was plenty of space so it felt like that it was just you out there. It took a second after jumping in the water to get your bearings. The guide kept yelling “over here!” and when I finally figured out what he was pointing at, it was amazing that I could have missed something so big and so close! The shark was HUGE; at least 2.5 body lengths, possibly 3. It was swimming anywhere from 5-20 feet beneath the surface at a slow cruise that we could easily keep up with a bit of moderate finning. It wasn’t bothered by our presence at all, and I was able to swim all around it, noticing ramoras swimming beneath it, and other cleaner fish hanging out near its huge mouth. It had several distinct markings, probably scars from boat propellers. Our guide said that between the pattern of the spots and the scars, it was easy to distinguish one individual from another. We spent about 5 minutes swimming with it, and then it was another group’s turn. We watched other boats discharge their swimmers and could easily follow the path the shark was taking. After a bit, we got another chance, and the second time was even more amazing than the first. With the first surge of excitement out-of-the-way, it was easy to just relax and observe the shark swimming gracefully with swishes of its huge tail. Eventually this had to end though, and we all piled back in the boat for the short ride back to the beach and beers.