Our time in La Paz has not been in vain! We have seen the Whale Sharks and have gone snorkeling with them. Now I can die happy.
Mike and I are, as a rule, not much for taking tours, but we learned last year on our Rainforest Adventure that sometimes it’s really the best way to see what you want to see. Last season up in Baja Concepcion, I kept hoping we would see a whale shark, but we never did and I was really disappointed. I wanted whale sharks and I meant to have them. La Paz is famous for its whale sharks, who come to the plankton rich waters around La Paz as young fish. They come here to grow into their status as the biggest fish in the sea, grazing like large docile sea cows in the warm, shallow, murky waters off the sand spit called the ‘magote’. Put all of your preconceived notions about ‘sharks’ on hold because these sharks are completely harmless, unless you happen to get in the way of their elegant tail.
If you walk along the malecón in the heart of La Paz during whale shark season, you’ll be faced with many guys hawking panga tours to go see them. We were having trouble deciding which tour outfit to go with and didn’t want to just throw caution to the wind and choose one. How could we choose? I’m going to give you the inside scoop on what you can expect if you go on a whale shark tour around here. That way when you come and want to swim with them, you can get a quality experience.
Our first move in hunting down the right tour provider was to get on the radio on the cruiser’s net in the morning and ask for a recommendation. We got two recommendations from a guy who has lived here for many years and apparently had personal knowledge of both groups. We chose Baja Expeditions, an outfit whose office is a few blocks from Marina de La Paz. It turned out to be an excellent choice.
First a few facts about how they do this whale shark tour thing here. The sharks are protected by the Mexican government. There had been too many boats going too fast, too many tour groups all at once and the sharks had been getting wounded by propellers and, in general, harassed. Poor sharks. No bueno at all. So now the area where the sharks hang out it is very protected. They don’t even let private boats in that area.
Unlike what we have experienced in other ‘protected areas in Mexico, they mean business about protecting these animals. Only 14 pangas of tourists are allowed in the protected zone at any one time, and the boats are tracked with a GPS attached to the boat. Not only that but there is actually a human being literally keeping track on a computer of which boats go where. In addition, while we were out there we were stopped by a boat of Water Guardians whose job it was to see that all the boats there were legitimately registered to do tours, everyone was wearing life jackets, and everyone was following the rules. So many rules are loosely enforced in Mexico that it took us by surprise to see this level of enforcement.
The first shark our guide spotted, a small one at about 3 meters, was outside the marked zone of protection. Our boat stopped and we got in the water to view the shark. A few minutes later the guide was on the radio explaining to the person on the other end that yes, his boat was outside the boundary; he was well aware of where his boat was. Apparently the shark had not read the rules. All was well since there is no rule about looking at sharks who swim outside of the large protected area, but, wow.
Along with the “14 pangas” rule, there is the “five people rule”. This rule states that only 5 people from any boat are allowed to be in the water viewing any one shark, and only one panga is allowed to be near any one shark at a time. This is a very important piece of knowlege for the would-be shark snorkler. Hold that one in your memory banks.
When we made our reservations we found out that this week was the beginning of the ‘off’ season for shark viewing tourism. This means that where last week the pangas took two hour shifts and tour guides could make reservations for a specific time slot in advance, this week they began the three hour shifts and the reservation process for tour guides was a bit looser. This was good for us in the end because we got three hours on the water with the sharks rather than two. The unfortunate part (which was really OK if you don’t mind sitting in a panga with cool people having a nice chat) was that while the dispatcher took reservations last week, this week it was a bit more of a roll of the dice which pangas would get out there when. I’m not exactly sure how this works on the back end, but here’s what we experienced as customers.
This is wildlife and this is Mexico, so as per usual, being flexible and just rolling with things without getting your knickers in a twist is paramount. We arrived at our scheduled time of 10:00AM at the Baja Expeditions office. They were hoping we could get scheduled for an 11:00 shift to view the sharks. As it turns out, we were on a waiting list and we were number 5. I couldn’t figure out why the staff seemed so over apologetic about not being able to give us a firm time when we’d be able to see the sharks. Although I’m reading between the lines here, it sounds like people complain when they have to wait and this staff bent over backwards making sure we understood how things worked and wouldn’t be disappointed. While I totally appreciated their communicating to us how it worked, I was sorry they felt so badly about it and it made me wonder if people had been less than gracious in the past.
Since everything is tightly controlled, when your boat is called you have to be ready to move immediately into the shark area. So we took the panga out to the end of the sand bar close to the entrance to the La Paz channel, nudged its nose up onto the sand, cut the engine, and waited. We waited for 2 hours before our turn came. Other pangas, full of tourists (key word: full), came and went. Our little group still waited.
When we were finally called we zipped out into the bay and made haste to the area where the sharks hang out cruising for plankton. Once inside that boundary, the pangas are allowed to go only 14 knots, which is hilarious because that feels so fast to us! This slow speed allows panga drivers to avoid hitting the sharks, who glide around just under the surface of the water. The guide and the driver start looking for sharks which they identify either through their big dark forms in the water, or their huge fins showing above the water.
The routine when a shark is spotted is to see which direction it is swimming, then stop the panga well ahead of the animal. You need to be ready to move off the boat the second the boat is stopped. Make haste getting over the side. Everyone slips into the water (careful not to splash too much because they are fish and might dive down and away from you). What I learned is to stick close to the guide. He knows what to do to see the shark to best advantage. Watch what your guide does and do that thing. They put you right in the path of the animal, who doesn’t care at all that you exist. Actually I’m not entirely sure they even see us. Their eyes are small and on the side of their heads. So basically just look straight ahead under the water until the shark appears.
Mike and I both made the mistake the first couple of times of thinking that the dark shadow on what turned out to be the sea floor was actually the fish, then being startled when it appeared right in front of us. There is nothing like coming face to face with a huge gaping maw coming right in your direction, even if you know you are not plankton. These are the biggest fish in the world, and even though the ones in La Paz bay are juveniles, they are enormous. The biggest one we swam with was 25-30 feet long.
The third shark we swam with emerged from the murk so close to me that I could have touched it. (Note- you aren’t supposed to touch them) It swam under me, less than two feet away, and I was worried its fin would snag me so I scrambled to get out of its way, because it’s huge and even if it’s not going to try to hurt me, those tails are big as they glide back and forth in the water. That was a moment of hilarity. I’m trying to swim away just a bit, also swim forward as fast as I can to keep up with the creature, and also take a film and also marvel at its beauty and the fact that I am actually here, right here in the water with this magnificent animal. There was a lot going on right then, let me tell you.
By the time I had scrambled out of range of the tail, the fish was passing me by and I had to fin for my life to catch up to it. These fish are fast. They look like they are swimming slowly, because for them, they are. But for us, it took every bit of fast finning to even keep up with the creature, much less catch it after it passed by. If you are lucky enough to be near the head, swim like a great white shark is after you to keep up with it. Otherwise you will soon be waving bye bye to its tail and honestly, you will want to swim next to it for as long as you possibly can.
Now, remember that piece about “only 5 people in the water at a time with any one shark”? Here’s where you want to be choosey about your tour group, maybe pay a little extra to keep it small, and where we got very, very lucky. Literally all of the other pangas out there had at least 10 people on them. Math is involved here so think carefully: only 5 people at a time in the water. Ten or more people in the panga. So that means all those people had to take turns getting in the water. You have a limited time on the bay and these are wild animals. They don’t read directions, they swim fast and they are too busy eating to care about your entertainment. If you have to divide up into groups then you have at most 1/2 of the opportunities to swim with a whale shark. If I had to sit in the panga and watch while another group got to swim with one of these magnificent animals, and then when my turn came the animal was gone, would I be happy? I submit to you that I would not. Not even a little bit. I might even cry.
Baja Expeditions had a minimum of 4 paying customers at 65$ each for each tour. That price is very reasonable and actually cheaper than many places. Much cheaper than some. That includes your snorkel gear and wetsuit, if you need those things, and drinks and snacks on the ride home. (Think Coke, Topo Chico, fruit, cookies, and chips.) It does not include tips and you’ll want to tip the driver and the guide.
Mike and I are only 2 people so we got on the radio and said we were looking for people to join us. We got one sailor who wanted to go and pretty much we were willing to just pay for the invisible 4th person if necessary. We got lucky and another couple signed up for our tour through the tour office, making a perfect party of 5. Exactly the right number for everyone to be able to go into the water at once. Winner!
A couple more things to think about: if you go in the off season and have to wait for a spot to open up, you might end up, like we did, hanging out in the panga for a few hours. Make the best of that. We thoroughly enjoyed the other people in our group. Bring snacks and drinks (although we had those on board the panga on our tour). There probably will not be a bathroom. People are pretty good at looking the other way if you need to use the beach. Make darn sure that your panga has a boarding ladder for getting out of the water. Had ours not had a ladder, I would have still been out there swimming for home. Oh, and our guide said no sunscreen was allowed. They are probably trying to protect the ecosystem from the damaging effects of the chemicals in a lot of sunscreen. Good for them! We had a nice bimini over the top of our panga, so no sunscreen required.
With these tips you are sure to have an unforgettable experience. I know we did.