Snorkeling with Whale Sharks in La Paz

Last week, Jocelyn and I took the three-hour drive from Villa del Faro to La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur. After about seventy minutes on the dirt coastal road that runs along the East Cape, one reaches the asphalt road near La Ribera, which connects to Mexico’s Route 1, a well-paved highway that runs from San José del Cabo all the way north to Tijuana (1,654km away). Before heading anywhere near that far, however, we turned off at the La Paz exit, to explore the port city home to over 200,000 people.

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If you look at a map of the geography surrounding La Paz, you can see that it is quite sheltered from the ocean, with a chunk of land protecting it on the east side, a thin strip closing in from the west, and a long bay running to the north, all this in the relatively calmer Gulf of California. In 1535 the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés tried to start a colony in the area, but it wasn’t fully settled till over sixty years later.

Today, the main tourist attractions to La Paz are marine in nature, although there are some golf courses around. Sandy beaches, nearby islands fit for kayaking trips, sport fishing off the Baja Peninsula coast, and snorkeling bring in plenty of visitors; the latter being the main reason Jocelyn and I drove up. Sea lions and whale sharks can each be seen in different areas a short boat-ride from the main marina, and dozens of outfitters offer tours to snorkel with these interesting animals.

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Jocelyn and Seth with an educational plush toy whale shark. Photo by Anna Cabo

We had been recommended to contact VIP Tours La Paz because of their attention to the environmental concerns that come with taking people and boats out to see wildlife up close: it is important to refrain from activity that will change the normal behavior of wild animals, or otherwise damage their health. To prevent any negative impact, Anna, the leader of VIP Tours La Paz, limits her whale shark group size to 6 people, provides biodegradable sunscreen (see this post about being reef-friendly), and emphatically forbids the touching of the whale sharks, takes her time to explain how to best swim alongside the biggest species of fish in the world. Mexican regulations limit the amount of tourists able to swim with a whale shark at a given time to 6 people and 1 tour guide; Anna only allows 2 guests to swim at a time, rotating between the different people in her boat so that the whale sharks don’t feel crowded, but also to give each pair of guests a much better experience in the water.

Even though we only swam with juveniles – adults spend their time in much deeper waters, and La Paz is known as a feeding ground for young whale sharks to grow up in – it was incredible to float alongside such giant creatures as they looked for plankton and krill to swallow. Sometimes instead of floating we had to really swim hard to keep up, as you can see in the video above, which made the outing good exercise in addition to a fun way to see a big, beautiful animal up close. Although the video makes the water look very cloudy (visibility wasn’t the best that day), once you’re right next to the whale shark you can see every white spot on their dark grey bodies, and admire their gaping gills, tiny eyes, and long, classic shark-shaped tail.

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Photo by Anna Cabo

Guests staying at Villa del Faro may consider going on this tour as a day trip, leaving for La Paz early in the morning and returning in the evening. You’ll find the excursion well worth it!

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