This past year, my husband and I have taken up snorkeling as a new hobby. One of the reasons we love snorkeling so much is that it renews our sense of wonder in the world. So much of our oceans remain undiscovered and mysterious. When exploring our oceans, we are truly vulnerable and exposed and that is exactly what makes it so much fun.
Since getting into snorkeling, it has been a dream of mine to swim with whales. But literally, I have had dreams about it. Swimming alongside a blue or grey whale would be a dream come true. However I know that it is very difficult to come across these animals in the wild, and even more difficult to be in the water at the same time as them. Then I started to see photos of people swimming with whale sharks popping up all over the internet. It looked like the most amazing experience and I quickly became obsessed with the idea of swimming with whale sharks.
What to Consider Before Swimming with Whale Sharks
Whenever interacting with wild animals, it is important to do your research. Animal tourism is notorious for mistreatment of animals, whether they are in captivity or not. Whale sharks are native to several oceans of the world, including many in Asia, Africa and off the coast of Mexico. As popularity for this activity increases, so does the potential for animal exploitation. In the Philippines for example, tour directors will dump fish in the water early in the morning to keep whales in the area. Many tours are known for allowing hundreds of snorkelers in the water at once, creating a stressful environment for the animals. The probability that a whale shark will get injured is vastly increased when there are too many people and boats in the water.
How Mexico Protects Whale Sharks
When we booked our excursion with Cabo Adventures, we were conscientious about what we were doing. Whale sharks are commonly found in the bay of La Paz, and Mexico has strict regulations about how people can interact with these creatures at one time. It was evident that Cabo Adventures (and all the other tour groups on the water) took very important steps to protect these animals and their environment.
Only a certain number of boats are allowed in the bay at a time, and each boat is limited to a certain number of passengers. The boats must be small, you will not see giant tour boats out in the bay of La Paz. Once a whale shark is spotted, there may only be 5 snorkelers (and a guide) in the water with the shark at one time. Snorkelers are prohibited from touching the whale sharks and the guides cannot allow anyone back in the water if they have tried to touch the whale sharks. We were even provided with special biodegradable sunscreen to keep from polluting the water.
Below are a few important questions you should ask before swimming with whale sharks:
- Are the whale sharks fed in order to keep them in the area, or do they choose to return naturally?
- How many boats are allowed in the area at one time? How is this regulated?
- Are people allowed to touch the whale sharks? How close are people allowed to get to the whale sharks?
If you feel uncomfortable about any of the answers you receive in response to these questions, you should not partake in swimming with whale sharks in that country. Although this activity is a bucket list item for many, it is important to make ethical decisions in order to preserve this amazing experience for future generations. Whale sharks are on the list of endangered species and their numbers are diminishing. We owe it to them to make thoughtful choices.
Our INCREDIBLE Encounter with Whale Sharks
From beginning to end, we had an amazing experience swimming with whale sharks in the bay of La Paz with Cabo Adventures. The trip from Cabo San Lucas to La Paz was about two hours long and our guide packed everyone sandwiches and juice boxes for the ride. Throughout the ride, our guide provided so much information about whale sharks and the ways Mexico protects them. When we arrived in La Paz, we got our gear and walked out to the docks where we boarded our boats. As mentioned earlier, there were only 10 passengers per boat.
Once aboard, it was only about a 5-minute boat ride until we were in the bay. We then began looking for the whale sharks. There was no guarantee that we would find any, but our guide Cesar was extremely confident that we would find them since he had encountered many the previous two days. It wasn’t long until we saw the tail fins sticking out from the water and large shadows swimming just beneath the surface. Once we spotted the whale sharks, it was time to prepare for the dive in. We were told to be prepared to dive in as soon as a whale shark is spotted because the boats have to maintain their distance from the sharks.
An Unforgettable Experience
The moment before the first dive was slightly scary, but our nervousness vanished as soon as we entered the water. You will immediately notice that the whale sharks are perfectly content swimming and eating. They do not seem to pay any attention special to humans. Depending on their mood, they can be swimming around or staying in one place eating. We much preferred swimming with the ones who were eating because you could just swim next to them for a good 5 to 10 minutes without having to work too hard. At one point though we got in the water with one who was circling our boat. Our guide (who was an excellent swimmer) led us on a chase of the whale shark. I’m sure you can imagine how exhausting this was – keeping up with a 30-foot-long fish is not exactly easy.
We forgot our GoPro back in California, but it turned out to be a blessing because we were truly present throughout the entire experience. Our guide had his GoPro and we bought photos/video from him after the trip. To be honest, his photos and videos turned out way better than ours would have anyway. I highly recommend leaving your GoPro behind in order to really enjoy the experience.
Facts About Whale Sharks
- Whale Sharks are not whales, they are sharks! That means that they are fish and not mammals. Whales swim with their tail fins moving up and down, while sharks move their tail fins side to side.
- And because sharks are fish, that makes whale sharks the largest fish in the world!
- Like other sharks, whale sharks do not have bones. Their skeletal system is entirely cartilage (like what holds together our ears and noses).
- Whale Sharks eat all day long by sucking up plankton and filtering out water through their giant gills.
- The spots on the back of a whale shark are similar to human fingerprints – no two are exactly alike!
- Whale Sharks actually have about 300 teeth (they are very teeny tiny, and they are rarely used).
- Whale Sharks reach sexual maturity at approximately 30 years old. Because it takes so long for them to reach maturity, it is longer for these animals to reproduce. This puts the whale shark in danger of extinction as fisherman often catch baby whale sharks in their nets.
Swimming with whale sharks was one of the best experiences of our lives so far. Although we have crossed this off our bucket list, we know that this is something we would gladly do again. I hope that this guide has encouraged you to try something daring and adventurous. It is also my hope that you do thorough research before participating in any type of animal tourism. Check out the video I made from our trip and comment below if you would be brave enough to swim with the world’s biggest fish!