Swimming with the (Whale) Sharks

The last item on our must-do list while we were in La Paz was to book a tour to snorkel with the whale sharks. We had talked to other cruisers from the Nada who recommended going on a snorkel tour to see the whale sharks with Tuna Tuna Tours. Kristin contacted them around Thanksgiving and tried to book a tour on a Saturday or Sunday to avoid the work days. Unfortunately, because of the northerlies that materialized every weekend for several weeks, our tour date just kept getting pushed out from one week to the next. Finally as Christmas break arrived when we planned to head south for warmer weather, we delayed leaving La Paz and booked a tour on a Monday. It really only delayed us a half of a day since yet again the port was closed due to the weekend northerly winds.

On the positive side, by the time we finally got a viable day to take the tour, our friends Bernard and Maeve on Honu had arrived in La Paz and we decided to take the tour together.

“Am I going to be cold?” Kristin worried as she opened the hatch on Sonrisa and peered out into the cool gray morning air.

“They provide wet suits, right?” I answered.

“Yes, they said they will have wet suits for us.”

“You’ll be fine then.” Kristin is always worried about being cold and had never worn a wet suit. Her concern was justified as the temperature has dropped in La Paz at least 10 degrees since we first arrived. The days were only getting up to the low 70’s (F) and the water temperature was about the same. “It’s a little cold when you first get into the water as the wetsuit fills with water, but once it’s wet your body heat warms the trapped water and you’re surprisingly comfortable. Bring your swim skin as an under layer. It will also help get your wetsuit on and off.”

The Tuna Tuna boats were stationed literally a few feet away from Sonrisa’s slip at Marina de La Paz, so on Monday morning all we had to do was to roll out of bed, brew up some coffee, and stroll down the dock to the Tuna Tuna pangas. There we met Bernard and Maeve and another couple on the tour with us. The guide explained that we’d load up the boat and head out of the canal to the shallow end of the bay where we will wait until it’s our turn to enter the whale shark area. They only allow a few boats at a time to the whale shark feeding grounds to manage the potential impact of the boat tours to the whale sharks. Once we entered the grounds we’d slowly drive through the area until we saw some whale sharks, then the guide would get in the water with us and direct us toward the sharks. She’d let us know if we needed to move, if we got too close and when it was time to go.

Kristin and I both brought our own masks, fins and snorkels while Bernard and Maeve being divers had all of the gear including full wetsuits. Our tour guide Sophia made the rounds to hand out equipment.

“We just need wetsuits.” I said, holding up my mask and fins to show our guide.

“This one is for you and this one is for you,” she replied, handing us each a pair of lightweight shorty (short sleeve and short legged) wetsuits.

“You’re going to be cold.” I worried to myself as Kristin folded her wetsuit onto her lap and took her seat in the panga.

The panga scooted out of the harbor and across the anchorage to a beach at the entrance of the La Paz canal where we waited until it was our turn to enter the feeding area.

satellite image showing marina, beach and feeding grounds
Greg and Kristin wearing warm clothes and protective masks on the beach

After about 30 minutes we boarded the panga again and rounded the corner to start searching for the whale sharks. Our guide watched from the bow and together with the skipper they watched the other tour boats and scanned the water for signs of sharks.

tour guide and divers laying on bow of panga looking for whale sharks

It took some time and some zig-zagging toward and away from shore before we finally spotted some sharks.

“Ok, we go! Please go to the side and get into the water,” Sophia directed.

spots of a whale shark from the surface of the water

Things happened very quickly as everyone rushed to don their masks and fins and go over the side of the boat. I was a bit worried for Kristin as I knew she had some anxiety about getting into the water where we were quite a ways from shore, much further than we would want to try to swim. But by the time I had managed to get my fins on the excitement of finding the sharks had apparently overcome Kristin’s apprehensions and she was was already in the water and chasing our guide to find the sharks.

I settled into the water and peered under the surface as I adjusted my mask and snorkel. The first thing I noticed was the murkiness of the water compared to the crystal clear water of the islands just a few miles away. The water was thick with krill or whatever it was that the whale sharks were feeding on. I looked around, not sure what to expect to see when suddenly a huge shape started to become visible through the murkiness. First a shadow, then a shape, then a beautiful pattern of spots. I had to catch my breath as the size of the creature before me became apparent. It moved slowly and effortlessly, yet the smallest movement of its powerful tail sent the massive creature gliding through the water at a speed I had to furiously swim to match.

Following our guide I swam as fast as I could to keep up with the shark when suddenly through the cloudy water another appeared, seemingly hovering vertically, mouth nearly touching the surface. I watched in awe as it gulped in the water nearest the surface and pushed it out its gills, it’s soft white chin and belly undulating with the motion. Small whirlpools formed at the surface from the suction. It seemed to be trying to feed as close as possible to the surface without ingesting too many bubbles of air.

Our group formed a semicircle to one side of the creature. I could see Kristin on the other side of our guide doing just fine. After my SCUBA trip without her, I was so glad that we could share this experience together.

The whale shark slowly rotated as it fed and at times I found myself being pushed by the current toward the massive creature. I was using my SCUBA fins which are much larger than snorkeling fins and I found it difficult to stay in one spot as any movement of my legs propelled me forward. I noticed that Sophia had very short fins, maybe a quarter of the size of mine, which made a lot of sense given the conditions. After a few close encounters I resigned myself to drift toward the shark, swim away, and repeat.

We spent approximately half an hour with those whale sharks and even as we were heading back to the boat more arrived and seemed to follow us right back up to the boat.

Was it cold? We honestly forgot all about it until Kristin commented that I was shivering after we were out of the water. Our skipper and guide from Tuna Tuna were amazing and the experience of seeing such amazing creatures up close was unforgettable.

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