When we were given an opportunity to assist with researching whale sharks we seized it with both hands and headed for La Paz in Mexico’s Baja California South. We were all so excited to swim with these elegant beasts and we couldn’t wait to jump into the sea of Cortez to meet them. This is what to expect from snorkelling with Whale Sharks.
What to know about Whale Sharks
The whale shark is a slow-moving, filter-feeding shark and the largest known extant fish species. The largest confirmed shark ever found was 12.65 m (41.5 ft) in length and weighed approximately 21.5 t (47,000 lb).
The whale shark holds many records for its size, most notably being by far the largest living nonmammalian vertebrate. The species originated about 60 million years ago and modeling suggests a lifespan of about 70 years, but measurements have proven difficult.
Whale sharks have very large mouths and are filter feeders, which is a feeding mode that occurs in only two other sharks, the megamouth shark and the basking shark. They feed almost exclusively on plankton and are of no-known threat to humans.
Whale sharks migrate
Whale sharks are migratory animals and they spend northern hemisphere summers in the cold waters of the Arctic. During the northern hemisphere’s winter, they migrate south to make babies and breed.
Whale sharks visit La Paz, Mexico (not Bolivia) between late October through to March-April.
We didn’t organise this
This was the first time that we had paid for a ‘voluntourism’ type program and we spent a HUGE amount of money on it. Sadly for us it didn’t exactly go as planned. Despite our eagerness to swim alongside these elegant creatures, it turned into a bit of a nightmare.
Somebody organised this trip for us and used a third party to take us supposedly whale researching where we would help out with sizing the whales and photographing their unique patterns.
This somebody else made no effort to understand or care about our family’s needs, they didn’t communicate between the parties and the trip was badly planned and executed and really damaged our children’s confidence in the water.
What went wrong for us?
Very briefly a few things that went wrong were:
- Nothing was communicated to us!
- A storm had passed through the bay and hadn’t entirely left, resulting in waves coming over the tops of the kids snorkels.
- Visibility in the water was poor due to the storm.
- The water was very cold and we didn’t have the correct gear. The organisers gave us adults short wetsuits but had no suits for the kids. You cannot expect kids to swim in the ocean for any length of time, in the winter, without wet-suits. As adults we were freezing in our short wet-suits, although the researchers themselves had on long wet-suits.
- The whale sharks are not slow creatures and if you want to swim with them, you’ll need to be a strong swimmer. The only time the sharks are not moving is when they’re feeding.
- We were supposed to go out for a total of three half day experiences, assisting whale shark researchers with measuring and photographing but in the end we only had a two hour experience.
Top tips on snorkelling with Whale Sharks
Here’s our top tips on how you can snorkel with kids and with whale sharks and make it a great experience.
- Meet your team beforehand and discuss your needs, expectations and the requirements of the trip.
- If the sea looks rough, don’t be afraid to postpone the trip. Any reputable guide will understand that if the sea is rough, it might be too hard to swim or even see them.
- Make sure everyone has full length wetsuits and for kids, ask for a shortie westsuit over the top of the long wetsuit as well. Do not underestimate how cold you will get.
- Understand what is required from you before you get in the water. There is almost little point chasing a shark that isn’t feeding because it moves which such agility and speed.
- If your kids are under the age of 12, don’t be hesitant about asking for life-vests. It is just so much easier for them to remain buoyant, swim and watch the sharks whilst wearing life-vests. Even if you have kids, like ours who are competent swimmers, it makes it so much easier for them.
- Take at least two towels per person and a big warm hoodie/jumper. The moment you’re out of the water, wrap up warm.
- You’ll expend a huge amount of physical and emotionally energy in the water. These animals are huge and the adrenalin of being in their environment alongside them definitely kicks in. Keeping up with them requires a bit of energy so I’d recommend that you take some power food with you. Nuts and dried fruit would be ideal or something like peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
Who to book with?
After extensive research, I have found a great company called Whale Shark Diaries and they provide an environmentally responsible tour where you will have the possibility to witness how they collect scientific data to help with conservation and monitoring efforts. This gives you the opportunity to see how actual research is carried out on this endangered species!
They also run an educational program to help educate children and local people on marine life.
The tours they offer are:
- Whale Shark tours
- Sea Lion tour
- Releasing sea turtles back into the ocean
- Scuba diving in Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park
- Personalised tours depending on requirements
Questions to ask when booking snorkelling with Whale Shark tours
When you book tours and encounters with animals please make sure that
- The company has an environmental policy
- It can give you advice on how close you can get to the animals without causing harm
- The company has a no touch policy and its guides do not actively touch the animals
- They do NOT feed or chump to attract animals
- If they’re profiting from the natural resources of the area, what are they giving back to the animals or the local community?
Video of us snorkelling with Whale Sharks
This is a video from our time in the Cortez Sea with these elegant and divine creatures.
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