Swimming with Whale Sharks in La Paz Baja California Sur, Mexico
Whale Sharks are a highly migratory species and have a wide range of distribution in the oceans and warm seas, near the tropics. In Mexico, they are most commonly found in the north of the Mexican Caribbean in the State of Quintana Roo and in the North West of the country in the Gulf of California.
We decided to visit the state of Baja California Sur during February, as it is well recognized as a hub for different types of whales and of course the wonderful Whale Sharks. La Paz is one of two main places in Mexico when you can swim next to these ‘gentle giants’ and have a once in a lifetime experience!
In this post I will share information about swimming next to whale sharks in La Paz, the best time to visit, options on responsible tour operators and more!
Whale sharks are the largest fish alive today and you can find them in all the tropical oceans of the world. They are easily recognizable: they have a flattened and big head and a long greyish body that is covered in white lines and spots with a white underbelly. Each individual’s pattern is unique, just like our fingerprints!
They feed on plankton and they travel long distances to find enough food that is able to sustain their large size. Through certain seasons a large number of them congregate in specific parts of the ocean, and Mexico is in one of those spots. During specific seasons of the year you are almost guaranteed to see whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez in Baja California Sur and in the Mexican Caribbean. As our experience this time was in the Sea of Cortez, I will be focusing on that specific location and our experience.
Our Adventure with Whale Sharks in La Paz
We arrived to La Paz in the middle of February while being on a roadtrip across the East Coast of Baja Sur and planned on staying in the city for four days.
*It’s always a great idea to leave extra days for activities that you really want to do, in case of some bad weather or any other circumstances that may happen that are out of your control where you may need to switch your day.
We booked our tour around a month in advance because I was nervous that tickets will be unavailable once we arrived there, so I highly recommend booking your tickets in advance too (it does not have to be a whole month before but definitely a few weeks, especially if you are visiting during high season).
After a lot of research online about the different tour operators that have the service on swimming with whale sharks and after weeks talking to many of them, I finally decided on making the tour with Whale Shark Mexico. They are a research project that focuses ‘on conservation, education and sustainable management of the whale sharks in La Paz’. They are constantly monitoring the distribution of the species in the region and when you book a tour through them, you are actually helping out to fund some of that research, which is really amazing.
How to get there
Arriving to La Paz is quite easy coming from many mainland major airports in Mexico, as it is the capital of the state. There is an international airport in the city you can fly to or also opt for flying into Los Cabos International Airport and drive northwest to the city, which takes only two hours and 30 minutes. We made a road trip along the East Coast of Baja Sur and thus we arrived to La Paz by car from the northwest. The roads are very well maintained, the only problem we saw is that it is not recommended driving at night due to the livestock that comes very close to the highway, other than that they are perfectly fit to drive in.
Our whale shark tour was booked on the third morning of our stay in La Paz. Our scheduled departure time was 8:00am from the La Paz Marina; the direction instructions are included in your confirmation e-mail, if there is ever a change on the time or departure area, they will let you know in advance.
The city of La Paz is quite small and if you are staying near the Marina, you can take a taxi or even walk. We took our car, as we were staying further away and drove for around 10 minutes to get there. There is a café inside of the Marina where you can get something to eat before boarding the boat, which I definitely recommended. Even thought they do give you some snacks during the tour, they are only offered at the middle to end of it, and you will need the energy for being able to swim next to the whale sharks since the start.
The Journey over to the Whale shark Refuge
We arrived to the Marina looking for Whale Shark Mexico Tours, only to discover we were in another tour’s list called Tuna Tuna Tours. Whale Shark Mexico operates with accredited and responsible tour operators for the swimming with whale sharks, and they have the same principles of conservation & research, so we were happy. Once the whole group had all arrived, we hopped into the boat, got our wetsuits and life jackets on and started our short journey over to the Whale Shark refuge. We were 6 in total in our tour, plus our guide Sofia and Captain Juan.
Whale shark experiences are very well controlled in La Paz. We had to wait for around 15 minutes to get the ‘green light’ from the authorities to go out to the protected area. Only 14 boats can go at once during a specific period of the day, they can ride only at a limited speed and when a whale shark is spotted only one of those boats can be close to it. The people that are allowed to swim next to the shark cannot exceed 6 in total with the guide included. We were always 5 plus our guide once in the water at all times.
After a brief explanation about this wonderful creatures and some safety guidelines for us but also for the sharks: such as keeping a distance of 2 metres from the head and 3 metres from the tail & do not get in front of it while It swims, we were ready to get into the water. We adjusted our wetsuits (as the water is quite cold during these months), put on our snorkelling masks and got aligned in the edge of the boat to be able to jump once the whale shark was closer. We could actually spot the tail of the first one we were going to be swimming next to near the boat! It’s such a thrill to feel that you are about to have one of the most unique experiences of your life, and so we jumped!
It is quite a challenge to be able to follow this creatures. It does not seem that they are as fast when you see them from out of the water, but once you are in, is really hard to keep up sometimes. Plenty of the times we had to get picked up by Juan, our captain, to be able to get closer to it again! The last time we jumped into the water, the whale shark decided it was a good time to go slower and we were so grateful for it! We were rewarded with incredible views underwater of this wonderful fish while actually being able to follow alongside it for some minutes.
They mostly ignore those who swim around them, that is, if you follow the rules in place to protect them. To swim next to an animal with a mouth that can open as wide as a meter and a half is unbelievable, but only plankton and krill can pass through their throats which are tiny, around the size of our fists. Their gills are the size of a human but the do not pose a threat to us at all. Us and our boats are much more dangerous to these endangered species, so it’s definitely great experience to be able to witness and understand how important the awareness of their conservation and thriving is.
Our experienced guide and captain made sure we had an unforgettable experience with tasty burritos and fruit once we had finished swimming. After around two hours in the water, we headed back. Having a close encounter with these docile creatures in their natural habitat is incredibly magical. It makes you marvel at the natural world even more, to realize how incredible the ocean life is, even when we cannot see it from above.
What is Included in the Tour
- Soft drinks
- Snorkeling gear & Wetsuits
What you Should Bring
- Biodegradable/Reef-Safe Sunscreen (They do not allow regular sunscreen, which is amazing!)
- Swimming suit
- Jacket (for the way in and back, as the wind can be quite chilly)
When to Visit
The whale shark season officially starts when the first whale sharks are spotted in the bay in which is generally in October and ends around April/May. Though visiting during the months of January and February are probably the best options, you can still find them across the season. The water can be quite murky due to the nutrient rich waters, and so there are times that you can hardly spot them underwater, so just keep that in mind.
We visited in mid-February and during our tour, we saw two whale sharks very close to our boat, and many more in the surroundings. The ocean water was definitely not as pleasant as it can be during more warmer months but I highly recommend going during these months if possible to avoid the huge crowds during the winter Christmas time and Easter in April that can be found in this area of the country. And also, once you start swimming next to a whale shark, you will quickly warm up as they are such quick swimmers, believe me that you will have a hard time to catch up!
I recommend booking your tour in advance directly with the one we ended up going with through Whale Shark Mexico: Tuna Tuna tours. Through their website you can already book you time slot directly and pay in the platform which can be very convenient.
How Much Does it Cost?
To experience swimming with whale sharks in La Paz, each accredited tour operator charges $100USD, which is roughly $2,000 pesos per person. This is the standard rate for certified tour operators. And though it may seem like a lot, it is definitely worth the price for what you will experience and also knowing that what you pay for helps in conservation efforts of the area and the species. That is why it is so important to do it with accredited operators.
Whale shark juveniles visit the Bay of La Paz as they come here to feed in the plankton rich waters. And despite their name, they are actually a fish but the largest fish in the ocean. The maximum size of whale sharks is not known, but it is believed that it could be as large as 20 metres!
Whale sharks are protected from fishing in many countries today, but they are still in decline in some areas, therefore it is very important to raise awareness on the species. From October to April you can swim with whale sharks through an accredited tour operator like we did in the city of La Paz in Baja California Sur. Swimming alongside these ‘gentle giants’ is an experience of a lifetime, to feel so tiny next to them and marvel at how amazing is the natural world it’s priceless!
Remember to always choose responsible operators and services for your experiences, this way we can preserve nature for the future while having the time of our lives.