Snorkeling with whale sharks (and not drowning)

Don’t die now. That would be ignominious. Push the water out of the snorkel. Stop splashing and bobbing up and down. Vacation is fun.

Thoughts flash across my mind as I sputter with water in my snorkel. Arriving in La Paz, Mexico with very little experience swimming or snorkeling in open water–this feels like drowning–historically a big fear of mine. Calm. Push. Breathe. Okay, that works. Lucidity returning.

Add my other fear factor: being eaten. I’m pretty sure Jaws will sense my dumb ass and mistake me for a sea lion in distress and chomp. Visions of a giant, razor-studded mouth opening up. I. Just. Okay, stay calm. We’re only in 25′ of water. Wait. Isn’t that where they attack? Breath.

Our dive boat

What are we supposed to be seeing, again? The world’s largest fish whose name includes shark in it? The stats are frightening: juveniles are often over 20′ long and have 3′ diameter mouths; adults can be over 35′ long. And they don’t eat people?

What did I get myself into? Drowning or being eaten. I’m facing dual fears, simultaneously.

Except whale sharks have tiny teeth–they’re filter feeders–not predators. But its mouth is giant and gaping and OMFG what am I doing here? Oh yeah, my pro-level swimmer/diver friend wanted to “swim with whale sharks–it’ll be neat.” I’m just about shitting my wetsuit. Neat.

“Focus on your breathing, movements being fluid and efficient, and don’t panic” says our trustworthy guide.

All smiles in 4′ of water

Swimming with whale sharks is a rare treat for most snorkelers. They only exist in a few places worldwide, and strict laws are enforced due to historic disrespect. Whale sharks are prevalent in the Bay of La Paz, and can be spotted by looking for giant, dark blobs moving through the shallow water. There are usually dolphins around.

Baja dolphins swim next to our dive boat

Our guides are top-rated and clearly state all rules up front, making sure we’re safe and acting cautiously at all times. That’s not always the case with guide services. Just before we’re about to get in the water, someone with another service almost drowns due to their guide misjudging clientele’s abilities and demeanor. Thankfully, our guide responds instantly and saves the client. Glad we’re with this one.

One guide grabs my fins while the other watches another client carefully

I cringe: that could be me. I iterate that I do not want to end up like that person. If I’m doing anything stupid, immediately yank me out of the water. I won’t be offended.

Look Ma, I can snorkel

Gear on, we’re perching on the edge of our dive boat, ready to jump in and swim like hell–whale sharks swim very fast. When the signal is given, we drop in, and our guide helps us scan for the behemoth below. Out of the murky water looms a mouth that looks 10′ wide, coming straight at me. It’s only 3′ wide.

The massive head of a whale shark, with two cleaner fish

Water distorts size. It’s a juvenile, about 18′ long. We are not to touch the giant, so we just observe it slip under us, gracefully gliding past. Beautiful. Not scary.

Ummm…don’t eat me

I’m breathing well now, swimming hard to keep up with the leviathan. I can see its tiny eye. There are miniscule cleaner fish swimming alongside. My friend snaps photos and video. The fish is so big, it’s almost impossible to fit in one frame. And that’s a juvenile? It has striped and spotted skin, including a previous scar from errant propeller blades. It glides silently–barely moving–yet so efficient it’s slipping away from us as hard as we try to keep up. Our boat gingerly circles around to pick us up. We’ve swam a ways. I’m impressed I’m snorkeling so well–or at all.

A juvenile glides below
Though massive, this one is small

Later, we see two more, including a mom. They’re larger still. Possibly 25′ or more. The pair slinks away after just a couple of swim-alongs. We repeat the cycle of searching, prepping, snorkeling, for about an hour. More dive boats show up. I’m exhausted. Time for a relaxing meal and drinks.

We head back into shore, thank our owner/operators for their professionalism and excellence. It’s just another day for them. For me, it’s transformative.

At dinner, it dawns on me: I survived, conquering my fear(s). Our guides rock. I don’t know if I’ll do that type of outing again, but it’s quite an experience. Recommended. Especially if you fear large fish, being eaten by a shark, drowning and open water.

DIVE IN LA PAZ is a top-notch snorkeling and diving boat guide service. I tend toward paranoid, and I’d go with them again.
LA PAZ, BCS, Mexico is a sleepy beach town on the Sea of Cortez, ready for tourists in all ways, good and bad. Enjoy.
All images and content copyright ©2017 Eric Schadel. All rights reserved. All underwater and images of me courtesy AA.

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