JAWS in La Paz

Whale sharks are probably one of the coolest things with fins, and honestly, one of my main I kicked around the Sea of Cortez for so long. In some cases whale sharks span more than 30 feet, but despite their titanic size, I had yet to run into any. The Sea of Cortez is simply a vast deep body of water. Being a marine anomaly, I put my faith into a guide to find the whale sharks for me.

I’m typically not the type of person who buys into tourist trips, but this seemed like an appropriate exception. I had obviously failed at finding whale sharks thus far, and not paying a guide seemed like plane stubbornness. I mean, $40 american dollars secured me a swim with the beasts. I wasn't sure how this guide could guarantee such an experience but the search would no longer be my problem. leave the worrying to the pros.

Despite minor motor problems with me trying not to look too concerned, I was off to swim with genial jaws. To my frustration, the whale shark hang out area was only a 15 minute boat ride from downtown La Paz. I could have buzzed over to this spot on my dinghy!

At whale shark territory three tour boats were swarming a huge fin that was whipping back and fourth through the water. My guide opted to find another pack of whale sharks. There must have been ten pale gringo snorkelers flopping around the big fin without a single stitch of motor-control. It was madness. I turned to my guide and asked him, “Do all tourist look like that?” He stared at the commotion with a half frown and said in a thick latin accent “No...” I nodded and he threw the throttle forward to find less populated whale sharks.

We were looking for shadows in the water. I was no good at this, but I still propped myself in the bow of the boat to do my best trying to distance myself from the disconnected tourists. Casually, my guide pointed and instructed me to jump in the water. Like any movie going gringo, I flipped myself off the boat backwards like a navy seal and made my way away from the boat.

The water had low visibility. This was due to the high winds La Paz experienced the previous couple of days. I would swim ten feet and then look back at my guide who would point in what seemed like a whole new direction. I was sure I looked just as uncoordinated as those earlier tourists. This happened maybe three or four times until I came face to face with the beast. The poor visibility made this surprising, and the fact that the whale shark was feeding, mouth fully open, mad it a little scary. Whale sharks are not dangerous, but there was one case of a diver getting sucked into the creatures mouth. This whale shark was heading right for me, and the water made my evasive maneuver happen in slow motion. I felt like I was in the Matrix dogging a whale shark sized bullet. I cleared the whale sharks mouth, but the tail smacked me clear on the back. People are not supposed to touch the whale sharks, not sure if people are supposed to even get close to them, but in that instant, that first contact, I did both.

It is crazy how tolerant these big fish are. Even with a bunch of clumsy snorkelers following them, the sharks don't even think twice about running their daily routine of filter feeding for plankton. If you get in the way, its your obligation to move because the whale shark is not going to deviate from its course. Its simple tonnage rules; the shark weighs over 20 tons, so get out of its way unless you want to end up in its mouth.

Its also quite a workout to keep up with these ocean gliders. They sway back and fourth so slowly, but this fluid motion produces a staggering cruising speed, thats ultimately extremely energy efficient. My swimming ability could barely keep up, and it started to make sense how frantic the other snorkelers were to simply keep pace.

Before long, I was joined by other tourists from other boats, and opted to hang back and see what else I could see. The visibility produced little insight to my surroundings. I could tell I was in about 12 feet of water, with a sandy bottom. Not long after establishing the lay of the sea did I start to hear the whine of dolphins. Not sure where they were, I started to whine like a dolphin too in hopes to attract them. After the first two attempts to copy the dolphin talk, I started to feel like a complete boob, but then the dolphin sounds started to get louder, encouraging a third attempt. Zipping into my field of vision, two bottle noise dolphins started swimming around me. They swam right underneath me, paused, and did a couple of side spins then shot off into the distance. I’m not sure what I said in dolphin talk, but I must have given them the wrong idea because they didn't stick around long. I need the dolphin talk Rosetta Stone.

I had to break the surface of the water to readjust my mask that was ill fitting after smiling so much. When I dipped my head underwater, a cluster of brown rays swam past me. Time for more swimming. Following them was useless, because after realizing I was in tow, they jetted off into the haze of the water. I was so obviously an alien in the water; slow, unable to breath, and maybe too curious. I was happy that everything I had encountered was more or less apathetic to my presence. Life moved around me, I was just a visitor watching.

It didn't take long to reconnect with another whale shark when you’re in the general area. Their size really comes to light in person. That may sound obvious, but even for someone who has seen 1,000 pictures, the real thing just blows them all out of the water. From tip to tail I couldn't even see the whole fish! The whale sharks weren't alone in their journey for food; pilot fish were also in tow looking for a free meal. I was just another pilot fish hanging out with the whale shark, and I couldn't keep up any longer. I had been swimming with them consistently for about an hour and was starting to get cramps in my legs.

On the boat ride back, I was starting to notice the shadows that whale sharks formed on the top of the water. I was starting to get the hang of this. It was 11:30 AM, and I was ready to seize the day, but only after I bragged about my whale sharking on Facebook. My list of life goals was still long, but I could now put a satisfyingly thick line through “Swim with WHALE SHARKS!”

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