La Paz, Mexico – swimming with whale sharks

Despite having no specific (or even vague) plans, I was certain that my second trip to Cabo would involve some sort of new activity. My first trip to the Baja Peninsula had seen my first ever stand up paddle board experience. I imagined that whatever came along this year would be in a similar vein – something active and new, but not exactly a wild adventure. But Susan.

Susan, who has been vacationing in Cabo much longer than I, has long held a desire to swim with whale sharks. She had every intention of finally taking the plunge last year, until she learned that the whale sharks, who feed in the Sea of Cortez from early winter until late spring, had already left the area. While I had absolutely no plans to join Susan on this excursion (if sharks were to be involved, I would not), I found myself encouraging her to do it this year. Every time we passed through the main lobby at Pueblo Bonito, I told her she should ask about it. Apparently my subconscious knew something that I did not.

When Susan learned that the whale sharks were, in fact, still hanging out in the Sea of Cortez, things happened very fast. In less than ten minutes we went from learning that the sharks were still around to being booked with Cabo Adventures for the following morning. Both of us. I don’t know when, or why, I changed my mind, but I’m so glad I did.

The day started early. We were picked up at the Pueblo Bonito Montecristo lobby at 7:30am in a small tour bus. We were dropped off at Cabo Adventures’ office (which also hosts a dolphin swimming experience) just off the marina in Cabo San Lucas. We checked in and signed our lives away (and also image rights for any photos taken of us while on the excursion) then waited for other participants to trickle in. The final tally of 21 swimmers meant that we’d be separated into two groups for the day, both for the drive to La Paz and in boats on the sea.

Our group of 10, plus guide and driver, got back in the van and headed north to La Paz. Travel time is about two hours. During that time we were provided with bag lunches, general instructions for the day by our guide and documentary videos about the Baja Peninsula and La Paz.

A quick note about our guide. The day prior to our trip, we’d run into a group of four women (two mothers and their daughters) that were returning from the whale shark excursion. They’d gone on, ad nauseam, about how amazing their guide was, and that we simply needed to ask for him. We saw him. I suspect their rave reviews had less to do with his manner than his face and body. One of the first comments that our guide, Oliver, made on the bus was this, “On every one of these tours, there’s always one guide that is incredibly good looking and fit. He’s on the other bus.” Right then I knew we’d gotten lucky to be with Oliver.

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Upon arrival in La Paz we were reunited with the other group from Cabo San Lucas and provided with snorkels, masks, flippers and wetsuits. The wetsuits are optional. When we learned that the water temperature was 76°, Susan and I passed on the wetsuits. Surprisingly, we were the only people that did so. We slathered on sunscreen, gathered up our gear and walked along the Bay of La Paz waterfront to Muelle Fiscal, where our boats were waiting.

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We climbed in, our group of ten plus Oliver and the boat’s operator. We put on life jackets and headed out of the Bay of La Paz toward the Sea of Cortez.

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It wasn’t long before we were cruising comfortably and watching dolphins swim between our boats.

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I split my time between soaking in the view and trying to snap as many photos as possible.

Cabo-Adventures-whale-sharks-group-4-2-16Photo credit: Oliver Martinez

Cabo-Adventures-Oliver-whale-sharksOliver had explained to us, at least three times, the process that we would take for our swims. First, our group of ten was split once again so that no more than six tourists were swimming with a shark at any one time. The plan was that one of the groups would be prepared to enter the water quickly. Once Oliver spotted a shark, each member of the chosen group would sit on the side of the boat closest to the shark, with legs hanging over and masks on. Oliver would then count to three and he and the group were to all jump into the water at the same time.

Our group, Susan, myself and a couple, were first up. It all happened incredibly fast. Oliver spotted the whale shark and told us all to get ready. We scrambled for the side of the boat, pulling on flippers and masks as best we could. Oliver said, “okay,” we all looked towards him and he jumped in. There was no countdown. We looked at each other and then splashed into the sea unceremoniously and not at all simultaneously. Ahead of us, we watched for Oliver to motion that we were in position. He suddenly said, “okay! There it is! Look down!” I slipped my head underwater and discovered that a whale shark was swimming DIRECTLY AT US.

Cabo-Adventures-whale-shark-4-2-16Photo credit: Oliver Martinez

There was confusion in our group, first in trying to get out of the way of the whale shark and then of each other. None of us had expected to be quite so close and so quickly. Between shock, adrenaline and pure amazement, everything seemed to be happening in lightning speed. Shortly after we’d arrived alongside the shark, it too a dive deeper into the water and out of our vision. We swam back to the boat with cheshire cat grins and few words to explain to the second group exactly how incredible those few minutes had been. But this is sort of what that feeling looked like.

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The next shark was spotted and the second group splashed into the water.

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If you look in the photo above, between (and slightly below) the guide and the rest of the snorkelers, there is a dark shadow. That’s the whale shark.

As the second group was climbing aboard our boat, our group was already gearing up in anticipation of the next shark. With a better idea of what to expect, we all jumped in for round two (once again without any countdown).

Cabo-Adventures-first-whale-shark-4-2-16Photo credit: Oliver Martinez

As I swam alongside the second shark of the day, I felt good about my pace. However, at some point I popped my head above the water and saw Susan ahead of me. I sped up and found myself better keeping up with the shark. As Oliver snapped pictures of us, and the shark, I just marveled at the experience. The massive shark next to me, the cool water and warm sun, everything seemed utterly perfect.

Cabo-Adventures-shark-CassPhoto credit: Oliver Martinez

Cabo-Adventures-Susan-sharkPhoto credit: Oliver Martinez

After about ten or fifteen minutes, once the shark finally left us behind, Susan and I looked back toward the boat. We discovered that the rest of our group was already back on the boat. Upon our return we were dubbed the Cardio Queens. The same thing happened the next time we got in the water. We were simply too fascinated to stop and think about the effort we were putting in to keep up with the giant creatures. Also, the whale sharks make it look easy. Something about tens of thousands of pounds propelling a body made for slipping through the oceans, I suppose.

Cabo-Adventures-shark-Cass-Susan-4-2-16Photo Credit: Oliver Martinez

Following a fair number of swims for each group we passed around bottled water and small snacks. As everyone relaxed and marveled over the experience Oliver offered one last swim if anyone was up for it. Susan, myself and one other girl jumped at the chance. This was the shallowest water we’d been in, provided excellent light to see the shark, and this particular shark was accompanied by hundreds of orange and black striped fish. Finally, grudgingly, we returned the boat and headed back to shore.

After returning our gear we sat down for lunch on a shaded terrace across from the Bay of La Paz.

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There was an unlimited supply of chips and lemonade, and a gentleman whose only concern was whether or not we had enough beer and tequila. We feasted on fresh fish tacos, quesadillas, green salad, roasted potatoes and brownies.

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The return bus ride detoured slightly for a stop-off at Todos Santos, a city favored by artists and surfers. It’s also home to the famous Hotel California. Sort-of. Persistent rumors will swear that this hotel inspired the Eagles hit of the same name. However, despite a host of coincidental matches between the hotel (and surrounding area) and the song, Don Henley has stated, unequivocally, that there is absolutely no link between the two. Unfortunately, when we arrived in Todos Santos we were still under the impression that this was THE Hotel California and took the obligatory photo in front of one of the signs.

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Even if it’s not THE Hotel California, it does have a gorgeous courtyard bar, complete with a house band.

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Across the street is Tequila’s Sunrise, home to the Margarita Damiana. One of the two best margaritas I’ve ever had in my entire life, the Damiana was made under careful watch by the owner of Tequila’s Sunrise. If you’re in the area, the margarita alone is worth the trip.

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Margarita in hand, we wandered through a corridor of shops selling a combination of tourist delights and local art.

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Finally we stumbled back onto the bus and made the final push south to Cabo San Lucas, chatting with Oliver about the city, local restaurants and his family. Just under ten hours after we’d been picked up, we were dropped back off at Pueblo Bonito. Salty, sun-soaked and tired in the best way, we said goodbye to Oliver and replayed the moments of the day.

I cannot impress enough that this was one of the best experiences of my entire life. Additionally, it would be remiss not to mention the excellent work of Cabo Adventures in coordination and execution of the entire day, as well as Oliver for being the ideal guide for our adventure. I recommend all three.

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