Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Swimming with whale sharks near Los Cabos

Whale sharks, as their name suggests, are big. Enormous, really. Adults sometimes weigh as much as 60,000 pounds, and even those on the smaller side can weigh 20 tons or more. That’s almost as big as the humpbacks and gray whales that draw visitors to Los Cabos, Mexico each winter. But whale sharks aren’t whales. Despite the name, they’re the world’s largest species of fish. But yes, they’re sharks, too, with terrifying mouths that measure six feet wide and contain over 3,000 teeth. 

Fortunately for the visitors who travel to La Paz, it’s only two hours by car from Los Cabos, to swim with them. And since whale sharks are filter-feeding plankton eaters, it’s perfectly safe to get up close and personal with these gentle giants, despite their gaping maws and endless rows of tiny teeth. 

Whale watching season runs from mid-December through mid-April. (Cabo Adventures)

Why is swimming with whale sharks such a special experience?  

Whales and whale sharks are both premier wintertime attractions in Baja California Sur, but the ways you can experience these aquatic animals varies significantly. Whales are viewed from boats, and because of legal restrictions tourists are unlikely to get within 200 feet of them. It’s still close enough to be awed by the size of these leviathans, but it doesn’t compare to the closeness you get with whale shark tours. The latter take place in the water, with small groups able to enjoy close encounters with these massive fish off the tip of the El Mogote peninsula in La Paz. This is one of only two areas in México where swimming with whale sharks is possible, the other being the Yucatán Peninsula.

It’s an amazing opportunity to get up close with one of the world’s largest creatures, and because whale sharks swim at the snail-like pace of around three miles per hour, side-by-side swims with them for extended periods are possible. The experience is often a humbling one, as whale sharks can be as much as six to seven times the length of an average human up to 40 feet long. But it’s also magical, and for most a once-in-a-lifetime adventure — although because whale sharks are capable of living for up to 100 years, it’s remotely possible that return visitors could see the same whale sharks on multiple occasions. Telling them apart takes a bit of practice, of course, but whale sharks’ spotting patterns are as unique as fingerprints.

When is whale shark season in La Paz?   

The seasonal timeframes for whale and whale shark viewing are nearly the same, although whale shark season lasts a bit longer, running from October through May. Whale watching season, by comparison, runs from mid-December through mid-April. Still, there is enough overlap — four months in total — that tourists can easily plan to experience both bucket list experiences during the same trip. 

The absolute best time for swimming with whale sharks is during the early part of the season, from October to February, as this is peak feeding period for the whale sharks. However, it bears noting that whale sharks are an endangered species, and if they aren’t present in sufficient numbers, tours may be suspended. It’s a rare occurrence, but it has happened, most recently in February 2023. 

It is a unique opportunity to take amazing pictures. (Cabo Adventures)

Whale sharks don’t just visit Baja Sur to feed, however: they also come to breed. The Bay of La Paz is considered both a nursery and sanctuary for whale sharks, with over 500 individuals identified in the seasonal population since 2001. Where are they when they aren’t in La Paz? It’s a difficult question to answer, as the breeding and migratory patterns of whale sharks aren’t fully understood. But scientists know that they travel large distances. In 2011, for example, a female whale shark was tracked over 12,000 miles round-trip, from Central America to the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific. Previous studies have also traced whale shark migration from Mexico to the Marshall Islands.

Are there legal restrictions on swimming with whale sharks? 

As with whale watching tours, there are regulations in place to ensure the safety of both tourists and the whale sharks themselves. These rules impact everything from boat sizes — no vessel over 36 feet — to the size of small groups for swim tours — 5 people max. Once in the water, there’s also a minimum distance that must be maintained with the whale sharks. No, you’re not permitted to touch them, and they’re unlikely to even acknowledge your presence. But swimmers can get quite close, so long as they maintain a safe six-foot distance from the whale shark’s head and ten feet from its tail.

Is it possible to swim with whale sharks in Los Cabos? 

While it’s impossible to swim with whale sharks in Los Cabos’ waters, it’s quite easy to arrange round-trip transportation to La Paz with local activities companies. It’s about a two-hour drive each way, with the better Los Cabos adventure companies providing door-to-door service from resorts or a central meeting point. Cabo Adventures, for example, ferries tourists in comfort via Mercedes Benz vans from its location overlooking the Cabo San Lucas Marina. Given the transportation time, it’s a full-day experience, but lunch and snacks are provided, as are snorkeling equipment and professional photographers. 

The latter is an important factor when booking whale shark tours from Los Cabos, as those swimming with whale sharks are not permitted to take photos with flashes, which can frighten the whale sharks. They also don’t like air bubbles, so scuba diving is likewise not an option. Boat tours are available, however, for those spending time in La Paz, either as a primary vacation destination or as a side trip from Los Cabos. Catamarans and other vessels will take visitors to the swim site in the Bay of La Paz, often with other amenities  like food and drinks included with the snorkel gear.

How much do whale shark tours cost?

Given the travel involved and the full-day nature of whale shark tours originating in Los Cabos, these are among the most expensive seasonal activity options. Tours typically cost upwards of $200, with slightly lower prices available for kids.

Chris Sands is the Cabo San Lucas local expert for the USA Today travel website 10 Best, writer of Fodor’s Los Cabos travel guidebook, and a contributor to numerous websites and publications, including Tasting Table, Marriott Bonvoy Traveler, Forbes Travel Guide, Porthole Cruise, Cabo Living and Mexico News Daily. His specialty is travel-related content and lifestyle features focused on food, wine and golf.

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