Whale Shark Encounter
I have been a scuba diver since 1999 and throughout many dive trips since then, I have never been able to see a whale shark in the water. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world. Although many mammal air breathing whales are larger, whale sharks are fish since they have gills and are sharks. However, they are not predators like many other species of sharks. Instead, whale sharks feed mostly on plankton and are fairly docile.
As a scuba diver, one would have to go to the areas around the world where whale sharks are commonly found. Also, it is very seasonal as whale sharks seem to migrate depending on the time of the year. One area known for whale sharks is near Utila in Honduras. I went there during April this year since it was suppose to be the season when whale sharks are commonly found in the waters around Utila.
I was really hoping that after all these years of scuba diving, I would finally get to see a whale shark during my trip to Utila. But much to my disappointment, we searched the waters for three days and did not see a single whale shark. I did end up with a decent nurse shark encounter captured on video though as well as another incident with a psycho moral eel.
La Paz Mexico Scuba Diving
My next tropical scuba diving trip after my Utila and Roatan combo one was to be La Paz in the Baja region of Mexico. I chose La Paz mainly to get the opportunity to scuba dive with sea lions as that area was reported to have very reliable opportunities for encounters with them since there are sea lion colonies there all year round. As you can see from the photos and video (at the last link) of my sea lion dives, I was very successful with this objective during my recent La Paz trip.
One of the bonuses of travelling to La Paz during the fall was not only would I get the opportunity to scuba dive with sea lions but the whale shark season in the Sea of Cortez had begun. So there was a chance that I would get to see whale sharks on this same trip as well. It would be another opportunity within the same year of 2016.
I had three days of scuba diving in La Paz before moving south to San Jose del Cabo to do a day of dives there. My divemaster Trevor Brown of Baja Connections suggested that we look for whale sharks after doing our two tanks of scuba diving on day one. I had already had my first sea lions experience that morning so any whale sharks on the same day would indeed be a nice bonus.
Swimming With Whale Sharks In La Paz
The way it works in La Paz is the boat trolls around a channel near town for any whale sharks. We cannot scuba dive with whale sharks but we can swim with them with snorkel gear. The whale sharks would be too fast anyway for sluggish scuba divers so snorkelling would actually be the better way to see them.
Soon after we started trolling, Trevor spotted a whale shark and the boat quickly went after it. As we approached, we were to get ready to jump into the ocean with our snorkel gear already on so we could get in a position where we might intercept the whale shark as it feeds near the surface of the ocean.
If a whale shark is swimming horizontal, we were to intercept it on its path and then try to swim along side of it as long as we could before it outswims us. This is what happened during my first whale shark encounter.
Obviously, my eyes were not as well trained as Trevor or the boat captain in spotting whale sharks. They pointed towards the whale shark spotted and I just swam towards that direction. The water in the channel was quite murky with poor visibility so I really could not see where the whale shark was at first. Then all of a sudden, it was almost right beside me!
As soon as I saw it, I did my best to swim along side of it before it became too fast for me. This was a young whale shark about 15 to 20 feet in length.
We climbed back on board and trolled again. Things were happening so fast I don’t even remember what the next sighting was like but it was probably the same whale shark again and with a similar encounter. However, the third encounter was the best as it was the longest and most memorable.
This time, the whale shark was feeding in a vertical position in the ocean. Whenever a whale shark is vertical, it would remain in the same position in the ocean for an extended time so we would not have to chase after it. Also this time, we caught a bit of this final whale shark encounter on video!
It’s not a great video, especially compared to my sea lions dive video but it did show a bit from my first ever whale shark encounter day. You will see very briefly in this video how this same young whale shark looked like from the surface of the water when it was first spotted. It’s not easy to see it and you might have to look at the video a few times to see a fin sticking out of the water as it’s dark body is slightly visible moving across the screen from the right to the left of the screen.
The video footage underwater is also very brief too but it does show the whale shark in the vertical feeding position. My actual encounter with it was significantly longer than what the video shows as our group was basically just in the water in a semi circle around the whale shark as it was happily feeding on plankton without a care in the world. Here is the video below.
We were not able to get any still photographs on this whale shark encounter but the visibility was so poor, any images probably would not have come out that great anyway. I’m grateful for the brief video I got out of this trip but even if I did not get it, I would have been pretty happy just to finally get in my first ever whale shark encounter.
We tried to look for more whale sharks the next day but after two hours of trolling in the same area, we were not successful in sighting anymore. Another boat captain reported seeing six whale sharks when he went out with another group so it really depends on luck and nature.
I would like to pursue more whale shark encounters in future dive trips especially in better visibility waters. Plus the encounters I had with what appeared to be the same whale shark over three separate jumps into the ocean as special as they were, they were just too brief. My past encounters with dolphins (Bahamas), stingrays (Cayman Islands), sharks (Bahamas), manta rays (Hawaii) and even the sea lions at La Paz were all at least 30 to 45 minutes in length each time. The whale sharks are really nice to see so it would be great to have more extended time in the water with them in the future.
You too can have this type of inspirational experience and even without being a certified scuba diver since most organized whale shark encounters are with snorkel gear anyway. You just need to travel to destinations where whale sharks are known to be in season so research on your part will be required. I know that in addition to La Paz, there are other areas like Isla Mujares and Holbox in the Yucatan region of Mexico, Belize and Utila all known to have whale sharks at some point in the year.