Diving with Whale Sharks

24 10 2007

My first published article!
http://matadortravel.com/travel-writing/mexico/travel-place/diving-with-whale-sharks

The engine slowed down and settled in to idle. It was late afternoon and the intense heat of the day had finally dropped a little, but the sun still tingled on my sunburnt face. Our boat bobbed up and down in the waters of the Sea of Cortez; the city of La Paz just off in the distance. My fellow divers and I looked quizzically at our dive guide, mystified as to why we’d suddenly stopped out in the middle of nowhere.

The skipper of our boat was staring at our guide who was in turn standing on the bow gazing fixedly out towards the waters around us. In curious silence we all followed his gaze trying to find the reason for our sudden cessation. Slowly our guide gestured toward the waters beyond; I turned my gaze but could not see anything remarkable, until I noticed faint shadows moving in the water. “Get your gear on,” our guide instructed in his thick Mexican accent, “Whale Sharks!” Evan, my dive buddy, a pool digger from Los Angeles lit up and a wide grin spread across his face. “I’ve been trying to see these things for over ten years!” he shouted excitedly, “This is going to be incredible!” We hurriedly put our wet suits and masks back on as the boat circled back around, and on the guide’s instruction we dropped off the side of the small white boat in to the sea below. Mildly disorientated, it took me a second to gain my bearings, then suddenly I recoiled in horror; I was face to face with a monster.

In front on me, the biggest fish I have ever seen, its massive gaping void of a mouth, was just metres away; with my heart beating furiously and a thrashing of my fins I swam frantically trying to avoid being swallowed whole. Thankfully, despite my fears, Whale Sharks are filter feeders, and thus have very little interest in eating humans. They are one of only three filter feeding shark species and their massive mouths grow up to 1.5m (4.9 ft) across, and house up to 350 rows of fine teeth which they use to filter out plankton from the large quantities of water they take in. Their name is somewhat confusing, to clear the matter up – Whale Sharks are sharks, not whales; although they do look like whales, not sharks.

Having swum clear from its oncoming path, I was now side on to this ambling giant; my fear had subsided, and was replaced with the awe of being in the presence of such a magnificent sight. Whale Sharks swim very slowly, a mere 5 km per hour, due to the fact they use their entire bodies to swim, a rare characteristic in fish; fortunately this made it possible for me to keep pace. I was dwarfed next to the creature which was around nine metres (30ft) in length and two metres (6.6ft) wide, which is actually relatively small for a creature that can reportedly grow up to 18m (60 ft) long and 8m (26ft) wide. Other than the gargantuan size of the creature, the Whale Shark is also recognisable due to their bluish grey skin with its distinctive pattern of pale yellow spots and stripes, giving it a kind of checkerboard appearance.

After nearly an hour of swimming with our new aquatic friend, we climbed out of the water, and spotted a number of Whale Sharks nearby coming up to feed on some dirty white surface foam. We pulled up in the boat, and watched, mesmerised. By now it was getting late in the day, and the blue skies were gradually turning red as dusk approached, so reluctantly we started heading back to where we had started, the city of La Paz.

La Paz is the capital of the Mexican state of Baja California Sur, with a year round population of just under 200,000. The area was colonised in the mid sixteenth century by Hernan Cortez after conquering the Aztec empire in Central Mexico; the city however was not named La Paz until sixty years later, being dubbed Villa de la Santa Cruz by Cortez himself.

Getting to La Paz is relatively painless; you can fly direct to La Paz which is served by Manuel Márquez de León International Airport, although it can prove cheaper to fly to San Jose del Cabo then catch the shuttle in to town. The city is also accessible via two ferry services which operate to and from the port of Pichilinque, which connects the peninsula to Mazatlán and Topolobampo on the mainland.

The city itself sits on the Sea of Cortez, one of the most bio-diverse bodies of water in the world; its waters are primary breeding, feeding, and nursing grounds for a myriad migratory and resident fish species, and it’s also host to many larger creatures including turtles, manta rays, and Humpback and California Gray Whales and of course, Whale Sharks. On my dive trip I was fortunate to also get to dive with a local sea lion colony; as we dived around their rocky home, the smaller sea lions, still playful with youth, darted around in the waters, while the adults basked in the sunshine on the warm rocks above. Inquisitively circling me as I swam through their territory, the sea lion calves came within inches of me, occasionally sneakily going for a curious nibble on one of my bright yellow flippers.

The density of aquatic life in the area assures that a steady stream of tourists visit La Paz to enjoy the diverse marine life which inhabits these waters, and also makes it the perfect location for three Marine Biology Institutes, making La Paz the highest educated area per capita in the entire country. With the city having such a maritime focus, it’s no surprise there are a number of dive centres willing to bargain for your custom, but I opted to dive with the Cortez Club, having met the jovial owner in a bar one evening. The Cortez Club is located a few minutes from central La Paz, attached to the beautiful Hotel La Concha. I opted for the three tank day dive package which cost US$135.

Whale Sharks have been listed as a threatened species by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) since 1990 and it’s believed global population numbers are rapidly decreasing due to the damage of their natural habitats and fishing for their meat and fins. The number of Whale Sharks caught has decreased over recent years, a clear sign of the underlying deterioration of population numbers worldwide, and while the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) prohibits sale of Whale Shark products, they still remain readily available in many areas and continue to fetch high prices. While Whale Sharks don’t generally pose a threat to divers, they are themselves at risk of being hit by boats as they feed at the surface, and it’s unknown whether being harassed by divers and boats affects their migration patterns.

Sitting with a cold beer in hand at Hotel La Conchas’ Sunset bar later in the evening, I couldn’t help but smile at the surreal events of the day. Diving with Whale Sharks is an absolutely mind-boggling experience, and should be on the must-do list for any diver. You should be able to dive with these creatures all along their migratory route which also includes Honduras, the Seychelles, Thailand and Australia; although with population numbers decreasing, finding these graceful giants may be more difficult in the future.

Even if you are an veteran diver, it is worthwhile taking a guided dive as the guides have the local knowledge to know where the Whale Sharks are; we surely would have missed out on this incredible encounter had our guide not spotted the faint shadows in the water. With darkness now truly settled over the land, I downed the rest of my drink and jumped in a cab to town; somewhere I could hear the faint call of tacos and margaritas whispering my name.

Further Reading:

Cortez Club
http://www.cortezclub.com

Dive-The-World
http://www.dive-the-world.com/creatures-whale-sharks.htm

Whale Shark Project
http://www.whalesharkproject.org

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2 responses

24 10 2007
ROY

Hey mark. Great photos, and Article. You certainly make things happen.
Best wishes, Roy

25 10 2007
Nicholas David

Beautiful photos. Looks scary.




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