By Graham Mackintosh
Bahía de los Ángeles is a great place to interact with whale sharks. Just a day’s drive or a relaxed two days from San Diego, it’s easy to view them, and swim and snorkel with them if you desire. Most summers and falls—July through November—warmer waters reliably bring 20-30 of these gentle plankton-feeding giants to feed and hang out, usually in the south bay near Rincón.
White-spotted, transverse-striped, wide-mouthed, docile Rhincodon typus can grow in excess of thirty-five feet and weigh close to twenty tons, but those hanging around Bahía de los Ángeles tend to be smaller. And swimming with them has grown into a local industry.
Whale shark symbols are everywhere in Bahía de los Ángeles. In the town’s municipal park there’s a large replica of a whale shark made of iron, stones, and wire.
If you’re wanting to experience whale sharks, start by visiting the “Guardaparque” offices on the main road through Bahía. It’s opposite the pharmacy, next to the park. Look for the whale shark mermaid painted on the front of the building and the Guardaparque signs on the parked vehicles outside. The entrance is at the northeast end of the building. There’s usually someone behind the desk, and posters all around, many concerning whale sharks, let you know you’re in the right place.
You need to pay a fee to get out on the water. It’s $64 pesos per person per day (almost $4 US). Or a great option – buy an annual “pasaporte” card which grants you access to all the parks and protected areas of Mexico for a whole year for $333 pesos. That’s about $20 US! An excellent deal if you’re going on to see the gray whales, or visiting other areas such as the Marine Park in Loreto or the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir. Having an annual “pasaporte,” which looks like a credit card, means you don’t have to wear a wrist band and it also gives you flexibility with dates if the wind is blowing.
The park office will put you in contact with a panguero. There’s a posted list of panga skippers who are qualified and licensed to bring tourists to the sharks. Joel’s ecotours, with Joel Prieto Villavicencio, has a nice boat with a shade canopy; I saw him twice ferrying groups of tourists out to the whales. Expect to pay up to $200 US for a boat, which of course you can split with friends or other passengers.
I never saw more than two boats in the area. Seeing whale sharks remains an intimate experience for most visitors and that’s part of its attraction in Bahía. There’s every chance you’ll have the whale sharks to yourselves. And you can do it yourself; you don’t have to be on an expensive tour.
I was in the office getting information about the rules for observing the sharks, when I ran into a party of young Mexicans. They had just returned from swimming with the whale sharks at Camp Gecko and Rincón, at the southwest corner of the bay, and were showing me the camera photos and their GoPro images of their enjoyable and amazing encounter. It seemed everyone I met in LA Bay had been out on the boats and interacted with the whale sharks… except me!
Paddling alone was my preferred mode of transport, getting ready for my kayak trip from Bahía Concepción to La Paz in November. I had kayaked around the bay two days before, armed with my annual pass. The weather was beautiful… calm, temperatures tolerable on the water, and the tides were minimal.
Passing the houses at Camp Gecko, looking back about 200 yards, I saw a large shark breaking the surface in water probably less than 20 feet deep. I didn’t go after it. Images of great whites and tiger sharks crossed my mind, but on reflection it was probably a juvenile whale shark. Certainly it was in the right place. They may be harmless plankton eaters, but they sure look shark-like at a distance.
Because they’re fish, indeed the largest fish known, they can’t be spotted by their plumes of spray like air breathing whales and dolphins. It’s typically on calmer days that they’re easier to see, dorsal and tail fins above the surface. As I discovered, it’s very possible to paddle right past them… or right over them.
I continued my search at the south end of the bay. There was so much to see… but unfortunately, no whale sharks.
After having lunch in the shade of the “SS Minnow” (El Dorado I) which has been aground at the beautiful beach at La Mona for about 25 years, I paddled back directly across the bay. As exhilarating as that was, with frigate birds above and sea turtles and sea lions below, being miles from shore, I should perhaps have gone the longer and safer way back closer to the coast, looking for those sharks.
Inspired by the success of others I had one last look late afternoon of my last day in Bahia. I enjoyed the paddle, but it was a little choppy to see the whale sharks from my sit-on-top kayak. Most successful encounters happen in the glassy mornings. Nevertheless it was great fun. It was more by moonlight than fading sunlight that I made it back. I left Bahía with a heavy heart wishing I had a few more days to kayak those few miles south around the bay to Rincón.