Read Caption
A humpback Whale flukes off the coast of La Paz., Mexico; Photograph by Max Lowe

Navigating Baja: Swimming with the Ocean’s Largest Fish – Dispatch #8

When I discovered Jacques Cousteau and all his underwater exploits in my early childhood, I devoured and took to heart his every word. When he proclaimed that Baja’s Sea of Cortez was “the world’s aquarium,” it sparked an obsession for me to be there and experience it for myself. I’ve done exactly this periodically by sailboat, surfboard, and on the road throughout my life. So naturally when Max Lowe approached me to do a project on the Baja California Peninsula, I said yes before my brain could even register that my mouth was moving. The prospect of swimming and filming whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez reverted me back to all my old Jacques Cousteau childhood dreams.

Swimming With Giant Whale Sharks in Mexico

Fast forward to Baja a few months later. Our crew geared up, boarded our panga, and made our way out into the Bay of La Paz to search for the semi-mythical creature, the whale shark. These creatures are some of the largest in the world, out-weighing a school bus at 60,000 pounds at a length of 45 feet. As the largest—yes, largest—fish in the ocean, they somehow maintain their massive body weight by eating some of the ocean’s smallest creatures, phytoplankton.

Our captain scanned the sea’s surface looking for disturbances where the whale sharks were feeding near the surface, or “oil slicks.” To the untrained eye, it’s an impossible task.

We spotted an “oil slick,” motored the boat over, and prepped our snorkels. No matter how comfortable you are at being in the water with large sea creatures, pulling up alongside one of these behemoths is a bit terrifying. Our boat passed the shark, my heart pounded, and the captain gave the green light. We snapped our masks on and dove in.

Once Austin and I splashed in, we kicked hard, sped off, and didn’t look back. We were like kids on Christmas morning, and the whale shark the big, friendly present.

View Images
A whale shark tails itself through the clear waters off the coast of La Paz, Mexico; Photograph by Max Lowe

Because of the large amounts of plankton in the water, the visibility was less than perfect so I was caught off guard when I got my first glimpse of the whale shark. It was directly underneath me and heading toward the surface. I quickly scooted to the side to give right of way and watched as it passed, noticing all the intricacies and beauty written across the skin of this beautiful creature. The thousands of spots across its back in crisscrossed patterns look like dappled sunlight through water and the way they faded toward grey at the pectoral fins and under to the belly gave this beast of the sea a very effective and beautiful camouflage.

We swam alongside for some time taking pictures and playing with our new friend. Finally when our legs began to burn from trying to keep up and the boat was way off in the distance, we decided to bid our big friend adieu. As she passed me this last time, I followed behind her for a bit just watching how her giant, powerful tail methodically swooped back and forth. Her mouth continued opening and closing pulling in tons of water and her millions of tiny meals for the day.

It made me think of all the wisdom and experience of the sea she would accumulate over her lifetime of 70 to 100 years. In her lifetime roaming the sea, she will never really know our world, the world of land and of people who occasionally get a tiny glimpse of us as people come swim with her. Watching that beautiful beast of the sea disappear made me appreciate the incredible opportunity we have as people to leave our comfort zone, inhabit new places, and explore worlds filled with unimaginable creatures, like the whale shark.

The Adventurists blog series “Navigating Baja” is sponsored by OluKai, which provided footwear for this adventure.