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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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February 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 43, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Swimming with La Paz Whale Sharks

from the February, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

A few months back I went on a whale shark tour off Isla Mujeres, near Cozumel, wanting to see these lovely animals in the wild and just watch them. Aside from seeing the tiburon ballena (and a few mantas), the overall experience -- safety, value, and worst of all, harassing the animals -- was terrible.

I have found a good way to see whale sharks without harassing them, while actually contributing to research efforts to protect them.

The operation is called Tiburon Ballena (Spanish for 'whaleshark') and is based in La Paz, Mexico. Dr. Deni Ramirez, a marine biologist who has been studying whale sharks for over a decade, leads it. Aboard her boat, El Zorro, a 26-foot panga-type vessel, I cruised all around Bahia de La Paz, following and swimming with the critters in the whale shark nursery. I spent about three hours on the water, and swam with seven or eight different animals. The visibility was just 10-12 feet, so keeping outside the 6-foot standoff zone meant I could see them, but they were not crystal-clear. The GoPro videos were OK. The experience, though, was great.

Dr. Ramirez explained whale shark biology, why they were in Bahia La Paz, their habits, what is known, and what her research was hoping to accomplish. We motored out not far from the main marina in La Paz, and soon found the whale sharks. Unlike Isla Mujeres, there were maybe six boats total, only one of which was a research vessel. The rules state that only one boat with a maximum of six swimmers may follow any given animal. Since the bay is a nursery area for whale sharks, the animals we saw were small, somewhere between 12 and 16 feet.

Dr. Ramirez takes tissue samples (very tiny) to study the effects of micro plastics (think abradants in facial soaps) on whale sharks. She also uses video to study how whale sharks react to people swimming with them.

The whole experience was both exciting and relaxing; the whale sharks are graceful and slowmoving, though keeping up with them as they swim is indeed a challenge. The only thing that would have made it even better would have been 50-foot visibility instead of maybe 15-20 feet. But still magnificent and all at a cost of $85 per person. If you want to swim with whale sharks, this is a great way to do it.

- Mark Majors (Oakland, CA)

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