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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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February 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Baja Charters, La Paz, Baja California

great snorkeling with whale sharks -- weather permitting

from the February, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

Scooping plankton, the whale shark seemed to be swimming vertically in circles. This 25-foot-long, polka-dotted wonder, a youngster in his early 20s, was even more memorable with a row of remoras on his tail. I pinched myself and forgot about being chilled. Everywhere I looked, whale sharks were in the water. All I needed to do was stay out of their way. Not because they would hurt me, but because of the strict no-touching rules.

For me, snorkeling with these gentle giants was equivalent to a climber's dream of summiting Mount Everest. But my dream had a rude awakening when, after 30 minutes, I was told I had to get out of the water. Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, the Mexican government agency known as SEMARNAT, rules the Bay of La Paz. I had signed up for five days of snorkeling with the whale sharks, but between the Mexican government and the weather, I only got an hour maximum spread over two days, no more. Not what I hoped for.

One Great Day with the Whale SharksWhen skies are sunny, winds calm, and waves flat, the plankton levels rise, and the first 17 boats, loaded with snorkelers, vie for the opportunity to swim with the Bay's whale shark population, estimated at plus-or-minus 125, primarily juveniles. But La Paz's weather conditions can be as unreliable as that of the Himalayas. That huge differential put me on top of the world while in the water -- and left me incredibly disappointed when I wasn't allowed in.

I've dived much of the world searching for whale sharks. Every dive operator knew to call me when a pod was heading in their direction. Marc Bernardi, then owner of Aquatic Adventures, remembered when seeing them in Galapagos, and I was on his next scheduled dive trip there. Near Darwin's Arch, my first encounter simply whetted my appetite. As I clung to a reef in strong current, a whale shark appeared like a shadow, then swam out of sight. A few years later, I went with my group of dive buddies (we call ourselves the "Chicken Divers") to Holbox, off the Mexican Yucatan, to check out a rumored late-summer migration. Wading through the surf to board a panga, we motored an hour before we saw whale sharks. Four of us took turns in the water watching them as they approached us from all directions. (You can read about that adventure in the October 2004 issue of Undercurrent.) When we returned the following year, we were rewarded with giant mantas co-mingling with the whale sharks -- and unfortunately, a mass of other people. The Undercurrent article had brought thousands of divers, pangas from Isla Mujeres, and stricter government regulations.

Last year, after receiving an email from Baja Charters stating it offered the premier Baja whale shark expedition, I signed up. Owner Terry Neal, a personable American expat, cautioned me about December weather, which can be cold and rainy, with rough water and limited visibility. Because I planned to spend more time on his boat than in a hotel room, Neal suggested the Hyatt Place at the marina, rather than the fancier adjacent resort of Costa Baja. Five miles north of downtown La Paz, Hyatt Place offered a $59 nightly rate and a great breakfast.

After finishing a plate of hot eggs and cold yogurt, I waited for the hotel's 8:30 a.m. golf cart to take me the five-minute drive to Costa Baja's marina, where the Baja Cat was docked. It's a 54-foot-long by 30-foot-wide Northwest catamaran that offers trips from Cabo San Lucas to La Paz, and places in between. The cabin has a nicesized kitchen and dining table, with toilets and two hot showers down a few steps. Des and Yvonne, my friends who were staying in Cabo, took a two-hour ride on Baja Charter's shuttle bus for a day trip with me, and along with a Colorado couple and their adult daughter, we cruised 30 minutes to designated zone 1, where people are allowed in the water for the limited 30 minutes. (Boats can stay in the fartherout zones 2 and 3 for up to two hours, but people can't get in the water, so it's not quite the same.)

Baja California MapThen we transferred from the catamaran to a panga to search 15 minutes for the whale sharks until they appeared. There were so many! In the 50-foot visibility, I could see their huge open mouths approaching me as they scooped plankton through their baleens. Trevally pilotfish escorted them, while massive schools of anchovies huddled along their sides, seeking protection from jacks that darted in and out to feast on them. Des forgot his "collision avoidance monitor" and got sideswiped -- we were all jealous because he got the only feel (so soft, he said). Mariana Padilla, a University of La Paz marine biologist who was on board with us, said these whale sharks were estimated to be about 20 years old. Everyone wore 3-mil shorties, but with the water averaging 75 degrees, I wanted full 5-mil coverage.

After our exciting encounter, Chef Scott had blended margaritas waiting for everyone, plus chips with salsa and guacamole. I wish I hadn't chowed down when I found out there was also going to be a buffet lunch of chicken and beef tacos, fresh fruit soaked in rum, more margaritas, a chocolate cake from Walmart (La Paz' finest bakery) and a full open bar.

As the seven of us relaxed on the sundeck, we reminisced about our incredible encounter, not knowing we had experienced a record-breaking day -- Captain Chris Miller reported that we snorkeled with 20 whale sharks. Also, the panga driver watched a humpback breech, and Mariana had a dorado sighting. She told us La Paz-tagged whale sharks have been found as far afield as Thailand's Andaman Sea.

SEMARNAT is devoted to promoting the protection, restoration and conservation of Mexico's ecosystems. Thus, it monitors and controls viewing and interaction with whale sharks. While there are 120 licensed boats, only the first 17 that call SEMARNAT that morning are assigned the 30-minute time slots. If a boat is late, its departure time is delayed by three hours. The fine for not having a license in the whale shark zones is $10,000. While that's frustrating for tourists and dive operators, I tip my hat to Mexico for a fine job of protecting whale sharks, which are being hunted for their fins. This "iron grip" agency claims to have stopped long-lining and shark finning in the Sea of Cortez, but all the local operators I talked to vehemently dispute that claim, saying SEMARNAT is turning its head.

Returning to the well-tended marina around 2 p.m., the boat crew escorted us to the gate, where I took a quick ride on Hyatt's golf cart back to the three-story hotel. I had plenty of time to relax in my room with large bed, bathroom and sitting area to watch high-def TV and use the free WiFi. But my choice of staying in a convenient, inexpensive hotel bit me when it came to doing things other than snorkel trips -- while Hyatt Place offered hourly complimentary shuttle service to the city center, it was a 20-minute ride each way, with a wait on either side, and I'm not much of a sightseer or shopper. The town, which rests on perpetually tanned flatlands along the Sea of Cortez, is no longer sleepy -- it has a growing number of snowbirds and ex-pat retirees, and has totally renovated its waterfront Malecon, placing aquatic sculptures every 100 yards. I walked around La Paz on my first day, but there were zero tourists, and the historic, colonial-style Los Arcos hotel was closed and dilapidated -- it felt like the local economy was taking a hit. In retrospect, I should have stayed at the Costa Baja Resort, which has restaurants, a spa, pool and fitness center to stave off boredom.

The Baja Cat CatamaranOn my second day, I got the depressing call -- there would be no whale sharking that morning. Heavy rains were predicted for La Paz. Baja Charters refunds in full or plans another dive activity. I was offered the opportunity to dive in Cabo Pulmo, a coral reef considered the pride of the Sea of Cortez. But only locally licensed boats are permitted to visit the Park's dozen sites. (Liveaboards, usually headed to Socorro, have to hand over passengers to Cabo Pulmo operators.) Baja Charters partnered with Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort to offer its divers the ground transportation, meals, drinks, open bar, and dive equipment that's given to hotel guests. I took its shuttle on the two-and-a-half-hour drive from La Paz on a dirt two-lane road that was under construction.

Divemaster Alex guided the panga from the resort's dive shop with a tractor for our beach entry. I dived with a couple from Nevada and a woman from Alaska. Designated a marine preserve in 1995, Cabo Pulmo is home to the oldest of the three coral reefs on North America's western coast. I didn't see much hard coral, but I saw scattered sea fans and staghorn. But schools of jacks and yellow snapper were numerous, and I passed by colorful parrotfish, a moray eel, and a mature, algae-covered hawksbill turtle. Sadly, bull sharks, regular visitors to Cabo Pulmo, didn't appear. Our dives averaged 50 feet depth, with visibility of 100 feet, and were limited to 50 minutes. While other divers wore shorties in the 78-degree water, I covered mine with a fulllength 3-mil. The panga, with two seats lining each edge, had a sturdy ladder that was easy to clamber up. The other divers, there for multiple days, were happy with the dives, but I was too spoiled to consider them worth the long drive if Baja Charters hadn't arranged it.

After the panga slid onto the beach, I used the dive shop's hot showers and spacious changing room. Then I ran into Terry Neal's assistant, who said Terry was upstairs in the resort's restaurant. I chatted with him over chips, guacamole and drinks at an outdoor table overlooking Cabo Pulmo's rugged coast. A former CEO of multinational companies, author and now a widower, Neal now lives in Cabo San Lucas. He says Baja Charters is just plain fun for him, and he has surrounded himself with a capable customer- service team who did a good job making sure my needs were met. Neal had just purchased the Baja Seeker, a 96-foot McQueen yacht, which he re-introduced as Pacifica, a five-cabin liveaboard that offers diving, snorkeling, fishing, kayaking and paddleboarding and a Jacuzzi, and he is currently working on obtaining a permit from SEMARNAT to dive with schooling hammerheads.

Rating for Baja Charters, La Paz and Cabo PulmoWhile I was diving in Cabo Pulmo, the skies over La Paz dumped enough rain to flood the streets. I didn't think about the impact that rain would have the next day while snorkeling again with the whale sharks. Lacking other clients, Baja Charters arranged for me to go solo in the panga with driver Leo Ramirez. Once again securing the first time slot at 9 a.m., we spent a lot of time searching for the sharks. The first one we saw was really cruising; the next two were juveniles that also seemed to be on a mission. I got in the water and swam as fast as possible for brief but close encounters. Because the previous day's storm had submerged the plankton, the whale sharks quickly descended.

When I heard from kite surfers and sailors that high winds of 25-plus knots were forecast for the weekend, I called Califia Airlines to see if I could change my flight to return the next day. I did so at a whopping cost of US$5. As great as the Hyatt staff treated me, I was tired of eating dinner in the area set aside for breakfast buffets, and as a lone tourist, I didn't feel like taking the 20-minute shuttle to dine solo in town. And with no more whale shark sightings planned during my remaining two days, I took a cab to the airport and headed back to Tijuana to overnight in San Diego before my flight home.

So much for five days of bliss, but being in the water with 20 whale sharks slowly moving by me was still what I consider an incredible adventure, albeit interspersed with hours of boredom. This bucket-list trip is only for those who can "go with the flow" -- Mexico's strict restrictions and weather volatility during the October-to-April whale shark season can be challenging, but that's when the big guys are there, so it will always be a crap shoot. Maybe Baja's weather is generally good in October and November, but I don't predict the weather anymore (I recently inquired about going back and was told the Harbormaster closed the Bay for the week because of an Arctic front causing four-foot waves), and SEMARNAT doesn't give advance notice about when they open licensing for whale shark viewing.

Baja Charters runs a great operation, but its whale-watching boats aren't fitted for diving, they don't go out in bad weather, nor do they leave the Bay of La Paz, so forget about them doing last-minute alternative trips to snorkel with sea lions at Espiritu Santo. If you want to spend time in the Sea of Cortez rather than base yourself in Cabo San Lucas, I highly recommend you go with a group of friends or dive shop to charter a Baja Charters boat for five days, and when conditions for whale sharks aren't great, snorkel at the nearby island of Espiritu Santo, dive at Cabo Pulmo, and find the schooling hammerheads and mantas. When the sun is shining and the whale sharks ascend for their plankton feedings, you'll not forget it.

-- M.P.

Divers CompassDivers Compass: I took a 90-minute flight from Tijuana to La Paz via Califia Airlines for $203, and the cab from airport to Hyatt Place was around $24 . . . There's no direct flight from the U.S. to La Paz; Delta, American and Alaska Airlines fly to San Jose del Cabo, and then it's a two-hour car ride or shuttle ride to La Paz . . . My cost per day for all-inclusive diving and food was $285 plus tax . . . Hyatt Place on the marina was very convenient and nice, while nearby Costa Baja Resort is a more upscale, resort-type place at $175 per night . . . La Paz restaurants recommended to me included Oliva al Mare, Tres Virgenes, Sorstis, Anzuelo, Palermo´s Steak house, and the homemade ice cream at La Fuente . . . Websites: Baja Charters --; Hyatt Place in La Paz --; Costa Baja Resort --; Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort --

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