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February 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 34, 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

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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....

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