Postcards & Passports

See the Whale Sharks and Marine Life of Baja!

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Even as we share a few moments in this blog post, somewhere in the tropical waters of the world, whale sharks wend their way as the monarch of fish and the most docile of sharks. They are commonly found in Mexico, Belize, Ecuador, South Africa, Australia and the Philippines.  It is my fortune to live within 420 miles of a whale shark site on Mexico’s Baja peninsula.  Perhaps you will one day make this epic journey but for now let’s go vicariously to see the whale sharks and marine life of Baja! 

Why Whale Sharks?

Whale sharks are indeed the largest fish in the oceans.  Their length and weight is similar to that of a bus!  So, to see and swim beside a whale shark is a breathtaking experience.  No need to worry, their eating interests center on microorganisms and small fish, not on you!  But it is advisable to stay clear of their tail.  They’ll whip that thing hard when they are done socializing.

Getting There

Epic doesn’t come easy but it does come worth it as we found on our whale shark adventure. Two years ago I posted a description of how to make the road trip to Bahia de los Angeles. Check it out when the time approaches for you to make the journey.  For this excursion our day began with a 7 a.m. arrival at the Tijuana border.  Crossing, inspections, secondary inspections & getting tourists cards stamped at immigration was a process of about 45 minutes. 400 miles later we came into view of the Sea of Cortez shortly after 6 p.m.  We began at once to imagine how it would be to see the whale sharks and marine life of Baja!

Where We Landed

There are motels in the Bay of L.A. (short for Bahia de los Angeles) and beach camping with some amenities but our choice was primitive camping at La Gringa, 8 miles north of town.  The once dirt road there has mostly been paved. Nice! Still, the last couple miles of it is rough and might not let a sedan or mini-van through in a couple spots. Our trucks were up to the task of course.  We have always camped at the same spot near a knoll that provides morning shade and sits on a small inlet.

First Day

Day 1 found us up early enjoying the sunrise.  The waters of the Vermilion Sea as it is occasionally called are a plate of glass and the picture of serenity.  The sun paints the desert landscape in fiery hues.  And you’ll experience a hushed silence unlike any other place. Birds begin to criss-cross the horizon and often we find ourselves visited by curious seals.  After breakfast we pack our camelbaks, ready our kayaks, load up on sunscreen and embark on a two mile paddle to islands east of camp to see if we can find the whale sharks.

Crossing by kayak is a great way to be close to the marine life of the channel.  We do it every time despite having a small motor boat with us too.  We always get up close and personal with something during the paddle. One year we were visited by a large manta ray who also indulged us in a short piggy-back ride. Other years we have found ourselves amid dolphins or whales. Seals and sea lions are often curious about us. This year one of my sons paddled along with a sea turtle!  

The islands are a great place for dozens of varieties of fish but at least on this trip not for whale sharks!  We loved the snorkeling amid truly countless numbers of fish. Everything from sport fish to angel fish as well as starfish, urchins, sponges, anemones and more.  We also enjoyed a modest harvest of a couple fish each with hawaiian slings for a dinner of fresh fish tacos that evening. It was an amazing trek to try to see the whale sharks and marine life of Baja!

Second Day

We turned our focus west to the Bay of L.A.  It is too large to cover on our own but we could survey a lot of water near us.  To do so we employed a drone and more kayaking.  One of my sons brought a DJI Spark on the trip, and it was a blast.  We sent it aloft to search the surface for the rippling and fins that accompany a feeding whale shark.  I also took to my kayak and paddled the northern circumference of the bay stopping to talk with yacht owners at anchor to see if they had seen any whale sharks and to snorkel a bit to cool off. We came up empty handed again!

(This paragraph does include an affiliate link, and my wife will earn a small commission to help with her blog expenses, if you purchase anything.)

Snorkeling always resulted in lots of marine life action.  I was not far from a large sea lion, found an octopus and saw fat, massive starfish.  There were schools of parrotfish, a plethora of rocks and tons of shells. I was surrounded once by thousands of crabs in a tidal pool created by the large tidal swings of the Sea of Cortez. Snorkeling was the perfect prescription for dealing with temperatures in the high 90’s and for seeing the marine life.

Third Day

Our last day in Baja, and we were yet to see the whale sharks!  Nightly trips into town to get ice for the coolers and to quench our thirst with tasty beverages were also times to talk to the locals. When it came to locating whale sharks, let’s just say they were very aware of the living that provides the boating business in town.  Any effort to find out where the whale sharks were would be met with the invitation to go out on a Panga — that’s what they call the tour boats.  We finally resolved to do just that!

A chartered Panga tour of the bay will set your group back $200 and that’s USD, not pesos 🙂 But split between the six of us, that was not a bad per-person price. We toured with Ricardo’s. The boat had ample seating, some shade and a bow where a couple people can perch if they so desire but nothing else in the way of amenities. Octavio was our captain and he was great. It was a thorough trip, over four hours, across the whole bay with time to clam at one stop and snorkel at another, as well as to finally see the whale sharks!

Whale Sharks – Check that Off the Bucket List!

Whale sharks were congregated no more than 100 yards away from the boat launch.  Yes, very kayak-able.  Still, it is one thing to spot a dozen whale sharks and another to get to them and into the water next to them.  It would require a fair effort paddling and you’d better be in a tandem kayak so one of you can stay with the boat while the other swims.  We were on the water by 9:00 a.m. which is probably the best whale shark watching time. We took turns swimming with the whale sharks so as to not overwhelm them.

whale sharks

The silent, rhythmic motion of such a gentle giant sends a vibe that varies between calming and alarming.  When we pulled up alongside the first of our dozen newfound friends, I was awed  by their size, grace and beauty.  Soon I was swimming adjacent to the head of the largest creature I have ever approached unprotected, a very sociable whale shark that swam in S-patterns so as to not leave us in his wake.  Each time his trajectory bent towards me my heartbeat elevated as I maneuvered to maintain a separation of a yard or so. After years of trips south of the border I finally got to see the whale sharks!

An hour with the whale sharks and we then pointed the bow to the dormant volcano at the north end of the islands.  There we stopped for snorkeling and curious seals joined us.  A moray eel greeted us from among the rocks; be careful where you put your fingers!  We also saw the abundance of fish life and rock-dwelling marine animals that are everywhere we snorkel in the Bay of L.A.

En route to still more islands we were treated to the acrobatic show of a young manta ray.  He repeatedly launched himself 10 feet into the air, what fun he was having!  Or was he just playing to the crowd?!  Sadly, we had our cameras in their ziplock bags and could not get a picture.  The next islands we visited were filled with many massive sea lions, and the dominant bulls put on quite a show.

whale sharks

photo courtesy of baja.com

More Marine Life

We paused at La Ventana (the window) as we headed south to the inlets off the bay.  The inlets afforded a swim with a family of dolphins.  We also gathered a couple dozen clams for dinner. Boats were anchored in this truly great place to lodge in Bahia de los Angeles.  A convoy of sea turtles joined us as we trolled the South end of the bay where we saw one last whale shark. Then we headed back to the boat launch happy that we got to see what we came for. One more stop at Lizzeth’s (local mini-market with wi-fi) allowed us to share our photos with family at home!

Returning Home

Early the next morning we made our return to the San Diego area. Leaving at 7 a.m. we were back with our families by 7 p.m. — thanks in large measure to the 90+ minutes spent crossing the border, a popular but slow activity on a Saturday at 5 p.m.!  I hope your proxy visit to see the whale sharks and marine life of Baja has been a pleasant experience.  I’ve been blessed to be able to make such trips with family and friends over the years and to share that, however I can, with others! My daughter, Heather Young, did a great job of summing up our incredible experience in this video compilation…”Boys in Baja”  — enjoy!

My husband, Darren Wilcox, contributed this article. He loves to explore and travel and it has always been his dream to see and swim with the whale sharks. I’m so glad he was willing to share his story with you! Go-Pro footage courtesy of Gus Zanini, drone footage by Matthew Young, photos & video by Darren Wilcox, Caleb Wilcox, and Jon Jensen.

Be sure to share this with all your whale-shark-loving friends!

whale sharks

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46 thoughts on “See the Whale Sharks and Marine Life of Baja!

  1. Heather

    That trip truly sounds like a once in a lifetime experience! I’m so glad Matthew could join in on the adventure. Swimming with the whale sharks looks absolutely magnificent!!

      1. Tam

        Yes! I’ve been diving in the Socorro Islands, the Revillagigedos, and went out on the boat from Cabo San Lucas, but I’m really excited to do the Sea of Cortez!

  2. Cindy Collins

    This sounds like an epic trip and I am totally jealous, swimming with whale sharks and seeing all that marine life on the same trip, manta ray, eels, dolphins, turtles, seal lions, etc. That would be my dream especially since snorkeling is one of my favourite things to do. I had no idea Mexico was a good place to watch them.

  3. Kavey Favelle

    Baja is on my wishlist for the same reason, I’d like to see whale sharks in particular, plus whales and dolphins as well. Great to know that taking those tourist boats out is actually one’s best bet unless very lucky. Great great photos.

  4. Sarah

    What an absolutely amazing adventure! I would love to do something like this – all that sealife would keep me entertained for hours. So glad you got to see the whale sharks in the end, the drone footage was awesome! We recently bought a DJI Spark too and cannot wait to test it out somewhere more exotic than the parks in our city! Thanks for sharing such a great experience!

  5. Marcus and Mel

    Those are some big fish. Love the drone footage as it really gives you the sense of scale. The sea life of the area looks incredible and this sounds the best way to see and appreciate it.

  6. Laura Lynch

    All of these creatures are so fascinating to me. I guess because I don’t typically spend a lot of time swimming with whale sharks. It’s fun to have this experience, expecially in Baja where its so beautiful and pristine.

  7. Marcelle

    The islands look so bare but the underwater life is just magic! I’d love to take that little kayak to see the whale sharks, knowing now that they only eat microorganisms and small fish! Also the manta rays, dolphins and the sea turtles, what a beautiful place.

  8. Danijela WorldGlimpses

    Oh, how lovely those whale sharks are! So huge, but still elegant. I always admired all those spots on their bodies.
    And to see them up close? I can’t even imagine the feeling. Let alone swimming besides them!
    So envious! 🙂

  9. Janine

    This sounds like such a fun adventure! You saw (and ate) an amazing sampling of Baja’s marine life! I’m jealous! I swam with whale sharks near Isla Mujeres (Cancún), almost 10 years ago now. It was an amazing experience. They swim so fast- I struggled to keep up. I would happily do it again. Thanks for sharing your adventure 🙂

  10. Kevin Wagar

    I was on a dolphin watching tour in Costa Rica about 10 years ago. I was swimming in the water and a whale shark swam right up to our boat and hung out for a couple of minutes. Our guide was a marine biologist and he was totally flipping out since he had never seen one before. They are so awesome!

  11. Megan Jerrard

    To swim with whale sharks is at the top of my bucketlist! I’ve heard that you often forget to breath when you’re underwater because you hold your breath due to the awe! Thanks for th tip on staying clear of their tale – I know they’re gentle creatures, but it’s good to know the tail can wipe you flat!

    Baja sounds like a great place for this experience – glad to hear that it was an ethical wildlife experience and you took turns swimming so to not overwhelm them. Your drone footage of the whale shark is unreal – as is that jumping Manta Ray! Never seen anything like it!! What a day!

    1. Darren W Wilcox

      Thanks Megan! Definitely good to keep an agreeable relationship with the whale sharks and that Manta Ray we saw jumping made me laugh he looked like he was having such fun.

  12. Ozzy

    The fish here are some of the biggest that I have seen! The marine life seems spectacular. Thanks for the amazing drone footage, it really encapsulates the whole grand scheme of things.

    Being a wildlife enthusiast of all kinds, I really appreciate the way tourism is being handled in Baja! Big thumbs up!

  13. Jo Castro

    Wow, what a lovely post. We have whale shark trips on offer in the north west of Australia. It’s a 9 hour drive for us from the south west, but on my bucketlist. They are to be found off the remote Ningaloo Reef – a destination in itself.

  14. Jitaditya

    Wow, amazing views… and great captures of these marine creatures… I once spent hours to take a photograph of a river dolphin and managed only one half-decent shot…

    These photos are mindblowing in comparison and aerial shots of this phenomenon is a great idea for sure…

  15. Donna Meyer

    OMG! Swimming with whale sharks is at the very top of my bucket list–more like a life dream. I read this post sitting on the edge of my seat in excitement. Thanks for taking me there. I will get there myself one day soon.

    1. Tami Post author

      Donna, it really was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences for my husband and my sons. I hope you get to experience it, too!

  16. Jane M

    I can’t believe how much marine life you got to see in three short days. Not just whale sharks, but mantas and sea turtles and so many other things too. Looks like a wonderful place for a short break.

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