Dreams are often satisfied only after going through setbacks and challenges. For our family, the dream of swimming with whale sharks in the stunning Bahia de Los Angeles was no exception. Prepared for the challenge but not for the barriers of the pandemic, our hopes of making the trip across the border were nearly shattered.
Our planned excursion had already been canceled, shifted twice, and canceled again. Now it was our second year of trying to get to Baja. Covid case counts were lower, more people were vaccinated, and we finally had an open window of opportunity in July. Could it work?
Taking a chance
Family and friends began booking flights to San Diego, reserving hotel rooms and obtaining Mexican tourist cards and auto insurance. In all, our group would number eighteen – five women, ten men, and 3 teenage boys. On the appointed day, we set out with three vehicles from San Diego to Calexico, where another family met up with us to cross the border. While it is only about 450 miles from San Diego to Bahia de los Angeles (also known as the Bay of LA), the drive takes much longer than it might in the United States – at least 10-11 hours. Easily more. For several reasons…
1. Border Crossing
First of all is the border crossing. While it is generally easy to cross into Mexico, you never know when something will trigger an additional inspection or action. And at this crossing at Calexico, we were stopped and pulled aside. Was it the size of our group? Was it our load of kayaks and gear? Or did the border patrol officer just want an excuse to get out of the 100-degree weather and spend some time in the office? Regardless, it took an hour for all of us to present our tourist cards and be excused to return to our vehicles and enter Mexico.
2. Where’s the gasoline?
Secondly, the availability of gasoline is always precarious. You never know when a gas station will be out of gas. So you basically fill up with gas everywhere you can, all the way to Bahia.
3. The Roads
Thirdly, the quality of the roads in Baja are typically not as good as in the states. For a long time, the route through San Felipe to the Bay of LA included a dirt road. It is now paved and much easier to travel. But you still drive through towns where the speed limit is reduced significantly. You still need to watch for wandering animals or other obstructions. You’re not going to risk going too fast in Mexico, either. No one wants to get a speeding ticket in a foreign country!
After our 12-hour day of driving, we arrived at our resort, only to learn there had been some mix-ups with some of our reservations. A few of us broke off into a smaller group to find lodging for the night. Several motels rejected us because we only needed one night. We were relieved to find a place that had air conditioning(barely working) for a better price. It would do. You really have to hold Bahia de los Angeles lodging options to a different standard. It’s a more primitive place, and the amenities we are often used to are difficult to come by.
Will we be swimming with whale sharks?
Day two welcomed us with rooster calls and barking dogs. That’s okay – we needed an early start to eat breakfast and make our way to the pangas we’d reserved. We required two pangas for our group, and we climbed into them while they sat perched on trailers in Ricardo’s Diving Tours‘ parking lot.
Then off we went, much like parade floats down the streets of the town of Bahia de los Angeles to the launch site. We were a happy group, anticipating the marine life we would be privileged to see today, pleased to have made it this far. Temperatures were already in the upper 90’s so the slight breezes on the water were welcome.
Everywhere around us were the most spectacular views. Bahia de los Angeles is pristine; the contrast of the deep blue waters against the desert sands is exquisite. Mirror-like reflections of the bay’s islands shimmer under the hot sun. Only in the afternoon do the desert winds begin to create whitecaps.
We first headed to Bird Rock – a large rock mound “painted” in bird droppings, making it look like it was covered in snow, from a distance. Many birds could be seen perched on the rock or diving into the sea for food. Here we also saw a few seals, heads bobbing in and out of the water. They were most likely competing for the same fish meals as the diving birds!
Next, our panga guides took us to La Ventana, a rock arch that resembles a window. Most of us jumped into the water to snorkel or to take selfies in front of the well-known landmark. Snorkeling was enjoyable with many varieties of fish, both large and small. Perhaps not as colorful as fish we’ve seen in Hawaii, but still very entertaining. A local fisherman was putting out lobster traps nearby. We left at high speed for our next destination: Puerto Don Juan Harbor.
Our speed must have attracted attention. We were suddenly surrounded by pods of dolphins and flocks of diving birds. If you could give human qualities to the dolphins, you would have to describe them as gleeful. The dolphins played in our wakes and leapt several feet out of the air. This went on for quite awhile and was a highlight of our panga tour.
Puerto Don Juan Harbor
Puerto Don Juan harbor is a shallow protected cove with a shipwreck of the San Agustín III fishing boat and an easy dive for clams. The water is so warm here, some call it Bathtub Cove. It felt wonderful to swim here, and the men were in competition to see who could bring in the most clams. The boys in our group went ashore to check out the abandoned boat, which scattered the coyotes and vultures roaming the shoreline. This was all a welcome activity, but we were getting anxious for the prize, which our guides seem to have saved for last.
Finally, we were called back to the pangas, and we headed to the location where whale sharks most commonly gathered to feed. It was surprisingly close to the shore, north of the town of Bahia de los Angeles. If you know what you’re looking for, the whale sharks are not hard to spot, as they skim the surface with their wide mouths while feeding. We received instructions, including the mandatory “Do not touch the whale sharks!” I don’t think anyone had the inclination to be close enough to touch!
Our guide would carefully watch the water, then swing the boat around in an arc to line up with the path of the whale shark. “Jump NOW!” and no more than four of us would jump in at a time. When it is your turn to jump, it takes a second to orient yourself and actually spot the whale shark. You may even need to come to the surface to see where the others on the boat are pointing. But then, with your face in the water, you absolutely cannot miss the bulk of the gentle giant as it glides past you. Right in front of you! Nothing can prepare you for this sight. It takes your breath away – in both awe and fascination as well as a little primeval fear. How can you not be apprehensive as something the size of a bus swims by you?
The whale sharks tolerated our presence for quite some time, for nearly an hour, with all of us taking at least one turn in the water. Perhaps they were a bit curious about us as well, as they were content to have us around. For a while. Eventually, they left…and so did we. The ride back to shore was mostly quiet now, except for the hum of the panga motors. Reflecting on the once-in-a-lifetime experience of swimming with whale sharks made us a bit pensive, although I’m not sure any of us will settle for this excursion to be the only one. Despite the challenges we faced, we’re already planning when we might visit Bahia de los Angeles again. It’s a place that holds on to your soul. It does fulfill dreams after all.
Tips for swimming with the sharks in the Bay of L.A.
Best time to go?
This trip was at the end of July. The temperatures were pretty hot (about 100 degrees Fahrenheit), and the water was getting warmer at about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Whale shark season is generally July through November.
Where we stayed
We rented one home and a large room at the Los Vientos resort for our group of 18. Los Vientos sits right on the bay north of town and is the nicest hotel resort in Bahia de los Angeles.
Los Vientos has an excellent onsite restaurant, swimming pool, wifi (very unreliable), and a resident pet pelican! I suggest booking directly from their website rather than other hotel sites and communicating often and confirming your reservations prior to arrival.
Where we ate
We ate several meals at the Los Vientos restaurant because it was so convenient and reasonably priced. We also ate a wonderful dinner at Alejandrina’s. They were able to accommodate all 18 of us at once. Alejandrina’s has no website but they are located right next to Ricardo’s Diving Tours.
For lunches and snacks, we bought food at Costco and brought it with us. The homes we stayed in at Los Vientos had full kitchens we could use.
Where we reserved our panga tours
We used Ricardo’s Diving Tours to book our panga tours. They are very reliable and do an excellent job. They always know where the ocean wildlife is and how to help us have the best experience! You’ll be surprised by how affordable these tours are, especially when divided by up to 9 people on a boat.
It is also possible to camp in Bahia de los Angeles. Our family has done that several times. However, now that we have stayed at a hotel with air conditioning, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to camping! Read Baja Road Trip and Camping to learn more.
So much to do!
We spent three days in Bahia de los Angeles. Besides swimming with whale sharks, we also did a lot of kayaking, snorkeling, exploring tide pools, playing games, and relaxing. You can go off-roading, too. There’s even a small museum, Museo de Bahía de los Ángeles.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my account of swimming with whale sharks. If this is something you’ve always wanted to do, hopfully you’ve learned something that will help you plan your own adventure of a lifetime. If not, be sure to ask questions in the comments below.