This post was most recently updated on July 9th, 2019
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.
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.
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!
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!
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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.
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.
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.
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!
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!