The warm waters of Southern Baja California have long attracted some of the oldest and largest species on the planet, thousands of years before tourists began streaming to Los Cabos to see them during the fall and winter months of mid-October to March. The most famous is the gray whale migration, but just as impressive and spectacular is the whale shark season in La Paz. And while whale sharks possess names that distinguish them as very large (whale) and potentially dangerous (sharks) they are undoubtedly very tame, non-aggressive, colossal creatures of the sea.
First recorded as a species of the sea in April 1829 after its first documented appearance in Table Bay, South Africa, the whale shark is known to reach lengths in size of up to 30 or 40 feet long and weigh anywhere up to 60 thousand lbs. They are what many consider the Kirby vacuum cleaners of the sea because their wide agape mouths suck in plankton and other small prey. Even more reassuring is the fact they are NOT meat, man eating brutes who originated 60 millions years ago, but rather ancient slow moving, gentle souls, who travel in groups and have a life expectancy rate of about 70 years. Their endangered species status has led to efforts by Project Domino, a conservation program implemented by the Mexican government, and other nonprofit organizations like ECOCEAN, to protect and preserve these graceful creatures. It is said even a touch by human skin could expose them to a life threatening infection from even the slightest just touch of anyones hand.
National Geographic documentaries and youtube videos on these creatures are all over the place and in Mexico, tours to swim and interact with them also abound in Cabo San Lucas and La Paz. A typical 2 hour tour in San Lucas is actually an 8 hour tour that begins with a 2-3 hour drive from Los Cabos to La Paz. An all day tour with a two of hours snorkeling and swimming with whale sharks in La Paz costs anywhere from $175 to $200 US dollars. Of course, if people are already in La Paz they can obtain tours for as little as $45-60 dollars. Tours departing from San Lucas leave at 7:00 am, arrive in La Paz at about 9:00 am and participate in the actual 2-3 hour whale shark tour from 1-3 in the afternoon, returning to CSL at approximately 5-6 pm. Prices from San Lucas include transportation to and from La Paz, light breakfast, lunch (at a Mexican restaurant at the La Paz Malecon or simple traditional lunch depending on the company), snorkel equipment, bottled water and guide. Because these normally solitary creatures socialize in groups of up to 20, the phenomenon gives tourists a 99% success rate of seeing multiple sharks within any one-day tours, which are pretty good odds. If for some reason visitors do not encounter any whale sharks during their paid tour some companies promise a complimentary seat on the next available tour. So now, is seemingly, the perfect time to see them up close. The impressive shark assembly proved that whale sharks will gather for the right reasons and food was apparently the reason for the record setting gathering of a year ago. Marine biologist Rafael de la Parra of the Domino Project, which tags the fish and has monitored their movements in an 8 year old project, said these animals move between Central America, Mexico and southern U.S. waters, driven more by the availability of food than a strictly defined migratory route. “Whale sharks are the largest species of fish in the world, they mostly feed on the smallest organisms in the ocean, such as zoo plankton,” Mike Maslanka, biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and head of the Department of Nutrition Sciences, is quoted as saying in a 2011 press release. “Our research revealed that in this case the hundreds of whale sharks had gathered to feed on dense patches of fish eggs.” Visitors onboard tours that bring them close enough to gaze, swim and snorkel next to and with the whale sharks call the experience, exhilarating. "We don't know enough about whale sharks to determine the effects of a bunch of people swimming around them," says Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Humane Society International "But my guess from a basic biology point of view is that having another animal buzzing around would be at least annoying and quite possibly harmful. If we're disrupting foraging or mating behavior by barging into their living room and insisting on playing with them, it becomes a welfare and conservation concern." Which is in part why tour operators have devised their own code of conduct which limits boat size and allows only two swimmers in the water at a time and a maximum of 30 minutes per boat with any individual shark. Additionally, Mexico created a Whale Shark Biosphere Reserve in the Yucatan region of last year to help with whale shark preservation and protection. At a whale shark conference in 2008, attendees were astonished by the respect (Mexican) operators have for the whale sharks. As pressure increases to deliver a guaranteed swim-with-the-sharks experience, however, violations to the code occur, attests Rafael de la Parra. "When there are plenty of whale sharks around, everyone's behaving and everyone is happy," he says. "The problem is when there aren't a lot of sharks." But generally, two by two, swimmers take their turns with the massive creatures, and the tours end with special and unique pleasures had by all who enjoy them. Next summer will mark the 6th annual celebration of the Whale Shark Festival held in Isla Mujeres, Mexico every mid July where thousands flock to the family-friendly Whale Shark Festival, from which partial proceeds of the festival are donated to several environmental non profit organizations.
The Whale Shark Festival was created in an effort to raise awareness of the need to preserve the area’s marine ecosystem. Isla Mujeres is part of the second largest barrier reef on the planet, and serves as the nursery of the Caribbean and the migratory path of whale sharks as well as sea turtles, water foul and game fishes.
“International events, and especially those such as the Whale Shark Festival which have a strong local element as well, are absolutely essential to increase the conservation culture through environmental education,” noted Rafael de la Parra of Project Domino; a proud sponsor of the Festival. Other organizations who have contributed to the Festival and study of whale sharks include the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas in Cancún, Mexico; the Center for Shark Research in Sarasota, Florida and Atlanta's Georgia Aquarium.