It was by chance that we found out about the opportunity to swim with the whalesharks with researchers, rather than a tour guide. The wonderful cruising grapevine…or salt vine!
As timing is everything, it just so happened that we were able to organise this with Ann (Peter’s sister) and Terry during their short visit to La Paz.
Dr Dení Ramírez Macía
and Pablo Ahuja (showing us the very expensive satelite tag) who has his Masters in Whale Shark Research were our guides for the day.
We would be looking at juveniles only, which were still larger than our Panga. The small cost of 50 USD pp for this adventure goes towards their research and educating the Mexican people about the conservation of their waters for this very important species. We actually get to adopt a whale shark each!
Peter chose Nemalhuilli who was tagged on May 23, 2009 which was prematurely released after 4 months. During this period she traveled more than 700 km out of the Gulf of California. We get updates as to her movements, which will be interesting.
My whale shark is called Flavio, a young male, who is yet to be tagged.
This is their website: http://www.whalesharkmexico.com/
We saw 10 whale sharks in total ranging from 6 to 10m long! They were actually adolescents, around 15 to 20 years old. They have a similar life span to humans. Out of the 10 sharks, 2 had not been seen in the area before and would be tagged. Deni and Pablo identify and record each one they see as each shark has a specific dot pattern near their dorsal fin. Photographic identification assists this process. As we found a new male and a new female on the day we went out, we were able to choose two Spanish names for them. We did suggest Matilda for a name, but at it was not quite Spanish, we had to move on!
The whale sharks come right near the La Paz anchorage, to a depth of around 10 to 20 m just on the other side of the El Magote (a peninsular) where we are anchored. This area is actually by law, closed to any boating to protect the whale sharks; however, this is not published in any of the marinas.
Although there is still much information to be gleaned, it is believed that the females give birth in very deep water and stay there with their young until they are a little larger so as not to be too much of an easy target for their predators, like orcas. Orcas are prevalent in the Sea of Cortez as well, and although Deni has seen orcas in the La Paz area, she assured us not recently! The thought of orcas feeding on the whale sharks whilst we were in the water….we decided not to go there!
At first, our prime concern was how cold the water would be…pathetic really! After our swim, no-one had even considered the temperature of the water, being far too focused on the whale sharks! We had to swim quite fast to keep up with them, although apparently they were going slow. It was a bit of a juggle to get close enough to them to have a look whilst at the same time keeping out of the way of their tail fin or worse..
their open mouth, as they changed direction.
There were times when we were in between two whale sharks…although these gentle giants are harmless; they are very big and at first, a little overwhelming.
The whale sharks follow their food source and by the growth on our hull, we are indeed sitting in a nutrient rich environment! They visit La Paz somewhere between September and March and in 2005, stayed around here for the entire year. Not much is known about what influences the location of the plankton but it is not thought to be linked to El Nino or La Nina cycles.
It is always the unexpected events that makes a place so special.