A swim with whale sharks has been on Tedly’s bucket list for years, so he was super excited to experience this in La Paz, Mexico. As early retirement budget travelers, we found an easy and relatively inexpensive way to experience these magnificent creatures up close.
Tedly went twice. The first day he went (mid-December) was windy and chilly, so I opted to go the following day when the wind was forecast to diminish. Tedly loved it so much the day I did not go, that he went again the next day with me.
Following advice on TripAdvisor, we went down to the Burger King and went across the street to look for the panga boats that take tourists out to swim with the whale sharks. It was easy to find a boat.
The cost was $38 each, and it included snorkel gear and fins, a guide who spoke English, and the boat ride. I use my own prescription snorkel mask but I did take the fins, and I’m glad I did because I had to swim like hell to catch up with a large whale shark.
The pay off was huge.
I got to swim alongside the creature for several long, breathtaking minutes. (I usually skip the fins, but the current was kind of strong that day, and these creatures can move fast.)
For another $10, I could have rented a wet suit, but I opted against it. I was ok as long as I was in the water. It was the during boat rides around looking for the creatures while I was already wet that gave me the shivers. I just put on some clothes and wrapped up in my Turkish towel and made it through.
To swim with whale sharks was oddly calming for me. I loved seeing Tedly alongside a large one – my husband looked so small and human. It’s an image burned in my mind forever.
These creatures don’t mind you swimming near them.
Tips: don’t make sudden, jerky movements near them, and don’t get too close.
If you move too fast, or get too close, they’ll freak out a bit and take off like a bat outta hell.
I didn’t time one of my swims, but it had to be close to ten minutes. I simply kicked and kicked, and watched it open its mouth to take in the plankton. Every now and then a ray of sunlight would illuminate the small bits the whale shark was eating.
Another whale shark I followed was younger, smaller, faster. That swim near the creature lasted maybe three minutes, and I had to swim hard to keep up with it before it took off. It was not feeding, so it was moving much faster. It was still fun, and the whole experience was totally worth it.
More tips to get the most out of this excursion
- Be prepared to wait. The panga boats will wait for a group large enough to go, and that can mean sitting around the dock for an hour or more. Just be ready to wait. Once you are on the water, the boat may drive around for a bit of time searching for the whale sharks. The captain will stop near a sighting for the tourists to get into the water (and you have to move fast into the water!).
- Go in the water first. The boats are filled with different groups of people, and you might have to take turns to get into the water. Only five people can go at a time, but there could be ten tourists on the boat.
- Don’t swim too close to the tail. One woman got whacked in the head in our group, and she struggled to swim back to the boat. She didn’t want to swim with the whale sharks anymore after that. Poor lady.
- Try to go on a sunny day. Just the usual tip – better for visuals. We went on days that were partly cloudy because we had no choice.
- Ask questions. Our guide was a marine biology student who wanted to practice her English and share her knowledge. While she gave us great information on the rides in the boat to find the whale sharks, asking questions gave me additional knowledge. The captain spoke only Spanish, but his knowledge was immense having worked around these creatures for years.
Not everyone in our group had a great time. Aside from the woman knocked in the head with a whale shark tail, there was another woman with a not-so-great experience.
Unfortunately, she was a slow swimmer who didn’t try to go fast, and she went into the water last. She only saw one whale shark from a distance for about one minute before it sped away. She said the trip wasn’t worth it for her. (I’d add she didn’t really make the effort.)
The moral of that little story is: everything is what you make of it.
So go jump in!!
More adventurous stuff:
- Caring for elephants at an ethical camp in Thailand
- We lived on a floating house in Vietnam
- Challenging hike to see the “Fire Volcano” in Guatemala