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Swimming with whale sharks in La Paz, Mexico: A complete guide!

Nothing could quite prepare us for the moment we first saw a whale shark the size of a bus glide slowly by, just feet away.

It was one of those OMG moments, an almost other-worldly experience.

How wondrous that we could swim with whale sharks in La Paz, Mexico – that these amazing creatures allowed us to snorkel alongside them in the wild.

If you’re visiting Baja California Sur, put whale shark snorkeling on your list. No question, it’s one of the most memorable things to do in Mexico!

Snorkeling With Whale Sharks in La Paz

Whale sharks in La Paz

Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are unfortunately endangered.

However, there are still a handful of places in the world where you can swim with whale sharks.

The Bay of La Paz (on the Baja Peninsula) in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez is one such place.

Snorkel with whale sharks in La Paz, Mexico

Swimming with whale sharks is a must-do day trip from Cabo San Lucas.

Don’t miss it when on holiday in Los Cabos (or La Paz)!

Swimming with whale sharks in La Paz: Two experiences

We recently went snorkeling with whale sharks in La Paz a second time.

The experience was just as amazing as the first – only different.

The first time we booked our whale shark day trip with Cabo Expeditions.

The second time, we arranged our La Paz whale shark tour with Baja Charters, which uses a large catamaran as a support boat in the Bay of La Paz.

We’ll tell you all about these and other whale shark tours in La Paz in a jiff.

First, though, let’s get to know whale sharks a little better…

Swimming with the Baja whale sharks is one of the best day trips from Cabo San Lucas!

Beach baby? Love the water? Then read our post on 8 fun water activities in Cabo San Lucas

Interesting whale shark facts

1) Is a whale shark a whale or a shark?

Whale sharks are actually not whales or normal sharks. Gray with white spots, they are filter-feeding fish – the largest fish in the world.

2) How big do whale sharks grow?

They grow up to 60 feet long and weigh up to 47,000 pounds.

3) What is the biggest whale shark in the world?

The largest whale shark ever recorded was 61.7 feet, according to a study on marine giants.

4) How big are baby whale sharks?

Juvenile whale sharks are called “pups.” And when born, they’re barely two feet long.

To protect against predators, it’s believed the mothers swim down some 3,000 feet underwater to give birth, Mariana (the marine biologist on our Baja Charters tour) told us.

It takes four months for baby whale sharks to grow to about six feet long, and then they swim back up to the surface.

5) How long do whale sharks live?

They live to a nice old age of 130 years.

6) What do whale sharks eat?

Whale sharks are filter feeders which eat only plankton, krill and small fish.

7) Why does a whale shark have a big liver?

Their livers are huge – about 70% of a whale shark’s body is liver. The liver stores oil, which helps keep the whale shark buoyant.

8) What don’t we know about about whale sharks?

There are lots of facts about whale sharks we still don’t know.

How often they breed, the mating season, the length of gestation, when they have their babies – all of this remains a mystery.

Is it safe to swim with whale sharks?

Swimming with whale sharks in La Paz, Mexico -- awesome!

With whale sharks being so massive, you might naturally ask: Is it dangerous to swim with them?

Another question: Do whale sharks eat people?

The short answer to both is “No.”

Even though whale sharks are humongous, they are really just gentle giants. Whale sharks pose no threat to divers, snorkelers and swimmers.

The only concern we had when swimming with the whale sharks was to stay away from their cavernous mouths.

To feed, they open their mouths very wide to suck in gallons of sea water from which to filter out algae and krill.

And our concern wasn’t for us – a whale shark won’t swallow you. Even though their mouths can stretch to four feet wide, their sieve-like “gill rakers” are designed just to feed on tiny things.

swim with whale sharks in La Paz

No, our concern was for the whale sharks.

We didn’t want to accidentally poke them in their open mouths with a flippered foot.

About the La Paz whale sharks

There are some 95 whale sharks in La Paz, mostly juveniles about 15 to 30 feet long – but plenty big to swim with!

The whale shark feeding zone in La Paz Bay (called “El Mogote”) became an underwater national park in March, 2019.

Swimming with the La Paz whale sharks is highly regulated by Mexico’s SEMARNAT (the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources), and all boats, captains and guides must be licensed.

The maximum number of boats allowed in the protected area at any one time is limited to 14 small pangas.

Each boat gets three hours in the water, and each can only have five of their guests in the water at a time.

You can swim for three minutes alongside a whale shark, then you must get out of the water.

Don’t worry though – that’s a long enough time!

You have to work very hard to keep up with them. After a few minutes of full-on swimming, you’ll be quite breathless! 

The experience: Baja whale sharks with Cabo Expeditions

Our first tour with Cabo Expeditions included picking us up from our resort in Cabo San Lucas and driving us by van to the city of La Paz (about a two-hour ride away).

In La Paz, we geared up in wet suits, then climbed aboard our boat for the cruise out into the bay.

We were accompanied by our Cabo Expeditions guide and a federally licensed local guide with good knowledge of marine biology (along with a boat captain, of course).

Aerial spotter planes looked for the whale sharks from above, communicating their location to our boat captain.

Other pangas and boats also descended on the spot where four or five whale sharks were feeding.

When a whale shark was spotted swimming close by our boat, our guide excitedly shouted at us to slide into the water and swim up to it.

We felt like paratroopers, quickly jumping in one after the other like dominoes.

swim with whale sharks in Mexico

Then we’d swim alongside the whale shark while peering down at it through our snorkel mask.

When it swam away from us and we couldn’t follow it any more, we’d swim back to the boat, climb aboard and wait for the next whale shark to watch.

Jump, swim, observe, repeat.

And imprint this awesome once-in-a-lifetime experience in memory.

Afterwards, we were taken to a local restaurant in La Paz for a Mexican meal of hot soup and tortillas, then driven back to Cabo.

The experience: Luxury catamaran tour with Baja Charters

Our first whale shark adventure was so epic that we just had to make it a twice-in-a-lifetime experience…

Baja Charters operates a little differently.

Their day tours also include transfers to and from Cabo San Lucas, but they use the 60-foot catamaran “Island Cat” as a support boat.

Upon boarding the catamaran around 9:00 am, we were treated to coffee, cake and fruit and relaxed on the boat as it motored out into the bay.

It was unusually cool and overcast, so while we could have lounged about outside on cushions or the netting at the bow, everyone huddled instead inside the cat’s lounge.

The captain even put the heater on!

It was just as well we had a warm place to hang out, as we had to wait an hour until a couple of other pangas left the protected whale shark area.

Once cleared to go, we suited up in shorty wetsuits and boarded our panga (there were two pangas, ours had five guests).

We did four jumps into the water.

A particularly surreal moment was looking right into the eye of one whale shark as it glided by just inches away.

We saw at least ten whale sharks!

What struck us this time is that we got incredible views of the whale sharks right from the boat.

We could actually get a better overall view peering down at them from the boat, as they’d swim right up to the boat.

Our panga captain explained that whale sharks have poor eyesight. He constantly had to manoever the panga to get it out of the path of the whale sharks.

Once in the water, it was difficult to see them until they were quite close because the water wasn’t crystal clear. All that plankton and food, which attracts the whale sharks, makes the water cloudy.

But it was thrilling to see first the mouth, then the gills and finally the tail as a whale shark passed by.

Before we knew it, three hours had zipped by and it was time to return to the “Island Cat.”

Shivering from the cold water, we made a beeline for the shower.

The “Island Cat” boasts two heads with fresh water showers, and towels are supplied. Standing under a hot shower never felt so good!

By the time everyone had showered, a hot lunch of seared tuna and fresh-made tortillas with chicken and beef was waiting.

Seared tuna and spinach salad onboard the "Island Cat" on our La Paz whale shark tour with Baja Charters

And the complimentary bar was open.

We hungrily filled our tummies, with visions of whale sharks filling our thoughts, as we sailed back to La Paz’s Marina Palmira.

Lunch onboard the "Island Cat" on La Paz whale shark tours with Baja Charters? Fresh tortillas with chicken and beef.

Brrr… it’s so cold

While tremendously exciting to watch whale sharks up close, it was hard on both occasions to ignore the cold seeping into our bones and stiffening our fingers. (We went in early January.)

In winter, which is the La Paz whale shark season, the water temperature drops to the low 60s.

So we felt both regret and relief when it was time to say goodbye to the whale sharks and return to Cabo.

swim with whale sharks in La Paz - photo Cabo Expeditions

When you plan your Los Cabos trip, you might actually want to stay in La Paz for a couple of days. (There are more fun things to do in La Paz – like snorkeling with sea lions.)

Related reading: An insider guide to the best snorkeling in Cabo San Lucas and best tours

Whale shark season, La Paz

The best time to see whale sharks in La Paz is from October to February.

The best time to go to Cabo (and La Paz) for warm water is October and November.

The water temperatures are almost bathtub warm then – but they’re chilly in January and February. If you book your whale shark snorkel trip for November, say, you’re not likely to be swimming in cold water.

La Paz whale shark tours

Because there are strict rules for swimming with whale sharks in La Paz, the tour operators are ecologically responsible.

From what we observed, boats maintained safe distances from the whale sharks to avoid hurting them, and there were only a few people in the water at a time from any one boat.

Expect to pay about $250+ USD p.p. for a day tour departing from Cabo San Lucas (up to $400 for a luxury tour). Tours from La Paz will be less.

Here are some of the best La Paz whale shark tour operators:

Cabo Expeditions:

We found Cabo Expeditions to be very conscientious and recommend them highly.

Their 8-hour tours leave from Cabo (wet suits and snorkel gear provided). 

 Cabo Expeditions: Website

Baja Charters:

We also really enjoyed our small group tour with Baja Charters – and can highly recommend them too.

Their La Paz whale shark snorkeling trips are more expensive than those offered by Cabo Expeditions. But you get the use of the “Island Cat” (and its hot showers!) plus a freshly prepared hot lunch on the boat.

Tours also include all snorkel gear (choice of full-face or standard snorkel masks), wet suits, towels and reef-friendly sunscreen.

Baja Charters: Website

Fun Baja:

We’ve heard from friends that Fun Baja also does a good job.

Because their tours start in La Paz, their trip cost is less (transportation from Cabo isn’t included).

Fun Baja: Website

Cabo Adventures:

Cabo Adventures is another reputable company offering whale shark encounters. We’ve booked other activities in Los Cabos with them and can recommend them too. 

Cabo Adventures: Website

Manta:

Manta Scuba Divers offers a day tour which combines two activities: a La Paz whale shark excursion and scuba diving with playful sea lions at Los Islotes.

(We’ve gone scuba diving in Cabo San Lucas with Manta – they’re very good.)

Manta: Website

You won't regret booking a tour to snorkel with the La Paz whale sharks!

Practical information for snorkeling with whale sharks

No-no:

Don’t touch a whale shark (even though it’s quite easy to do).

Touching them can transfer harmful bacteria from you to them, and make their skin vulnerable to infection.

Tips for a better whale shark experience:

If snorkeling with whale sharks in La Paz, know that you might find the water cold even with a wetsuit (depending on the month you go).

Try to rent a thicker wetsuit or wear an additional wetsuit vest for extra warmth.

If you wear sunscreen, use a reef-friendly biodegradable product so the chemicals don’t harm the marine life.

Be aware:

You’re in the water with very large animals in their natural environment.

If you don’t think you’ll be comfortable with this, swimming with whale sharks may not be the tour for you.

Where else can you swim with whale sharks in Mexico?

La Paz is one of the few places in the world where you can swim with whale sharks.

La Paz is the best place to swim with whale sharks in Mexico in the winter months. But it’s not the only place.

You can also go whale shark swimming off Isla Holbox, a small unspoiled island north of Cancun.

In summer, Isla Holbox tours are offered to snorkel with the whale sharks that gather to feed there in the plankton-rich waters. (Getting up close-and-personal with these ocean behemoths is one of the fun things to do in the Riviera Maya.)

The water is comfortably warm during the Isla Holbox and Cancun whale shark season (mid-May to mid-September).

Last words on swimming with whale sharks in Cabo

We’ve been fortunate to enjoy oodles of activities in and around Cabo San Lucas during the countless times we’ve visited Los Cabos.

One of the absolute best is a La Paz whale sharks tour. It’s truly an unforgettable experience!

We expect that, like us, you’ll hanker for it to become a twice-in-a-lifetime adventure too.

Experience more of Mexico!

Read our essential posts on:

Mexico’s colonial cities | The colonial Cities in Mexico are a necklace of gems – we’ve got guides on San Miguel de Allende and Morelia

Puerto Vallarta | Check out the best boutique hotels in Puerto Vallarta and the best Puerto Vallarta restaurants

Riviera Maya | Discover 22 totally awesome things to do in Riviera Maya (and the Grand Velas Riviera Maya is catnip for foodies)

Zihuatanejo | There are beautiful beaches in Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa!

Getting around | Get the scoop on the the best Cabo airport transfers from the Cabo San Lucas airport and riding the first-class bus in Mexico (like flying business class, really!)

Ready to book your trip?

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Our Travel Resources Guide | Get airline booking tips. Discover great travel, tour and car rental companies. And find crazy useful trip planning info!

Booking.com | Score a “wow” hotel – or at least a decent one.

GetYourGuide | Check out local guided tours and book tickets to attractions.

World Nomads | We always have travel insurance for international trips. World Nomads offers great coverage for adventurous travelers under 70.

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Swim with whale sharks in La Paz, Mexico

Photo credits: 7, 8, 11, 14, 15 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 12, 13 Baja Charters | 4, 6, 16 Cabo Expeditions | 5, 9 Manta


We paid Cabo Expeditions a discounted rate and were invited by Baja Charters as media guests on our La Paz whale shark snorkeling tours. But as professional travel writers, we always report on our experiences as we see them (and point out issues you should know).


About the authors:

Janice and George Mucalov

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, luxury hotel reviews, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, cruise reviews and information, insanely useful travel tips and more!

Lauren

Sunday 9th of February 2020

Thanks for this post! Did both of your tours leave from La Paz or just the one? We are staying in Cabo but were told to go to La Paz for whale sharks. Just wondering if there is any way to avoid the long drive to La Paz. Thank you so much!

Janice and George

Monday 10th of February 2020

Hi Lauren, We were staying in Cabo, so we did both of our tours from Cabo. Round-trip transportation in a comfortable van was provided as part of the tour price - so you don't have to drive yourself :-). It means an early start to the day, but swimming with the whale sharks is sooo worth it.

Stephanie

Tuesday 1st of October 2019

Hi What can we see other than the whale shark in November around La Paz? Thanks

Janice and George

Tuesday 1st of October 2019

The snorkeling will be great in the Sea of Cortez! The water will be nice and warm -- lucky you :-). You might also want to go snorkeling with sea lions at Espiritu Santos Island, which is part of the UNESCO-protected Islas de Golfo de California Biosphere Reserve. The island is home to a colony of some 300 sea lions. Some tour operators add kayaking to the tour as well as snorkeling. Have fun your trip!

Chelsea

Monday 9th of September 2019

I'm heading to Cabo the first week of January to do this! My first time traveling out of the country BY MYSELF for 5 days of scuba diving and whale shark-ing and swimming with mako and silkie sharks. I CANNOT wait!

Janice and George

Tuesday 10th of September 2019

Exciting! Whale sharks are just one of the many incredibly diverse underwater creatures (e.g., jumping Mobula rays, sea lions, dolphins, whales) you can see in the Sea of Cortez. As for sharks, you've already named makos and silkies. There are also blue sharks, tiger sharks and hammerheads. Have an awesome dive holiday!

Kit

Sunday 24th of February 2019

Magnificent pictures! I love your writing.

Janice and George

Sunday 24th of February 2019

Thank you :-).

Kevin Eddings

Sunday 8th of March 2015

Sharks are fish, in the class Elasmobranchiomorphi with skates and rays, the cartilaginous fish.

Christian Geitner

Monday 2nd of January 2017

An easy way to tell is to look at the angle of the tail. Vertical=fish, horizontal=whale

Janice and George

Sunday 8th of March 2015

Thank you for sharing - great to know!