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!
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.
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…
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?
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.
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.
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 maneuver 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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:
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: See their website
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: See their website.
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: See their website.
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: They offer a full-day tour from Cabo San Lucas, which includes roundtrip transportation, a luxury boat ride to the whale shark area in La Paz and lunch.
Practical information for snorkeling with whale sharks
Where else can you swim with whale sharks in Mexico?
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.
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.
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Photo credits: 6, 7, 10, 13, 14 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 11, 12 Baja Charters | 3, 5, 15 Cabo Expeditions | 4, 8 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).