Nothing could quite prepare us for the moment when 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 – that these creatures allowed us to snorkel alongside them in the wild!
Whale sharks 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 in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez is one such place.
Swimming with whale sharks is one of the must-do day trips from Cabo San Lucas – don’t miss it when on holiday in Los Cabos (or La Paz)!
Whale sharks in La Paz
Recently, we went swimming with whale sharks in La Paz (on the Baja Peninsula) a second time. The experience was just as amazing as the first – only different.
The first time we booked our day trip from Cabo San Lucas 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…
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Interesting facts about whale sharks
Whale sharks are actually not whales (or sharks). They’re fish – the largest fish in the world.
They grow up to 60 feet long, weigh up to 47,000 pounds and live to a nice old age of 130 years.
But even though whale sharks are humongous, they are really just “gentle giants.”
Grey with white spots, they eat only tiny plankton and krill.
Their livers are huge – about 70% of a whale shark’s body is liver.
And here’s a cool fact that Mariana, the marine biologist on our Baja Charters tour, told us.
When born, whale sharks are barely two feet long. To protect themselves from predators, they swim down some 3,000 feet underwater. It takes four months to grow to about six feet long, and then they swim back up to the surface.
Many things about whale sharks are not known, however. How often they breed, the mating season, the length of gestation, when they have their babies – all of this is 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?
Do whale sharks eat people?
Short answer, no. 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, plankton 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.
La Paz whale sharks
There are some 95 whale sharks in La Paz, mostly juveniles about 15 to 30 feet long.
The whale shark feeding zone in the Bay of La Paz (called “El Mogote”) became an underwater national park in March, 2019. Swimming with the La Paz whale sharks is highly regulated by SEMARNAT (the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources).
Only 14 small pangas or boats are allowed in the protected area at a time. Each boat gets three hours in the water, and each boat can only have five people in the water at a time.
You can swim for three minutes alongside a whale shark then 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 La Paz (about a two-hour drive).
In La Paz, we geared up in wet suits, then climbed aboard our boat for the ride 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).
Arial 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 shouted at us to jump in 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 Mexican restaurant in La Paz for a lunch of hot soup and tortillas, then driven back to Cabo.
Luxury catamaran tour with Baja Charters
The experience 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 whale shark protected 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 – one particularly surreal moment was looking right into the eye of one whale shark as it glided by just inches away.
And 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 of them 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 eye sight, and 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 isn’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 they 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, each with a hot shower, and towels are supplied. Standing in a warm 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 the La Paz marina.
Brrr… it’s so cold
While tremendously exciting to be watching 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 water will be almost bathtub warm in October and November, but chilly in January and February.
La Paz whale shark tours
Because swimming with whale sharks in La Paz is now highly regulated (boats, captains and guides must all be licensed), all 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 companies:
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
We also really enjoyed our small group tour with Baja Charters – and can highly recommend them too. Their 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
We’ve heard from friends that Fun Baja (based in La Paz) also does a good job.
Fun Baja: Website
Cabo Adventures is another reputable company offering whale shark encounter experiences. We’ve booked other activities in Los Cabos with them and can recommend them.
Cabo Adventures: Check out their whale shark tours here.
Manta Scuba Divers offers a day tour which combines two activities: swimming with whale sharks in Cabo at La Paz and scuba diving with curious sea lions at Los Islotes. (We’ve gone scuba diving in Cabo San Lucas with Manta – they’re very good.)
Swim with whale sharks, Cabo
We’ve enjoyed many Cabo excursions during the countless times we’ve visited Los Cabos.
Without a doubt, we can say that taking a La Paz whale sharks tour is one of the best Cabo day trips!
Other cool things to do in Los Cabos? Read: 25 Epic things to do in Cabo San Lucas
Practical information for snorkeling with whale sharks
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.
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.
You’re in the water with very large animals. If you don’t think you’ll be comfortable with this, swimming with whale sharks may not be the tour for you.
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Photo credits: 7, 8, 11, 14 and 15 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 1, 12 and 13 Baja Charters | 4, 6 and 16 Cabo Expeditions | 5 and 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).