Bay of La Paz, Gulf of California — Jumping into the Sea of Cortez to swim alongside a whale shark is like being in a National Geographic documentary. The massive fish looms out of the murk, swimming toward you with huge mouth agape. Just when you imagine you might be sucked Jonah-like down the gullet of the world’s biggest fish, the shark corrects course enough to glide by within a hand’s reach, like a great big bus easing into the traffic lane next to you.
That’s how I experienced my first (and quite likely only) encounter with this behemoth of the sea. I was with the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration (CRE) on a field inspection in the southern part of Mexico’s Baja California. The committee was there last week to see the places and projects it has funded in the region, receive reports from grantees, and to assess how one of the most beautiful and diverse parts of the planet is doing in the face of urban development, growing tourism, and climate change. (National Geographic Undertakes Science Expedition to the Gulf of California)
Swimming with whale sharks is not surprisingly one of the more popular tourist attractions in the Gulf. Operators take visitors on small boats to where the fish are feeding. There, under the supervision of an authorized guide and strict regulations that limit the number of people that may approach a whale shark at a time — keeping a minimum distance from the animals, and within a limit on the time in the water with them — you may be lucky enough to have an encounter with these gentle giants you will never forget.
My six-person group included renowned shark expert Pete Klimley, star of wildlife documentaries produced by National Geographic and PBS. He explained how the filter-feeding whale sharks swim with jaws wide apart to scoop up fish eggs, larvae, and even small fish near the surface of the sea. “They have to do that for an hour or two to get the protein equivalent of a Big Mac,” Klimley said.
On my first dive with a whale shark I saw nothing but the fins and bubbles of the five swimmers in front of me. My second attempt at chasing a shark looked like it was also going to be a disappointment, but as I was about to haul myself onto the boat our guide tugged me back underwater; a whale shark was approaching.
My initial shock at the size of it turned to mild panic as I realised the shark was swimming toward us, mouth open wide. The guide tugged me in the opposite direction even as I was trying to tuck my legs up to avoid a collision. But the fish had the situation under control, adjusted trajectory and swept by so closely that we could feel its wake. It gave no other acknowledgement of our presence, but we could not have asked for a better view as its entire body from mouth to tail passed in front of us.
Back on the boat, when we gushed about what we had just experienced, Pete Klimley remarked: “This is why people like doing this. There was a time when if there was a shark in the water people would get out; now when there is a shark people jump in.”
Swimming with whale sharks is just one more reason to visit the Gulf of California, a place rich with wildlife and opportunities to explore and appreciate the natural world. You can enjoy National Geographic documentaries and appreciate the wonderful photographs in the magazine, but nothing comes close to seeing and experiencing the power and beauty of nature yourself.
In this National Geographic video: How does the whale shark feed its colossal 10-ton appetite?
- Committee for Research and Exploration (includes grant application process)
- Sharing With Whale Sharks (National Geographic Magazine feature)
- Video filmed by whale sharks themselves (National Geographic)
- Slaughterhouse Said to Process “Horrifying” Number of Whale Sharks Annually (National Geographic news story, 2014)
- NOAA Fisheries: Biggest fish in the ocean receives international protection and Six Surprising Facts About Whale Sharks
- IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists whale sharks as Vulnerable to extinction.
- Life in the Gulf of California Hope Spot (National Geographic Voices, 2015)
- The “Aquarium of the World” at Risk (Ocean Views post by Enric Sala, 2011)
- World Heritage Description: Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California
- Wanna Be a Marine Biologist? Here’s How
- Experience the Gulf of California on the National Geographic Sea Bird: National Geographic Expeditions Baja Cruise Itineraries
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.