A few weeks ago I talked about the whale shark ecotourism industry growing in the Gulf of California. Well I traveled to La Paz, Baja California Sur, the heart of the whale shark ecotourism industry, and saw first hand how well organized and respectful of the sharks this industry has become. We set out from the marina around 9am local time. There were several boats already out in the bay and the sharks were abundant. I had read about the Code of Conduct developed for the industry to ensure the safety of the sharks and tourists. I was thrilled to see that these Codes are followed to the letter. The boats kept their distance (5 m) and there were small numbers of people in the water per shark, also keeping a safe distance from the shark.
The water had very limited visibility and was filled with tiny copepods, planktons, and jelly fish. Damn was it stingy!! But it was a whale shark‘s dream buffet!
While in the water, it was damn near impossible to locate the sharks if you did not use the surface to guide you. The first time I was in the water, I looked up for a second to get my bearings, and suddenly this huge mouth is right next to me! If these sharks weren’t docile, this would have been a scary situation!
Flannery, A. (2017 November). My first whale shark encounter 20 November 2017 [Video Clip].
These filter feeders follow the currents which delivers them their microscopic prey items. So each day in the bay of La Paz is different. Sometimes the sharks are just inside the bay, sometimes they are nearly on the beach, and other days it requires a bit of a hunt to find them. It all depends on where their food happens to be.
Whale sharks are capable of feeding through two different methods: ram and vertical feeding. In ram feeding, the sharks propel themselves forward with their massive mouths wide open. The forward movement passes plankton filled water over their gill rakers. In vertical feeding, whale sharks turn their massive bodies vertical in the water column with their mouths at or near the surface. They use their incredible mouths to suction water down from the surface and across their gill rakers. I was fortunate enough to spend over 5 minutes with a beautiful 5.5m female who was peacefully vertical feeding. It was an awe-inspiring experience!
Flannery, A. (2017 November). Whale Sharks of La Paz [Video Clip].
I cannot even put into words what it is like to be next to such a massive, peaceful animal. Neil deGrasse Tyson often describes the cosmic experience, this Zen-like realization of your part of this massive universe. Some people go their entire lives never having that humbling, life-affirming moment. I had one last year while in 2,000 feet of crystal clear blue water in the Bahamas at sunset. I came out of the water in tears of joy. I knew in that moment that I was such a small, precious piece of the universe. I knew that everything in my life was leading up to this moment, this place, this state of mind, this lack of self and crushing humility. Do not read this as a religious experience, because there was absolutely nothing religious about it. It was myself and the cosmic perspective. I can only compare the experience with this female whale shark as that kind of experience. Looking into her eyes while she fed at the surface, I was humbled in by her sheer presence and beauty.
UPDATE: A few months following this post I received a message from Wild Book that one of the sharks I photographed had been reported again. Whale Shark MX-602 has now been recorded in the Sea of Cortez 3 separate times since 2014. Check out her sightings record at Wild Book for Whale Sharks.
The new Ocean For Sharks Shop is open! There’s handmade ocean inspired plush animals, canvas paintings, and of course my children’s book, Winifred the Wondrous Whale Shark, available in print and PDF. Be sure to stop by. Remember proceeds benefit shark research and conservation with a donation to Project AWARE!
Remember you can make a difference for marine ecosystems by calling your Congress man or woman and tell them that you care about the quality of our waters! Sharks, rays, and other marine organisms cannot speak or be represented in Congress. They need your voice. Get involved and stand up for sharks. Until next time finatics.
Featured Image Source
Flannery, A. (Photographer). (2017 November). Whale shark in shallow water of La Paz Bay [Digital Image].