Swimming with Sharks

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By Nadine York

I’ve done it before, at least four times—swim with the whale sharks, that is.   It’s a must-do La Paz experience. So when my friend Rhonda’s visitor from Canada, Sue by name, said she wanted to try it, and Rhonda, also from Canada, wanted no part of it, I needed no nudging. 

“Hey, I’ll go with you.  How about Tuesday?” 

The experience is more than just a ride in a boat, a dip in the water, and a glimpse of a very unusual sea creature.  It’s a Mexican immersion experience too. So on the following Monday, I found myself on a walk along the malecon. I had been planning to make the arrangements for the excursion on the very Tuesday morning we planned to go out.  But on this Monday, twenty steps past the group of whale shark hustlers who are always hanging out across from Burger King on the malecon of La Paz, I decided to get a price quote.  So I backtracked the twenty steps.  They saw me coming and a nicely dressed, handsome Mexican man stepped forward to meet and greet.  

“Cuanta cuesta?” I began, but I didn’t need my Spanish. 

“Where you want to go?  Tour for sea lions, Balandra, whale sharks?”

This is one-stop shopping.  All major bases covered.

“Whale sharks,” I said.

He quoted me a price and handed me his card. “My name is Oscar.  When your friends come, you ask for me,” and he pressed the card into my hand. 

We shook hands and I walked away to catch up to my husband.  But then I had yet another thought.  Wet suits and gear.  I knew I had mine, but I was pretty sure Sue did not have any.  So once again I backtracked.

“Wet suit?”  I asked Oscar.

He explained that someone would be there on the malecon with wet suits for rent for a hundred pesos. That’s when I revealed that my friend and I wanted to go tomorrow. Hmm…I thought, I guess he had reeled me in and landed me after all.

“Tomorrow at 11 o’clock,” he said.  “I will have a boat for you.”  Our handshake was the signing of the contract.

Being an American and a Canadian, Sue and I arrived on Tuesday morning at 10:45.  Oscar saw us approaching and we waved to each other.  “The boat is coming,” he explained.

At the top of the gangway of the Port of Illusion dock, we waited ten minutes and made small talk. I liked Oscar. I knew he was a family man and that he’d been born on the mainland, but had been in La Paz for over 40 years.

The boat arrived and Sue and I climbed into the boat while Oscar made his way back to the malecon,“Como se llama?”  I asked the stocky young man with bare feet, worn shorts, a jacket frayed at the elbows and grinning a beautiful smile. Thus, we turned ourselves over into the capable hands of Roberto, our captain and guide. 

While he was pulling out life jackets for us, one of his departing passengers assured us that there were many sharks out there and we would have a great trip. Roberto pulled out a well-used wet suit for Sue and off we went. 

The ten-minute ride out to and around El Mogote peninsula provided an interesting look back at the La Paz that I generally only experience close up.  The land slopes upward from the beach. The twin towers of the cathedral stand at attention behind the beachfront buildings. The city stretches out to the hills beyond. 

As La Paz grew smaller behind us, the finished and unfinished structures on the tip of El Mogote peninsula grew more life-sized.  The sun feels warm. My hair blows in the wind and I am comfortable with a light fleece over my bathing suit. 

Once we are on the other side of El Mogote, the search begins.  Roberto clearly knows what he is doing.  There is a gathering of boats in the distance and swimmers in the water, but we pass on by and continue along the El Mogote coast.  A captain from a boat returning to La Paz signals to Roberto and points behind him. Adelante!  

Sue and I begin to suit up. I pull out a rash guard top and shorts out of my backpack.  Sue is struggling with the wet suit.  I look up when I hear her asking Roberto something.  He grins at her and tells her no, she has it on backwards.  The zipper goes in the back.  A moment later she is laughing too and telling me it was also inside out.  Would it have mattered to the whale sharks?  No.  But it did make swimming easier for Sue.

Ahead of
us there is a single boat stopped some distance out from shore. Two swimmers
are in the water.  Roberto approaches
slowly and exchanges words with the captain, then he maneuvers our boat in
closer and cuts the engine. 

I can see the huge dark form under the water.  At this point a person might ask herself: What am I doing here?  Am I crazy?  That is a shark the size of the boat I’m in! 

Indeed, the dark form just below the water’s surface is a shark, and though it is as large as a whale, it is not dangerous.  Whale sharks use their whale-like baleen capabilities to strain the ocean waters and capture microscopically small sea life that is their diet.  They are not a bit interested in a mammal like myself and wouldn’t know what to do with me if I somehow migrated into its path.  Once in the water, I will be just another creature swimming in the sea.

Sue and I sit poised on the edge of the boat, waiting for the go ahead signal from Roberto before swinging our legs over the side and slipping into the water with small splashes.  It always takes me a moment to adjust to the shocking coolness of the water on this first jump in.  Then I suck my mask to my face for a good seal, bite down on the mouthpiece, go horizontal, and look into the depths. 

Whoa! There it is! Look at all those white polka dots on that dark form, and what a big broad head and mouth you have grandma!  But grandma’s not waiting around for me to gawk. She’s cruising! 

My legs begin to kick into gear to keep up, but the shark is moving fast. The creature’s entire shape, side and dorsal fins, its massive body, move forward under me and suddenly I am at its rear, looking at a huge vertical tail—at least six feet from tip to tip – swaying gracefully left and right propelling the shark forward. My twelve-inch long fins are hardly a match, but I begin kicking harder and faster now, just barely keeping up.  I follow and follow until my breathing is fast and hard, and my heart is pumping and thumping in my chest. Adios, I finally bubble to the shark and let her slide into deep obscurity.

When I look up, I am far from the boat, so I begin a slow kick return as the boat also moves toward me. Sue is already in.  Roberto hangs the ladder over the side.  I cannot climb in with fins on, so I slip them off one at a time and throw them onto the boat and then haul the wet weight of my body from flotation to gravity.  I am grinning with satisfaction though, and I think that makes Roberto happy.

Off we go to find another.  Roberto puts the boat into forward motion and then goes to stand on the bow scanning the waters for signs of a fin, a dark shape.  When he sees one, he’s back at the controls maneuvering us into position and once again we are slipping into the water.  Sometimes, the whale shark is immediately visible. Other times once in the water I have to scan for a fin above the surface or follow Roberto’s pointing finger and his directions shouted in excited Spanish.  Sometimes we can follow along for a good distance. Sometimes the shark dives deeper and disappears. Sometimes it reappears and Roberto re-directs us. 

We repeat this procedure four or five times.  I’m getting tired and so is Sue. “Uno mas,” I say to Roberto and I’m not sure if he was saving the best for last or what, but when we slip once more into the water we find right below us what seems the biggest of all the sharks we’ve seen.  And it is immediately beneath us.  I am floating above its head and Sue is swimming next to me.  I move to the left and swim on my side looking at the huge head and all it’s marking and vent holes.  The shark is not racing ahead.  In fact it seems to be swimming in a gently curving circle, with us on the inside of the circle, so we can keep up.  He lets us look and look and I can’t help but think he’s looking at us.  I realize I am making soft sounds of awe.  Does he hear me?

I’m not sure how long this goes on.  It feels a bit magical.  When Sue and I both finally lift our heads up to sky, we are both grinning and Sue’s voice is lively with wonder.

”Oh!  He was so friendly!”  A friendly shark.  It wasn’t just me.  She felt it too.

We climb aboard the boat for the last time, absolutely content.  Roberto revs the engine into high and heads back to the end of El Mogote peninsula. We shed our wet suits on the way and towel dry our skin.  The sun feels warm, but a lightweight fleece again helps cut the wind. 

We head back to the Port of Illusion dock. We thank both Roberto and Oscar, who was waiting for us at the dock. Sue and I get off the boat and headed onto the malecon.

So once again, this must do experience had lived up to its promise. Better yet, we learned that even a shark can be friendly.

Nadine York lives in Boise, Idaho with her husband and their dachshund, Dozer.  Somehow all three keep finding their way back to Baja and La Paz every winter seeking warmth and adventure. Nadine keeps finding something in it all to write about.

Photos courtesy of Dr. Deni Ramirez.