Sunday, February 8, 2009

Snorkeling in the Bay of La Paz with Tiburon Ballenas (or Whale Sharks)

Following our most recent charter on the M/V Ursa Major, Josh, myself, and our chef Natalie had the opportunity to snorkel with whale sharks, or Tiburon ballenas (Spanish), or Rhincodon typus, in the Bay of La Paz. Our adventure began with the rumor on the La Paz cruiser's radio net that these creatures had returned to feed nearby. They were last seen briefly in early 2008 within the Bay of La Paz and we hoped to find them before they moved on again.

Needless to say, we found five individuals just around the corner from the marina feeding along the current line. They were following each other back and forth along the current line and were not at all afraid of our presence, (or for that matter, the presence of our outboard motor).

The large mouth, as seen in the two previous photos, takes in a certain amount of seawater at or below the surface. Once full, the whale shark will strain the seawater through its gills in an effort to extract either phytoplankton, squid, or fish for food. This also serves to oxygenate the gills and allows the whale shark to breathe. Adults are known to have over 300 rows of teeth whiles juveniles typically possess at least 100 rows.

The length of whale sharks varies from two to three feet at birth to over seventy feet as adults. The average size is approximately forty feet and thirteen tons. They have two dorsal fins, (as seen in the above photo), and tend to swim in schools in near coastal waters.

Mostly harmless, (except in a few recorded instances of whale sharks ramming fishing boats in the Indian Ocean), whale sharks are typically found in tropical waters but are described as "uncommon" in the Sea of Cortez. And the females lay eggs the size of footballs.

For Natalie and I in the water snorkeling, it was hard to imagine something the size of these whale sharks emerging from an egg the size of a football. The whale sharks we saw ranged from eighteen feet to forty feet and were covered in some variety of large sucker fish. The clarity of the water was poor and we had to swim within two feet of the whale shark to see it. None of the whale sharks we encountered in the water were aggressive and allowed us to get closer than we ever thought possible.

All photos courtesy of Josh Haury.

Sources for whale shark background information:

Eschmeyer, W.N., E.S. Herald. and H. Hammann. 1983. Pacific Coast Fishes. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, New York. 336 p.

Gotshall, D.W. 1998. Sea of Cortez Marine Animals: A Guide to Common Fishes and Invertebrates Baja California to Panama. Sea Challengers, Monterey, California. 110 p.


  1. OMG! I don't know if I want to laugh or cry in joy...what an amazing experience you had!

    You made my day. Thanks for sharing this, Emily.

  2. How awesome- One of my lifelong dreams and I missed it by a week or so. One of the few times I would feel small...