I Know a Guy Who Knows a Guy
When our SoCal friends arrived last week, this was on the must-do list. But because we had already spent mucho dinero on an all-day sea lion tour, I was striving for cheaper thrills. Our friends had the number of a boat captain who charged $30pp just a couple months ago. Perfect. We call Salvador. But he doesn’t do that job anymore. Call Hector, he’ll do it. We call Hector. Hector says yes… 600pesos per person ($30), 700 with wetsuits/gear, 5 people. Meet in front of Burger King at 1pm Sunday. Perfect.
Sunday arrives. We pile out of the shuttle and aim for the Malecon. This area of the boardwalk is rife with panga dudes hanging out near their boats soliciting passersby..."You want whale shark tour?"
So is it any wonder my bright yellow fins are like a beacon to them screaming “snorkel tourist”, 'cause that’s the only reason anyone would be carrying fins to the Malecon. It’s only 12:25pm, we are super early. A man sees me, waves us over and acts like he is expecting us. I call out “Hector?” and he confirms yes. As we start talking though, it is painfully obvious he is NOT Hector but he claims to be in charge of operating the boat for Hector. We are immediately suspicious. Where is Hector?
Hector is in Guadalajara
“Oh, Hector is in Guadalajara at a party and cannot make it, but we are captaining the boat for him today.” Bizzare. Stuck in Cabo would have been more plausible. Maybe Hector got a bit schnockered last night and handed his business off last-minute. But Guadalajara? That would require an airplane ride. So why didn’t he mention he was in Guadalajara two days ago? Then again, why would he tell us? On top of this, the fee is cheaper… 500 pesos pp. Not arguing that, but some of us need wetsuits. They did not seem to be expecting this. OK, 600 with wetsuits. Hmmm.
Whale Shark Hustle?
We asked this dude to call Hector to confirm. Fortunately, our friend Luis speaks Spanish and talked to “Hector”. Luis could not recognize if it was the same voice, but when asked, “fake Hector” could not remember Luis’ name or the number of people he booked. He said 6, we said 5. Hmmm. I tried calling Hector’s original number on my phone, but no answer.
We mutter amongst ourselves wondering if they are scamming Hectors' business but since I cannot confirm via phone, and since they take us across the street to an office to get wetsuits, we decide it has to be semi-legit. I mean, at least there is an office, albeit a grungy one. But do we wait another half hour to see if Hector shows up or leave with these guys? Well, we’re here. It’s 100 pesos cheaper. We suit up.
Since we feel it’s a conceivable coup, we feel the need to do our own little bit of dodgeball. We tell them Hector included drop off at Marina Costa Baja in the price. He didn’t - we were going to offer him a couple hundred pesos to do this, the cost of a taxi. “What? Hector didn’t tell us that. We can’t go into the marina, they won’t allow it.” We insisted to just drop us off at the beach. After hemming and hawing for a minute they decide this is OK and we have a deal.
The boat is big enough for our group of 5, plus a driver and a spotter, but any more would have been over-crowded. The ride is a wet one, the boat not big or fast enough to repel the sizeable and constant spray generated. The ladder is rickety and very difficult to get on board. The wetsuits are all male and…well, not exactly form-fitting. (I’m glad I brought my own.) We take a seemingly inordinate time to get out to the sharks – they were waaaay out in the bay. Initially, we could not see any other tour boats nearby. Last time there were pangas everywhere. Did we miss the season? Are there any whales out here? Do these guys even know where they are? Are we going to be robbed and dumped overboard?
There’s one! Finally. We all point to the single giant cruising around our boat. The captain races to catch up with it, the guide jumps in and swims for it. Either he is holding onto the shark by its dorsal fin (not cool) or this young whippersnapper can swim like Michael Phelps. I honestly couldn’t tell how he was keeping up. We are all just concentrating on when to jump in the water as soon as he signals the OK. This first shark is on a mission though. Swimming perpendicularly at him, I didn’t even get close; he was cruising so fast I think only 1 person out of 5 actually saw it underwater. We got back in the boat discouraged: “Wow, this is IT? Is that all there is going to be? This sucks.”
After several minutes of cruising around we finally see multiple sharks! The 2nd jump was the perfect combination of “Wow” and “Whew!” Yes…validation! See, I told you it was cool! Everyone got to experience several sharks up close and personal. This group moved slow and fed lazily, just meandering back and forth. Sunlight filtered through the water at a perfect angle; the water was much clearer than even where we were 5 minutes ago. Great viewing. Our guests were sufficiently impressed. Whew. They’re happy; I’m happy.
3rd time’s the charm!
Before the 3rd jump, we debated about going in again but once we saw another group feeding, a couple of us went for it. The wind had picked up. The waves were coming in high and choppy, enough to swamp my snorkel. By the end it was impossible to breathe normally while snorkeling and we were exhausted from swimming fast and dodging massive tails. But by that time I didn’t care, this was my best encounter yet...
Two years ago, the water was so shadowy with krill and plankton and the sunlight so insufficient, that the sharks giant bodies were continuously veiled. Suddenly a 3ft gaping mouth would appear 10 feet from my face. Freaking out, I’d frantically backpedal away before it got too close, then it disappeared as if behind a mist. Having large creatures (5x my height) lurking about me in murkiness was mildly nerve-racking. It didn’t matter knowing these sharks don’t/can’t bite; I was more afraid of getting schwacked unconscious by a flicking tail. We could see them way better from above looking down into the water that day than we could under it. Above water, their massiveness was impressive. See my blog post from 2014. While a great experience, the second time was even better just knowing what to expect…
Today, choppy waves obscured the sharks from above. But under water, waves did not matter. I could clearly see them coming from probably 50ft away. And being able to approach them, rather than be surprised by them, was a much more comfortable … and gratifying… experience.
This time, I was able to just float, calmly witnessing these gentle giants (OK mostly calm). Their 25ft bodies hung at a 60 degree angles as if suspended in space; their 3ft mouth gaped wide open at the surface, gulping in krill and plankton. I could clearly see the throat expanding and contracting to consume water, the gills flaring, the smooth, speckled skin, the sharky-tail propelling silently (and fortunately not deadly) through the water.
Rule #1: Don't Kick the Sharks
One behemoth seemed to be doing dainty pirouettes, slowly swirling upright in one spot… performing water ballet. Wow. Mesmerized by this guy, I didn’t see his friend closing in on me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement and heard people yelling from the boat. Stupidly, I kicked frantically to get out of its way. When I felt my fin tip barely flick this 20,000 pound beast, I swore/screamed (quite loudly), worried I had scared him into flailing his dangerous tail. Thankfully, my transgression didn’t seem to bother him (he probably didn't even feel it - their skin is 4" thick). But it scared the pants off me. Or should I say wetsuit. Everybody got a good laugh at that one! Sorry guys, I did not get this freak-out on film. (Or did I?)
The Verdict? Worth It!
The second time around, despite dubious initial circumstances, was well worth it. It pays to do this tour twice allowing for different conditions. But it also pays to arrange it with a real tour company. With a real office. Cheaper isn’t always smarter.
Side note: We were talking to a couple of cruising kids recently, maybe 7-yrs old, and asked them if they’d seen the whale sharks yet. “Oh yeah. Four times.” Wow. How’s that for a cruising kid’s life!
Whale Shark Facts:
- Whale sharks are not whales; they are a species of shark.
- They are filter feeders similar to the baleen whale or basking shark. Pretty much they ingest whatever is in their path, forcing the water back out through their gills.
- Whale sharks can filter over 1500 gallons of water per hour.
- They eat plankton, krill, tiny fish, squid, jellyfish & fish eggs. Fortunately, not people.
- Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world. They are also the largest non-cetacean animal. In other words, only whales are bigger.
- Average size = 30-40 ft. That’s over 20,000 lbs of pure shark.
- Their mouths can span 3-5 feet in width!
- Each whale shark has a unique color pattern. The distinctive array of spots and stripes can be used to identify specific sharks.
- Average age – Internet consensus seems to be 70 yrs. Some say they can live to well over 100!