Close encounters with gentle giants are absolutely awe-inspiring, and can be done consciously at this UNESCO World Heritage site.

Whale sharks migrate through La Paz in Baja California
Courtesy of Go La Paz
Whale sharks migrate through La Paz in Baja California

Growing up in the West, I never had a shortage of opportunities to explore the sea, from rough water swimming to bodyboarding to one of my all-time favorite ocean activities, snorkeling. While I adore getting a great wreck dive in, I have a real appreciation for the relative accessibility of grabbing some affordable gear, sticking my head underwater, and entering another world, no oxygen tanks required. Exhibit A: the Bay of La Paz in Baja California Sur.

The biodiversity in this coastal region is so rich and so spectacular that Jacques Cousteau referred to it as the “world’s aquarium.” Lesser-known and far less touristed than Cabo San Lucas two hours south, La Paz makes an incredible journey for nature lovers.

Sea lions play in La Paz
Sea lions play at Espirtu Santo outside La Paz

Courtesy of Go La Paz

La Paz is the capital city of Baja California Sur and the gateway to the Sea of Cortez. Located just an hour’s drive from trendy Todos Santos, the warm waters near Espiritu Santo Island (a UNESCO World Heritage dive site) teem with playful sea lions, manta and mobula rays, giant squid, dolphins, and Baja’s most famous underwater resident—the whale shark—whose annual migration peaks starting in October.

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Whale sharks, or tiburón ballena as they’re known here, are the largest living non-mammalian vertebrate and largest shark species on the planet. They can reach up to 41.5 feet long and weigh about 47,000 pounds. Swimming alongside them is the most heart-racing, awe-inspiring experience I have ever had, on land or in the sea.

Cruising with these gentle giants as they move slowly and gracefully in the azure waters of the bay while they filter feed on the plankton-rich waters completely dwarfed my sense of self in the grand scope of nature, inspiring a further responsibility to protect these magnificent creatures.

Because whale sharks thrive and feed in shallow waters in the Bay of La Paz, visiting them as a snorkeler is relatively easy. Here they are cherished by visitors and locals alike, but in other areas of their international migratory patterns, their shallow feeding habits has given easy access to poachers who covet their meat and fins, landing them on the list of endangered species.

Whale shark swims outside La Paz
A whale shark swims outside La Paz

Courtesy of Go La Paz

Thankfully, La Paz as a community has taken measures to be at the forefront of whale shark protection and conservation. Tour operators have to be fully certified, and many guides are educated as marine biologists. Cousteau wasn’t the only one to take note of its unique biodiversity; La Paz is home to four marine research centers and several NGOs working towards protecting the Bay’s spectacular ecosystem. The area where the whale sharks feed is strictly regulated by the Natural Protected Areas National Commission, and only permitted operators are allowed in.

“For the communities in La Paz, whale sharks not only represent an important part of the ecosystem, but their arrival each year also brings tourism that benefits thousands of families. In order to guarantee the sustainable development of the region, it is crucial to protect these giants of the sea and their habitat,” says Luis Garduno, co-founder of RED Travel, a company dedicated to responsible eco-tourism in Mexico. “Authorities, scientists, and tour operators have been working largely on achieving this balance. Of course there is always room for improvement, but I believe interacting with wildlife in a restricted and protected manner has been one of the most important efforts in Mexico.”

Before our snorkel, we had an in-depth briefing that went over the rules: swimmers aren’t allowed to approach from the front, and are absolutely not permitted to touch the whale sharks. There is no baiting involved, and the encounters are purely passive.

In season, a maximum of 14 tour boats are allowed for two and half hours to look for whale sharks, with no more than two boats following any one shark, and a total of five guests and one guide can be in the water at any given time. On our early morning trip, we were the only folks I saw out on the water, making for a truly magical experience and proving that the planet’s largest creatures and ones worth protecting.

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