Whale Sharks and Dolphins and Mantas, oh my!

Anyone with whom I’ve had a conversation about diving will know that I have been trying to see whale sharks and manta rays for years now, even planning a few trips to put myself where they were likely to be, but I have always missed them, sometimes by only a few days. Anyway, I didn’t expect the chance to see them in Baja California because I thought the season was wrong. Turns out a group of whale sharks lives in the waters near La Paz year round.

I joined a small tour to go out to try to find some. We searched for well over an hour and I was about to give up hope once again, but we finally found a whale shark. I would guess it was about about 12 feet long. Yesterday, they said, they saw a big one which was longer than their 18 foot boat. Not that I am disappointed.

For the first whale shark, our boat (with only four tourists and two guides) spotted it and had a few minutes before a few other tour boats arrived. This gave me enough time to have one encounter with it completely by myself. It was a bit frightening at first especially when it was in the hazy distance, a big blurry shape in the water, but as I got closer, I relaxed and it swam right next to me. In fact, I had to back-paddle in the water a bit to avoid bumping into it. I could have easily touched it if I wanted to, but it is against the regulations and can frighten them, so I didn’t. Once it noticed me, it swam off and I couldn’t keep up even kicking as hard as I could.

By the second encounter, two other boats had arrived, one full of about thirty people, so there were probably at least a dozen snorkelers in the water as it came by. Still, I was able to get within touching distance again. They are amazingly beautiful and I don’t think the videos do them any justice, but they give you an idea.

After that encounter, it turned into a bit of a zoo with dozens of people trying to chase the shark around, all of them failing miserably, so our guides decided to search for another one. We came across a pod of a couple of dozen bottle-nosed dolphins and stopped to get into the water with them. They were hard to get close to, but a couple of them swam right below me and I could hear them communicating in the water. Not quite as amazing as the whale shark encounter, but still pretty cool.

After that, we searched for more whale sharks and after half an hour found another one of similar size. All the other boats were still with the first one, so we had this one to ourselves. Again, I got within touching distance and was able to follow it for a little while, right behind its massive tail.

We were all ecstatic and were heading back to the harbor when Alberto, the driver, spotted another in the water ahead of us. As we got closer, we realized that it was a manta ray. I couldn’t believe my luck. This was the first one they had seen. I had already taken off my wetsuit and was basking in the warm sun, but quickly put my mask and fins back on while the others were taking photos in the boat. It was right next to the boat, with a wingspan of probably 12 feet and of equal length (including the tail which is probably about a yard.)

Alberto was telling me to jump in, so I did and was right there with it. I had to be careful to avoid its flapping wings. It was very vigilant and kept an eye on me which meant that he kept turning to see where I was. For such a huge creature, he could turn very quickly. After a while, he swam off and I couldn’t keep up, so I got back in the boat. They spotted him again and I got ready to go in again, be he submerged and didn’t reappear. It was only then that I realized that I didn’t get him on video. I must have inadvertently turned the video recording on earlier and then actually turned it off right when I wanted to start recording. I then turned it back on when I wanted to stop. So I have two videos, both with the camera hanging from my wrist, one recording my getting ready to go into the water and another of me getting out of the water and recovering. It was interesting to listen to it later and hear my reaction to seeing the manta and having swum with it. In fact, here is a transcript:

On seeing it:

Me: Que buena! (how great!) wow wow wow!
Alberto as I am putting on my fins: Es por otro lado (it’s on the other side) Jeff
Me: Oh my God…
Alberto: vas vas vas (go go go)
Me: Ok Ok. Tengo un poco miedo, (I’m a little afraid) ha ha

Then after getting out:

Me: Es un sueño – los dos animales en un dia! (It’s a dream – both animals in one day!)
Alberto: tomaste photo o video? (You took photos or video?)
Me: video
One of the French girls: cerca? (close?)
Me: muy cerca! (very close!)
The French girl: la tocaste? (you touched it?)
Me: no, pero… (no but…)
Alberto: casi? (almost?)
Me: casi (almost)
Alberto: por donde se fue? (where did it go?)
Me, trying to understand what he said: Where did it go? I don’t know. Fue grande! (it was big!)

What a great experience. I am so glad to have gone with the small company I did, because otherwise, I wouldn’t have seen the second whale shark or the manta ray. I am disappointed to not have a video of the manta ray, but I am not likely to forget that experience.

Update: I emailed Theo, one of the French tourists and he kindly sent me a photo he had taken of the manta. My head can just be seen in the upper right corner:

Manta ray

Manta ray

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