The Whale Sharks of La Paz: Some New Rules.

Article by Laura Tyrrell, PADI instructor and guide at Cabo Trek

The largest shark in the ocean is 40 foot, on record. This record belongs to the majestic whale shark and a generous population of these enormous fish live 15 minutes away from the marina in La Paz. Fishermen, divers and those that live on the water will swear they have even seen 50-60 footers gliding by on the surface. The bay acts as a catchment area of microscopic sea creatures blown by the north winds eventually getting stuck in the curvature of the bay. That’s why the sharks are here; this forms the base of its diet. This gentle giant has no teeth and uses filters to feed in much the same way as a whale. The name ‘whale shark’ is partly attributed to this fact but the name also comes from the animal’s sheer size in the water. And guess what? You can swim with them.

Over the past few years, an abundance of tour operators have enjoyed taking tourists from all over the peninsula to see this awesome animal. Demand is high as this is one of the few places on Earth where sightings are pretty much 90% guaranteed at the right time of year. Fleets of boats leave in droves from shore arriving, only 15 minutes later, once the first shark is found. Keen tourists don their snorkel gear and get ready to jump in and swim towards the shark as the boat captain expertly places them in the water. As a tour guide myself, I’m pleased to report that most tour operators are respectful of the shark and don’t harass the animal or put too many people in the water at once.

But, there are the odd few. Those with their own boats travelling in from any unregulated embarkation points are just one example. Many people don’t pay for an official tour where the tour guide will brief you specifically on good in-water behaviours and how to treat the animal. For this reason now all tour guides and captains must train on a 4 day course, the waters will be policed and boat licenses checked more than they ever have been before. Positive stuff if the agencies responsible keep their promises.

New regulations include staying a 10ft/3 meter distance away from the shark’s head, no more than 7 people in the water with one shark at a time and no touching the animal. Some regulations are up for debate. For example, there is talk that the boats will be allocated a specific section of water by GPS and will only have chance to swim with one shark.

The whale shark’s main ‘predator’ are humans. In the bay of La Paz most sharks have some kind of propeller mark or some other man-made injury and it is very good to see the authorities taking charge for the sake of the shark. Make sure when you go to see the whale sharks you choose a responsible tour operator with a proper license to guide you: it makes a huge difference to your experience.

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