Swimming with whale sharks in La Paz, Mexico, is an extraordinary and unique activity you won’t find just anywhere. This unforgettable encounter with some of the largest and most awe-inspiring marine animals is definitely one for the bucket list!
We recently went whale shark swimming in La Paz (on a day trip from Cabo) for our third time – in mid-December. And as luck would have it, this was the best experience ever!
This time around, courtesy of an El Nino year, the December waters were much warmer than the previous two La Paz whale shark trips we enjoyed. It was much more comfortable being in the water – watching and snorkeling with the whale sharks.
The outside temps were also warmer than previously – so there was no shivering after getting out of the water.
And the whale shark gods blessed us with seven to nine sharks that we got to swim with for extended periods of time!
If you’d also like to snorkel and swim with whale sharks in La Paz – read on. We’ll tell you all about the experience and what to expect. And we’ll share the scoop on the best La Paz whale shark tours too.
Swimming with whale sharks in La Paz with Baja Charters
La Paz is located in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur, about a two-hour drive north of Los Cabos.
It’s one of the few places in the world where you can swim with whale sharks in their natural habitat.
Their tour is a premium experience.
If time permits, it also includes visiting beautiful Balandra Bay (with its blindingly white sand beaches) and snorkeling with sea lions at San Rafaelito – something we got to enjoy as well! Talk about triple the fun!
Getting to La Paz
You’re picked up in an air-conditioned van early in the morning (around 6:30 am) for the two-hour drive from Cabo to La Paz.
Upon arriving in La Paz, you board the Island Cat.
It’s a large and spacious sailing catamaran with a large galley kitchen, two full bathrooms (complete with hot water showers) and lots of room to spread out both inside and out on the trampoline deck up front.
Piles of fresh blue-and-white-striped towels are available for your use.
The hostess chef had just started whipping up breakfast when our group of nine guests boarded.
Fresh fruit, muffins, scrambled eggs, bacon, beans, tortillas and hot coffee were warmly welcomed by everyone.
Whale shark tour check-in
We then transferred to a smaller power boat to be checked in by the La Paz authorities, located onshore, for the whale shark tours. The check-in was done remotely via GPS and powerful telescopes and cameras.
Our smaller tour boat was in Group 2 – meaning we were in the second group of boats allowed to enter the whale shark area this day.
It was still going to be another hour before we could get in the water, so we transferred back to the comfort of the larger catamaran and sailed to the permitted viewing area where whale sharks had already been spotted.
On the way, Alejandro, our guide, told us lots about whale sharks and the local regulations for swimming with them. Then we suited up in wetsuits, grabbed snorkel gear (all provided) and got back in the small skiff.
La Paz whale shark swimming
We first noticed the fins of the whale sharks sticking up out of the water – yeah, this was really going to happen!
Sitting on the side of the boat, five of us slid into the water and followed Alejandro to our first shark. What a sighting! This one was probably 24 feet long, Alejandro later estimated.
The massive gray-and-black creature dotted with white spots glided slowly by, about five feet away from and seemingly oblivious to us.
Even though the visibility in the plankton-rich waters was only about 20 feet, because we were so close, we got a good look at its huge gaping mouth as it opened to suction in water with plankton and krill.
The gills on the shark’s side flapped open and shut. And its enormous tail swung slowly from side to side.
And then there was another shark!
We had to swim a little faster to keep up with this one and get a brief underwater view.
After about 15 minutes, we swam back to the boat and climbed back in to allow the remaining four guests their turn.
They were even luckier than we were!
From the boat, we could see three whale sharks circling the group slowly. The group didn’t even have to swim! They just hovered in the water in a tight cluster with Alejandro, as the sharks circled them.
Of course, we couldn’t help but be a little jealous as we heard their hoots of laughter and surprise as they realized they were surrounded by whale sharks, literally just a couple of feet away from them.
But then it was our turn again. And OMG, we couldn’t have asked for a better experience, swimming alongside several different sharks this time. We even got to stay in the water longer as the others in the boat didn’t want to swap with us again.
In fact, everyone got their fill of whale sharks this day – so much so that we didn’t need to jump in for a third swim, even though offered by Alejandro.
Back on the catamaran, we showered and tucked into fresh-made guacamole, ceviche and chips.
Some of us drank wicked mezcalitas, others sipped on beer – but not too much as we still had Balandra Bay and swimming with the sea lions ahead of us!
Visiting Balandra Bay
From the whale shark area, the Island Cat sailed to Balandra Bay.
This natural protected area is located about a 30-minute drive north of La Paz. It boasts several gorgeous white sand beaches, including Balandra Beach, one of Mexico’s most beautiful beaches.
What’s unique is that the crystal-clear waters here are so shallow that you can walk out far from the beaches into the bay – and still be only waist deep in brilliant turquoise water.
Hopping into our smaller boat, we anchored near Mushroom Rock. This large boulder (at least two storeys high) is shaped like a mushroom from wind and wave erosion at its base.
It’s a popular tourist attraction, with visitors snapping photos of each other standing under the mushroom cap.
We too took photos and shuffled our feet along the white sand sea bed (to alert any lurking stingrays of our presence) as we enjoyed the warm silky water.
Then it was off to swim with the sea lions!
Snorkeling with sea lions in La Paz
The teeny rocky islet of San Rafaelito off Balandra Bay is one of a couple of places in La Paz where you can snorkel with sea lions. (The other, more famous spot is Los Islotes at Espiritu Santo Island, about an hour’s boat ride away from La Paz.)
The sea lion colony at San Rafaelito numbers about 140, though you don’t see them all at one time. (It isn’t as huge as the colony at Los Islotes, said to be home to about 600 sea lions).
Jumping off our small boat, we snorkeled on top of the reef encircling the rocky island, careful not to stand on the coral. As we approached, we watched sea lions as big as six feet sunning themselves upside down, nose out of the water, or diving, twirling and playing in the water.
They’re very curious animals, and they’d sometimes zip up close to our snorkel masks for a good peek at us.
When we were ready to leave, we said goodbye to our sea lion friends, climbed back into our boat and zoomed off to the catamaran.
By the time we re-boarded the catamaran again (about 3:30 pm), everyone was hungry.
And, wow, did our hostess chef have a great lunch ready for us! Fried rib-eye steak (cut into strips), chopped steak in a creamy gravy, mashed potatoes, rice, carrots, green beans and salad awaited.
The bar was wide open, and we all ate and drank happily as we sailed back to La Paz, gushing about the day’s activities. We docked about 5:30 pm.
The ride back to Cabo
And then, just like that, our driver met us and we were driven back to Cabo San Lucas. We returned about 7:30 pm – full of memories of the wonderful whale sharks and playful sea lions that had shared their ocean with us earlier.
What’s included in your Baja Charters tour
You enjoy a bundle of perks on Baja Charters’ luxury whale shark tours:
- Roundtrip transportation from Los Cabos
- The comfort of the spacious Island Cat catamaran, which has two full bathrooms with hot fresh-water showers
- A freshly-made hot breakfast and lunch, plus mid-morning snacks
- An open bar with premium drinks, plus water and soft drinks
- The use of clean towels
- Wetsuits and snorkeling gear
- At least three separate jumps from the small companion boat to swim with the whale sharks
- Visit to Balandra Bay
- Swimming with sea lions at San Rafaelito
- Lots of crew to serve you
About the La Paz whale sharks
Is a whale shark a whale or a shark?
You’re right if you said “shark.”
Whale sharks, Rhincodon typus, are sharks. They’re part of the fish family as they have gills, which allows them to breath underwater.
Unlike whales, you won’t catch these gentle giants with gills surfacing for a breath of air. They’re dedicated residents of the deep, spending all their time beneath the surface.
But like most whales, whale sharks are big. They’re actually the largest fish in the sea and can grow up to 45 (some say even 60) feet in length. Most of the whale sharks of La Paz, however, are between 18 and 25 feet long on average.
But while whale sharks fall under the category of sharks, you don’t have to worry about them being dangerous to humans.
Their diet consists solely of tiny microorganisms like plankton and krill. As filter feeders, they move their heads back and forth in the water to let these microorganisms flow into their huge mouth and through filtering pads at the entrance to their throats.
Swimming alongside these “gentle giants of the sea” is an entirely safe, enchanting and unique experience!
Whale shark area in La Paz
The area in La Paz Bay where you can snorkel with the whale sharks is 12 miles by 3 miles in size.
There’s another large conservation area nearby, where the whale sharks can retreat if they wish to be left alone – this area is off-limits to fishing, boating and whale shark tours.
Whale shark snorkeling in La Paz is highly regulated
Sadly, like so many other marine animals, whale sharks are an endangered species.
Local officials and guides in La Paz are working diligently to protect the whale sharks, and the government has implemented a program of strict rules and regulations for the safe and ethical viewing of whale sharks.
The number of boats is limited
No more than four groups of at most 14 boats at a time are permitted in the whale shark viewing area on the same day.
There are four different check-in times throughout the day for the four different groups.
The day before the tour in the afternoon, the tour companies ask for a turn through WhatsApp. If the tour company’s request is one of the first messages received by the authorities, they’ll receive a secure spot for the following day in one of the first two of the four groups.
The first group usually checks in about 8:00 am. Each boat needs to wait its turn before being given the go-ahead to enter the whale shark zone.
The tours are usually two to three hours long.
Our boat was in the second group – we were allowed in about 11:00 am.
The number of snorkelers in the water is limited
There were nine guests in our boat and we had to divide into two groups.
Five of us went in first, and then after we got out, the remaining four guests could go in the water with the guide.
You have to keep your distance from the sharks
We were instructed to keep a safe distance from the whale sharks.
Occasionally, Alejandro would grab one of us by our wetsuit to pull us back if we were getting too close.
You also want to stay at least six feet away from the shark’s powerful tail, to avoid getting accidentally hit by it.
You can’t touch the whale sharks
Whale sharks have a thin layer of mucus on their skin that acts as their natural shield against bacteria and parasites. Any physical contact with these gentle giants can disrupt this protective layer, putting them at risk of illness and causing them discomfort.
Wear bio-degradable sunscreen
It’s believed that whale sharks are sensitive to the smells and chemicals in many beauty and sunscreen products.
We were asked not to apply our own sunscreen. The Island Cat had special bottles of scent-free reef-safe and bio-degradable sunscreen that we were asked to use instead.
La Paz whale shark season
The best time to snorkel with whale sharks in La Paz is from mid-October to February/March. (There’s a chance you might also see them in April.)
During the winter months, northerly winds blow down the Sea of Cortez. They push plankton, krill and other whale shark food in the water into the Bay of La Paz, attracting whale sharks to feed there.
In October, the water temperature can reach up to 80 degrees, (whereas it drops to the low 60s in January).
The downside to planning a whale shark trip in October is that there may be few whale sharks around – and tours may be canceled at the request of the local authorities. (This happened to guests on our trip. They’d visited from California in October to see the whale sharks, but there were none around, so they came again in December.)
We found mid-December to be the perfect sweet spot – a mix of warm water and lots of whale sharks.
Other best La Paz whale shark tours
There are other tour companies that offer less expensive whale shark experiences than Baja Charters. Typically, these tours include complimentary use of wetsuits and snorkeling gear, as well as bottled water on the boat.
Cabo Adventures’ whale shark snorkeling from Los Cabos
Cabo Adventures is a large well-known tour company that provides whale shark snorkeling adventures in La Paz. Their 10-hour trips include:
- Roundtrip transportation to La Paz from Cabo San Lucas or San Jose del Cabo (or the Corridor)
- Wetsuits and snorkel gear
- Boat ride to the whale shark zone in La Paz
- Guided whale shark swims in the bay
- Mexican lunch along the La Paz Malecon (seafront promenade)
We’ve booked other fantastic activities with Cabo Adventures before, and we can vouch for their quality and service.
Cabo Expeditions’ tours from Cabo
We’ve also gone snorkeling with whale sharks in La Paz with Cabo Expeditions – another excellent eco-adventure company.
Cabo Expeditions’ 12-hour tours also include roundtrip transportation from Los Cabos, as well as snorkeling gear, a certified guide on the boat trip, multiple swims with the whale sharks and lunch back in La Paz.
Small group whale shark tour from La Paz
For one of the best whale shark tours leaving from La Paz, check out this highly-rated small group whale shark adventure from MeXplore Tours. (Note: It doesn’t include ground transportation from Los Cabos.)
As you head out into the bay in a small panga (motorized boat), your local marine biologist guide will tell you about whale sharks and how to swim safely with them.
The tour is limited to a small group of up to eight people, and you’ll go into the water in groups of two to four snorkelers at a time.
Pictures and videos of your tour are given to you complimentary.
Half-day excursion from La Paz
Jump into the big blue and say hello to the ocean’s gentle giants on this half-day whale shark adventure with Tuna Tuna Tours, leaving from La Paz.
With a small group of just ten, you’ll swim alongside these magnificent creatures and learn about them from your expert tour guide. Everything’s included – snorkeling gear, snacks, water and even underwater photos and videos of your encounter.
(Like MeXplore Tours above, this tour also doesn’t include transportation from Los Cabos.)
Final thoughts on La Paz whale shark snorkeling
Swimming with whale sharks in La Paz in their natural environment is an unforgettable experience.
As you glide through the water beside these amazing creatures, you’ll feel a connection to the marine world like never before.
It’s a mesmerizing adventure that stays with you long after your encounter is over!
Disclosure: Our La Paz whale shark swimming experience with Baja Charters was complimentary for review purposes. However, as professional travel journalists, we always retain full editorial control over our thoughts and words – and we let you in on both the “good” and the “bad” about our trips and travel experiences.
Photos: 3, 5 to 8, 10, 11, 15 © Janice and George Mucalov, Cabo Visitor