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From Frustrated to Face-to-Face: My Whale Shark Encounter

Did you ever feel like you were failing at something you loved?  I almost let a bad start ruin a once-in-a-lifetime experience swimming with whale sharks. Here’s how I overcame my struggles and ended up face-to-face with these gentle giants.

Rough Start: A Test of Patience

We started the day bright and early at 6 am, collecting people from other resorts before heading to Cabo Adventures in San Jose del Cabo. Our friendly host, Mario, with eyes as clear as the Sea of Cortez, explained the day’s itinerary. I was so excited and just wanted to get going. We were on standby until we knew if we would be in group 1,2,3 or 4 for the whale shark activity. Once he received word, our group of about 80 people boarded the bus for the 2+ hour ride to La Paz. 

Safety Briefing and Into the Unknown 

Mario wisely passed out sandwiches before speaking because “people listen more while they’re eating.” Well played, Mario. He described the timeline of the day and the safety precautions mixing in just enough humor to keep us entertained. Rules were: 

  1. don’t touch
  2. don’t get too close (especially to the tail as it swings widely side to side)
  3. no freediving (going under the whale sharks makes them nervous)
  4. stay next to or behind. 

We learned that the bay in La Paz is the perfect environment for the whale sharks to grow up, coming as babies and leaving as adults. They give birth in the deep sea so nobody has ever witnessed it. The spots on their bodies are like a fingerprint, each shark with a unique pattern. By taking photos and sharing with the local university researchers can follow the sharks and study behavior patterns. 

Mario announced that we would be in group 3. Our scheduled time was 1-3 pm, but there was a chance we might go earlier if the other groups found the sharks quickly. Mark and I were assigned to a boat with Joe as guide and Beto as captain. As we approached the marina, we learned that group 1 found the whale sharks quickly and were ahead of schedule! First step was getting a wetsuit. I really didn’t want to wear one, but it was mandatory. I was impressed that they had one that fit me fairly well. 

Once everyone from our group boarded the boat, we headed out into the bay. Joe reminded us of the safety rules and explained that we would jump in groups of 2 or 3 people.  The plan was for the boat to drop us ahead of the whale shark and we would swim towards it to intercept and swim alongside. We would each get 3 jumps. Joe told us that the first jump is for trying and not to get discouraged if it doesn’t go well. Timing would be important so you must be ready. When Joe or Beto say jump, you jump without hesitation. They gave us flippers and masks with snorkels. I skipped taking my GoPro for the first jump, until I figured out how this would all work.

First Jump Frustrations

Mark and I were in the first group with a woman named Kristen. With our gear on, we sat on the edge of the boat with our feet dangling off the side. We were ready to go and waited for our cue. Once he spotted a whale shark Joe jumped in and started swimming. He said jump and we jumped. When I surfaced I put the snorkel in my mouth and blew hard to push out any water as instructed. I struggled to get the water out and catch my breath. I’ve gone snorkeling many times and it just never feels natural. 

Joe grabbed Kristen’s arm and pulled her toward the whale shark. She made a lot of bubbles and now I couldn’t see either. I kept swimming to stay close. I breathed slowly in and out of my mouth and water still got in the snorkel or mask. I gasped and took my head out of the water to breathe. I was so frustrated. Then Joe grabbed my arm and guided me toward the whale shark. I was nervous and still trying to manage the mask and snorkel. I remembered Mario saying we could hold our breath underwater and come up for air if we weren’t comfortable with the snorkel so I tried that. I was still getting water in the mask. I wished I had my own goggles. I kept trying. Joe was making hand motions and I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to do. Then he pushed me closer to the shark – yikes! Not knowing if we would get this close again I tried looking at him for a picture and got more water in my mask. I felt like I didn’t even know how to swim. 

My turn was over and I headed back to the boat. Mark returned energized from his turn. He loved it. Meanwhile I was so disappointed. How could I not know how to swim? I mean, this is MY thing and I felt like I couldn’t do it. I watched the other groups go in and come out so excited and I felt even more deflated. I started to cry a little. This is a once in a lifetime experience and I never felt more uncomfortable in the water. I didn’t want to go back in.

My First Swim
Mark's Swim

Second Time’s the Charm: Finding My Rhythm

Determined, I tightened my mask until my nose was smooshed against the plastic and took a deep breath. This time, I skipped the snorkel altogether and focused on swimming smoothly. Joe went to the right side of the whale shark with Kristen and motioned for Mark and me to go on the left. I carefully swam behind making a wide arc to avoid getting near the tail. I was so focused on breathing and watching the shark that I didn’t notice where Mark was. I was so relieved that no water leaked into my mask. I swam alongside the giant creature and approached its head. I saw its huge mouth open to feed, a moment both thrilling and awe-inspiring. I was so close and all of a sudden aware that I was all by myself. I noticed Joe on the other side taking videos and was reassured. 

Look closely - that’s me near the shark’s mouth!
My last attempt to pose for a picture.

I looked repeatedly from head to tail marveling at its size and just taking it all in. I saw fish attached to its body and many more swimming around. Joe came up beside me. I turned to look at his camera and got more water in my mask. At that point I didn’t care about the pictures anymore. I ignored the camera and focused on the joy of the experience. As I swam to the boat, I didn’t see Mark. I put my concern aside and trusted that Joe was taking care of him. I climbed up the ladder. Mark swam back early with a bad cramp in his calf. I was sad he missed seeing the shark eat but relieved that he was ok.

Close Encounters of the Best Kind

My last turn was coming up and with renewed confidence I grabbed my camera. Mark stayed on the boat to avoid any further issues with his calf. Kristen and I waited for our signal. I started the video. Beto yelled jump. As we jumped I heard Joe yell wait. The shark changed direction and was swimming right towards us. My heart raced as I was face to face with this mammoth sea creature. Somehow I was able to move and yelled for Kristen at the same time. Had I been able to remain calm I would have captured an epic video. 

We regrouped and I enjoyed my final swim with the whale shark. I did my best filming but didn’t let that distract me from the beauty of the experience. It was a long swim back to the boat. I was so done with the mask that I took it off on the way. Everyone on the boat was shouting for me to look in the water. I put it on as quickly as possible and dunked my face. I barely caught a glimpse as a second whale shark swam right by me. I was happy to get back to the safety of the boat. 

Now that’s close!

Victory and Reflection: A Day I’ll Never Forget

Beto drove the boat back to the marina. On the way, we saw a bunch of silly pelicans diving headfirst at full speed into the water to catch their lunch! 

We ate the most delicious fajitas on homemade tortillas and drank margaritas made with fresh squeezed lime juice and coarse sea salt. After telling stories and looking at the cool pictures Joe took of us with the whale sharks, it was time to get back on the bus for the long ride home. On the ride, I thought a lot about the incredible day. I was overwhelmed with joy. At the same time, I couldn’t believe how my happy place initially felt so uncomfortable. I’m glad I was able to push beyond my doubt. Imagine if I didn’t try again? I never would have had the opportunity to share the water with these gentle giants.

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