It’s 2004 and Flavio, El Guapo, (The Handsome), has been vacationing in the Bay of La Paz. He comes to the Baja every year, and he packs lightly every time, since he prefers to swim in his own skin. He seems to love it here in México, and his sheer physical presence and beauty always draw a crowd whenever he is in sight, and what a sight for sore eyes he is. The ladies say he is a handsome beast. “Oh, Flavio!” they gush, and everyone who knows him considers him a friend.
Flavio is not a handsome Italian hunk. Nor is he a muscular, Greek tourist or a sexy snowbird from Saskatchewan. Flavio is a 24 foot whale shark, and he´s happy to be who he is. He wouldn´t change a thing, except, maybe, getting stuck in the sand in shallow waters. That experience is a drag.
This month Flavio beached himself for a second time, right off the peaceful island of El Mogóte, just east of the malecón in La Paz. His caring friends again heard the emergency call and responded. This was another lucky day for Flavio, thanks to the successful efforts of the employees from the federal environmental agency, Profepa, as well as another group dedicated to responding to beached whales, called Red de Atención para Varamientos de Mamíforos Marinos.
Removing a burly beached whale shark from shallow waters is no easy task, even if he is completely harmless to humans. Once freed, Flavio was given a special, heartfelt escort that stretched more than five miles out to deeper, 25 foot waters, sufficient for swimmers of Flavio´s size. Here, probably smiling and breathing easier, he could go back to plying the waters for plankton, those tiny plants, animals, and small fish that make up the bulk of the whale shark´s diet; innocent drifters who happen to get in the way and are quickly scooped up in his large filter-feeder. Flavio belongs to the largest fish family in the world, but uses a filter feeder similar to those used by his mammal friends, the baleen whales, which include the blue whale, the world´s largest mammal of all.
So Flavio will live another day. If he learns his lesson, he and other members of his family will likely live about 70 years or so, although some experts believe much longer. They won´t become sexually mature until they reach at least 25 years of age or more. When they are ready to expand the family, they can have up to 300 pups at a time!
While most of the whale sharks in the La Paz area are usually young, under 30 years old and under 30 feet long, others will grow much larger. Males and pregnant females are said to prefer the open waters of Baja Sur. One of the largest recorded whale sharks in the world measured 41.5 feet (12.5 meters), the size of a large school bus, and weighed a whopping 47,000 pounds (confirmed). Many unconfirmed reports of whale sharks, including one weighing up to 69 feet, have also been reported around the world. A 100-footer was even reported. Many of these may be exaggerated fish stories told by creative writers and drunk fishermen, known for telling tall tales and exciting stories. Still, some of these accounts may very well be true. Scientists continue to make astonishing discoveries of the mysterious whales, which challenge conventional assumptions of the past.
The whale shark is beautifully covered in light pink spots and irregular lines that contrast with its dark, grey skin, and his belly is white. His mouth is a full three feet wide and houses well over 300 small teeth, none of which will ever be sunk into the flesh of a human. A peaceful and friendly fish, he has no predator on the planet, save for humans. While the skeletons of most fish are made of bone, the whale shark (fish) skeleton is made entirely of cartilage. He is known for inhabiting tropical or warm sea regions of the world, usually in the latitudes between 35N and 30S. Some will be lucky enough to winter in the marine rich waters of Baja Sur and the plankton filled currents around El Mogote, considered the sanctuary for whale sharks in La Bahía de La Paz. This is a popular area for whale sharks to hang out with their family or friends.
Life is good for these sharks, as long as their water remains clean and uncontaminated from plastics, chemicals, radiation, or ugly oil spills. Or, of course, as long as they don´t go belly up on the sand, or get struck by sharp motor blades from fishing or commercial vessels. They hate that. Fortunately, some concerned humans are taking action on environmental issues designed to protect the species, and they are making a positive difference, although much more needs to be done.
The whale shark is a protected species and the Mexican government is doing its part as well in ensuring protection. Whales are good for the economy, too. People are excited to see Flavio and his friends when they come to town. Some spend a good chunk of change on whale watching trips and full coolers of beer, and are happy just to see them swim around. They are photogenic creatures, too, and don´t seem to mind having their picture taken with fascinated tourists. Swimming with the gentle giants is an awe-inspiring thrill, and everybody goes away from the experience with wide eyes and effervescent emotions, and memories that can last a lifetime.
In addition to Baja Sur, whale sharks also cruise the waters of La Bahía de Los Angeles, in Baja Norte, and other areas of the peninsula. They are also very popular in the Yucatan where, in 2011, more than 400 whale sharks showed up for what seemed like a convention, and put on a fancy show for their admirers. Although sightings of groups of more than 70 whale sharks were common in the La Paz area in previous years, their numbers have fallen dramatically recently. In 2016, only around a dozen of them were sighted, according to local reports, and marine biologists are concerned about these new patterns.
Whale shark watching trips can be arranged through a handful of companies in La Paz, mostly using small pangas, including Diving Carey, The Cortez Club, Whale Shark Vip Tours, Fun Tours, and SOCA, as well as through several smaller operators located on the beach of the malecón. Day trips may also be arranged from the Los Cabos area, and accessed through the internet. One particularly comfortable trip is on Island Cat, a very large and cozy catamaran. You are taken up and back by van in one fairly long day.