Immerse yourself in the natural world of BAHÍA DE LOS ÁNGELES by swimming with whale sharks and sea lions in the Sea of Cortez.
At first it’s just a shadow moving in the water. It seems impossibly big: 26, maybe 30 feet. Dive under the surface and you can come face to face with more than 20 tons of muscle and cartilage with fins – the broad mouth sucking in plankton as it reaches up toward the light, the remoras clinging to its white-spotted body, the graceful stroke of its huge tail fin as it glides through the water. It moves leisurely, averaging around 3 mph, so for a little while you can swim alongside it, kicking your scuba fins hard to keep pace. It’s not just a big fish, but the biggest fish of them all: the whale shark.
It is a majestic sight in a place that is overrun with majestic sights. The Sea of Cortez, the hundred-mile-wide strip of water between Baja California and the Mexican mainland, was a favorite of the great ocean conservationist Jacques Cousteau. He called it “the world’s aquarium.” It is home to a vast panoply of sea creatures, with some 900 species of fish and 32 types of marine mammals living, eating and breeding here.
It’s not uncommon to spot sea turtles, manta rays and even gray whales. You can swim with sea lions, who bark and tussle like a pack of aquatic dogs, and anglers come here in pursuit of yellowtail, red snapper and grouper. The fishing is so good even the birds join in. Brown pelicans and blue-footed boobies soar through the air and then suddenly dive, freefalling out of the sky and snatching up their prey.
It is experiences like these that encouraged Ricardo Arce to start his eponymous diving tour company in his hometown of Bahía de los Ángeles. “I grew up here and I’ve been diving for 21 years,” he says. “I wanted people to have the same experiences that I’ve had.” Bahía de los Ángeles is a small fishing town of just 800 people beside the mountains of the Sierra de San Borja. Its isolation makes it such a perfect place to get close to the Sea of Cortez’s many wonders.
As a tour group returns by boat after a day at sea, the town is barely visible on the shoreline. “A regular day here means getting up early to give a tour, then having a chilled life,” says Arce with a shrug. “It’s a relaxing place.”
This has not happened by accident. The community of Bahía de los Angeles consistently comes together to fight plans to make the town into a more commercial resort. “We’re concerned about development. It worries us,” Arce says. “We think the area has been conserved very well like this, so we don’t want it to grow that much. There have been lots of projects that have tried to get in here, but as a community we didn’t want them. We’re very selective about the sort of tourism we want to attract. We don’t want spring breakers or the party crowd. We only want people who are really interested in getting to know nature.”
Places like Bahía de los Ángeles are crucially important because the whale shark is an endangered species. Arce is a member of a local conservation group, Pejesapo, which since 2008 has worked to preserve the whale shark’s habitat and to count their numbers. The sharks are most commonly seen between June and December, and at the season’s peak Arce has seen as many as 55 in one day. “It’s a good feeding ground here,” he explains. “We used to think that they just ate plankton, but by filming them here we found out they eat bigger fish too.”
There are only a couple of very small hotels in the town, which means that for most of the year there are likely to be more whale sharks here than tourists. Arce is happy to keep it that way. “We try to set an example for the next generation about how you should do things,” he says. “We want to show them that this is how you protect the environment.”
Rejoin Highway 1 and continue south. You’ll reach San Ignacio a er four hours, and Loreto a er another 3½ hours.