Having a whale of a time! - The Not So Long Way Down - CycleBlaze

December 17, 2018

Having a whale of a time!

La Paz to Playa Balandra

Today was destined to be a pretty special day, with our long-anticipated excursion to swim with whale sharks taking place in the morning, before we would try and get ourselves on a TMC ferry to the Mexican mainland in the afternoon.

We managed to buy some gas for our stove at a diving store on the seafront when the shop opened at eight a.m. and then we joined the others for the ride to the whale shark place. There was actually a proper bicycle lane the whole four kilometres, the first we'd seen for a long while, which made for a pleasant morning ride.

Yikes! A bike lane!
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All eight of us cyclists, including Vincent and Sonia, were going along, as well as four random guys from Chicago who were on holiday together. We were all handed wetsuits, lifejackets, and flippers by Antonio, our super cool, super friendly, long-haired guide. We could leave our bikes safely locked up at the office, but a bus was on hand to drive us to the marina we would leave from. 
"I don't use motor vehicles," I explained to Antonio, and because he is so super cool, he replied, "I know man, I hate them too. You can just walk if you want, no problem."

And it wouldn't have been a problem had we not got lost. Dea and Jon both walked with me, but we went into the wrong place, and at the same moment Jon realised that he'd left his phone on his bike, which he needed to control his drone to get some cool aerial shots. He ran back to the office, while Dea and I looked around hopelessly for the correct marina. Luckily the bus driver spotted us on her way back to the office and directed us to the correct location, where everyone else was waiting on the boat. An out-of-breath Jon arrived a short while later, to the disappointing news that he would not be allowed to use his drone anyway.

Setting sail.
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We sailed out across the bay, while Antonio explained  about the whale sharks, and what would happen when we found some. We'd heard that there might be quite a few other boats also out with people wanting to have the same experience as us, and so it proved. After sailing around for a while trying to find our own shark, we ended up in the same place as a half dozen other boats, all crowded around one whale shark. It did make us question whether it was really the best thing for the animal to be harassed like this by so many people, but there were at least rules about how many people could swim at one time and for how long, and there was even a boat with some kind of rule-enforcers on board, patrolling the area, making sure all the boats were licenced, and that everything was being done properly. This rules reassured us, and ensured we would go through with the swim (along with the non-refundable $60 we'd each already paid.)

After watching another group swim for a while (it wasn't really possible to see the whale shark from the boat, just the swimmers in the water), it was our turn. Antonio asked us who thought they were the strongest swimmers and the sheepish looks from the Chicago side of the boat meant it was our group of cyclists taking the first swim. Six of us lined up on the side of the boat with our masks and snorkels on and prepared to dive in, but unfortunately the rule-enforcer said six was too many, and Dea volunteered to wait. But I was still one of the lucky five, and on Antonio's word we all dived off the boat and into the water. 

I had remembered Antonio's advice to start swimming as soon as I was in the water, and as he had jumped in next to me I instinctively followed his lead and turned to the left. As I began to flip my feet and move horizontal, the water cleared and I got a shock. Beneath me was the biggest sea creature I'd ever seen, and it was so close. It was a beautiful thing, a huge grey mass gliding effortlessly through the water with its big tail and dorsal fin. It was so close I felt like I could reach out and touch the white spots on its back, though I knew not to do that. It was moving fast, and I had to kick my feet pretty hard, and swim with my arms, to keep up with it. My snorkel had filled up with water, and trying to clear it was too distracting, so after a while I just swam without it, taking a breath every few strokes.

 The shark was really amazing. At one point I managed to move up its body and was surprised when I got to its head to find it was the end of it. It seemed like it had been cut in half, for the front end was long and flat, gliding through the water with a giant open mouth to gather food. But it was going fast and before long it was only me and Antonio that were still up with it, and he signalled to me that it was time to stop and return to the boat.

Dea waiting for her turn.
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Next to go in was Dea, along with Vincent, Sonia, and a couple of the lads from Chicago. Edgar, the driver, maneuvered the boat around and Antonio told everyone to dive in. With a big splash they entered the water, and began to swim. Apart from one of the Chicago lads, who instead of swimming was thrashing about. One of his flippers had come off and perhaps this had panicked him, or perhaps he just didn't know how to swim, but he was back on the boat as fast as he could. This meant quite a bit of extra work for Edgar, who had to run to the back of the boat to put the ladder down for him, then haul him and it in and get the boat over to the other Chicago lad, who was himself nowhere near the whale shark and simply doing his best not to drown. 

Antonio had his arm raised to help the swimmers locate the head of the whale shark. This did not help the Chicago lads. Dea, Sonia, and Vincent are still swimming.
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You can actually see the whale shark in this photo.
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I personally think that the mask and snorkel suits her very well.
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There was time for one more swim with the whale shark before we should leave it alone. There were two guys from Chicago who had not been in yet, and along with Tom and Nathan I was one of the lucky three who got to go back in with them (the other two from Chicago had not really seen the whale shark first time around, but they looked like they simply felt lucky to be alive, and had expressed no desire to try again). 

This time I took with me Jon's Go-Pro in order to try and film the whale shark. As before we dived in and this time the whale shark swam right under us as we did so! I turned and followed it, and it was so close, so brilliant. I was sure I was getting a great movie as I swam along with it in much the same way as before. It really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, or in my case a twice-in-a-lifetime experience, or in the case of the Chicago lads a never-in-a-lifetime experience. 

I managed to keep up with the whale shark for a while. I was so close it was unbelievable, and at one point I almost accidentally made contact with its massive tail, Antonio's words that "You can get knocked out by the tail" encouraging me to move away. After a while the whale shark, presumably having had enough of us, dived down into the depths, leaving us with just our special memories. Oh, and this video:

Pretty cool, huh? It was truly an amazing experience, worth every penny. Back on the boat, I found out that the other two Chicago boys had bailed almost as fast as the first two had, but one of them had boarded the boat with the excited cry of "I saw the tail!" A sound $240 investment from them, then.

We sailed back to shore and back to our bikes, quickly ate some food and began to cycle out to the ferry port, 20 kilometres from La Paz. Dea and I were in such a rush that we unfortunately forgot that Vincent and Sonia weren't joining us and we forgot to say goodbye to them. Their journey ended on Baja, but for the rest of us the mainland of Mexico was calling to us, and we desperately hoped we'd be able to get on a ferry before Christmas.

Interesting rocks on the ride out to the ferry port.
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First port of call once we arrived was the TMC office, a little shack full of people waiting for their case to be heard. TMC had boats sailing today (the 17th), and the 19th. Tom, the only half-decent Spanish speaker and natural leader of the group, stepped forward to try and negotiate with the woman behind the counter, but the news remained negative. We were told that we could not travel by bicycle, because we would have nowhere to sleep. Cars and vans were apparently allowed on this cargo ferry, as the passengers could sleep in their vehicles, but we wouldn't be able to do that. I noticed that motorcycles were allowed passage, and tried asking where they slept, and could we not just pay the motorcycle price and pretend we had engines, but it was to no avail. Hopes of getting on a boat before the 25th were fading fast.

Then a young man stepped in to help us, and led us over to the Baja Ferries office next door. We knew they had a sailing tomorrow, the 18th, but we'd been told several times that it was completely sold out. Imagine our joy and surprise, then, when the woman behind the counter told us that it would be possible to get us on board after all, and issued us our tickets. Oh, what a Christmas miracle this was! We would be leaving Baja California the very next day!

But the really perfect thing about this was that it gave us an extra day on Baja that we wouldn't have got otherwise, and that meant we had the time to go to the beach. We knew about this place called Playa Balandra that was only a further six or seven kilometres along the coast, and we rode there in great spirits after our successes with the whale sharks and the ferry. 

One last ride through the desert together (apart from tomorrow, when we'd ride back to the ferry again.)
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A lot of cars and people approaching the beach.
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The beach was very busy, but its popularity was understandable, for it was a truly beautiful location. We'd heard that it was possible to camp on the beach for free, and we soon got chatting with a couple from Brazil/Argentina that were going to sleep in their campervan. They watched our bikes for us as we went for a swim in the amazingly clear water. Then it was time for the games to begin. Jon had with him a climbing rope, and we strung that up between two palapas and played beach volleyball until it got too dark to see. And then a beautiful sunset was all that was needed to round off what had been a truly perfect day.

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Today's ride: 28 km (17 miles)
Total: 1,497 km (930 miles)

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Ludo VerhoevenAmazing shark video and sunset photo. Thanks for sharing Chris.
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