SWIMMING WITH SHARKS IN THE SEA OF CORTEZ

Aaron and I heard rumors of the whale sharks after multiple military checkpoints and a dusty three day drive down Baja California Sur’s roads to La Paz. It was here that Steinbeck chose to set his novel “The Pearl” and here that we had come to search for our own pearls, those perfect moments in the clear warm waters of the Sea of Cortez to depress our shutters. My 1985 VW bus was loaded with tanks, camera gear and little red plastic gas cans strapped to the roof that had been inspected with some incredulity by the machine gun toting fedarales in their fatigues and sunglasses.

Three days of diving with hammerhead sharks and manta rays in La Paz was unable to erase the rumor from our unconscious moments. Some divers spend their whole life to find the filter feeding Rhincodon Typus, and here he was waiting at the edge of a story from a stranger where a long dirt road touches the Sea of Cortez. And so we drove north through checkpoints and hot asphalt with the VW engine struggling against the steeper hills in search of the rumor. Soon after stopping to buy extra gas we found the unmarked road that the source had spoken of. A road that quickly deteriorated from pavement to potholes to dirt and 100 miles later a small fishing village next to a beautiful half moon bay.

A Mexican man who made his living renting his boat to sport fishers nodded when we showed him a magazine clipping of the picture of a whale shark. For a few dollars each he agreed to take us into the bay. The hum of the outboard engine and the splashing of the water became the only sounds as the small white huts of the village shrank slowly in the distance dwarfed by a mighty mountain behind them.

“There!” Aaron said. A few hundred yards away a giant fin was breaking the surface of the water. We scrambled to don our fins as Roberto maneuvered the boat close to the Sharks and cut the engine. Seconds later we were in the water with two of the most magnificent creatures I have ever seen. The bodies extended for 30 feet and the mouths easily matched my height.

My mind went numb with awe.

Moments after jumping in, Aaron and I realized that the larger of the two sharks had recently battled with a fishing net. The net had lost but the force of the struggle had cut the lines of the net deep into the dorsal fins of the creature. The remnants of the net dangling from both fins combined with the resistance of the water against their tattered remains was slowly forcing them to cut deeper and deeper into the sharks flesh. In places the cuts were nearly a foot deep, and if allowed to continue would eventually cripple the shark.

Swimming back to the boat Aaron and I agreed that we must try to cut the net off of the fins. In broken Spanish we asked Roberto for a knife, and swam back to the mammoth creatures.

At twenty feet of distance a thirty foot whale shark looks quite large. At five feet of distance, the closest I got on that first attempt, the thirty foot shark was so intimidatingly huge and massively alive I forgot I was underwater until a strong kick of the sharks tail left me churning in its wake and searching for the surface.

It took most of the day for our fear of each other to subside enough for another attempt. The sharks basked in the warm ocean water near the surface eating large amounts of plankton while Aaron and I swam and photographed until the late afternoon when were too tired to reload our cameras. Swimming back to the boat to rest, we agreed to try once again to cut the net from the large sharks fins. Use to our presence in the water, the second attempt was a success. The shark lay docilely near the sea’s surface while Aaron and I took turns diving down and cutting the strands of coarse netting away from its fins.

When we were finished, we swam a while longer with the sharks who continued to bask near the surface of the sea and casually slurp plankton in a vortex of water down their throats. There was silence in the boat ride back to shore. We had found our pearls.

Images and Text © Jonathan Kingston 2002 and 2007 respectively