I’ve been spending a lot of time this year in a funky little community on the Sea of Cortez to explore Baja by motorcycle, 4×4 and long-distance touring paddle board. A couple of weeks ago I’d been cooped up most of the day writing, and went out for a quick paddle before sunset. I grabbed my snorkel, mask and booties, just in case, and dragged the board out of the shallows, poking the sand ahead of me with my paddle to scatter the stingrays.
The air was still, the sky a flat, deep blue and the sea gray, the texture of cream. The pointed tip of my long touring board silently sliced through the water. Camel-colored promontories humped into the bay, their fingers reaching toward the barren islands scattered nearby.
I reached the pelican reef quicker than I figured and reset the far island as my goal. The sound of birds diving alerted me to a school of tiny fish hopping my way. Pelicans and blue-footed boobies fluttered awkwardly, jousting for position, and a lone frigate bird swooped, claws out. Two bottlenose dolphins humped slowly through, exhaling loudly.
So it was dolphins, always beautiful, chasing tuna, their yellow tails flashing in the late afternoon sun, in turn, chasing the little fish. The food chain in action. And then a large, black dorsal fin emerged and it was headed straight for me.
Most likely a whale shark, I told myself, reassuringly. How odd, though, I’d never heard of them behaving so boldly. I took a wider stance on the board and prepared for anything.
In about 10 seconds it revealed itself to be indeed, a brown and black spotted whale shark, its head wider than the length of my 14-foot board. I laughed aloud as it glided slowly beneath me. It came almost to a stop and then rose under the board, taking me for gentle magic carpet ride.
Its back was dappled like leopard skin and flat, a squat rectangle before tapering off at the end to the tail. About the size of a train car, I no longer had the impression of floating, but of being borne atop the water. I had unconsciously raised my paddle like a tightrope walker so as not to touch it. Was it pushing me along with its dorsal fin? There was no bump or jolt, just a smooth little ride. Then, after a friendly nudge, it was gone.
Sitting down, I grabbed my snorkel and mask and slid into the water. The huge shark turned toward me and glided by before disappearing again. Elated, I climbed back up on my board to sit for a while, watching its progress. The black dorsal fin cut through the smooth water, its small tail fin trailing, as it headed east into the depths of the bay, scattering small fish in its path.
The sun dipped behind the western mountains, washing me in shadow. I shivered and began my paddle home. I’d never heard of a whale shark coming right at someone like that before. Was it the mirror-calm water? Had it realized that it could see me very clearly without the usual chop to distort the view? There aren’t many paddleboarders here, mostly kayakers, so perhaps I was a novelty.
The area around the pelican reef is shallow and sandy, with a clear view of the abundant triggerfish who munch the shellfish and spiny creatures here. An angelfish about the size of a dinner plate caught my eye but quickly fled, wedging itself awkwardly under a rock. Then, impossibly, another whale shark circled around my board. This one a baby, only about fifteen feet long, skirting the sandy bottom. I donned my snorkel and mask again and stuck my head in the water, but it was gone.
Colder now, I wrapped myself in a sarong and paddled hard to shore, where some of my neighbors were gathered on the beach for our ritual sunset cocktail hour. They had been watching with binoculars and couldn’t figure out what I was doing, hopping on and off the board and sticking my head in the water. Well, you won’t believe this, I said, and somebody handed me a beer.
Sea Eagle makes the inflatable paddleboard I was on – I really like it a lot. It’s an inflatable and it’s very portable and durable. They have a 3 month trial period with a money-back guarantee, and a 3 year warranty! They also make inflatable kayaks, canoes, fishing boats, and SUP surfboards. Check it out!