It was a strange start today in South Baja. We awoke to distant flashes of lightening and far away rumbles of thunder. The cloudy skies around us let loose and fed the desert with scattered rain showers. Rain in South Baja in May is about as common as seeing a whale shark off the beach while roosterfishing. Neither ever happens.
The smell of fresh rain on the desert is like no other. Trust me, a guy nicknamed “Monsoon” would know. Its fresh like a rain back home but then there’s this sweetness about it because so many drought tolerant plants flower in an instant. It’s very special.
What rain isn’t good for is spotting roosterfish. Therefore, Grant Hartman took Sammy Vigneri and I to an off the beat place to blind cast for snappers and cabrilla. The sea at the scenic beach was calm and the water looked gray from the reflection of the clouds. The baitfish glittered for miles and mullet splashed playfully rather than with fear.
Happy baitfish is never a good thing and despite hard efforts blind casting only a few peanut roosterfish played with us. Worse off for me the antibiotic I’m taking for my tooth problems last week are creating lousy feeling effects on me. It’s not fun and I resorted to several naps in the sand – not the ideal way to succeed in fly fishing the salt.
At 1 PM the sun returned to Baja and our visibility went from zero to being able to scan the shallows for a mile. I could really see the mullet schools now but they continued to enjoy life. To my far left I noticed a massive shape. At first it was only a shape but it appeared to be moving at a steady speed.
My next thought was that it was a bait ball being herded by jacks. It was shaped like a tear drop and stretched out about 20 feet long. But as I reached for my Winston about to make a dash into casting range my mind changed. This was ONE massive fish. A fish I’ve dreamt of seeing since I was child. This was a ******* whale shark!
My heart beat like when I made my first cast to a big rooster. This thing made an arapaima look like a minnow. I was nearly speechless as Sammy and Grant grouped beside me to see him. Grant has seen them before but Sammy hasn’t and he doubted it was a whale shark. Then the tail broke the surface.
I realized my long awaited sighting of a whale shark wasn’t good enough from my point of view. The plankton eating leviathan was nothing more than a moving blob. He was more than a 100 yards out and too deep to see the true characteristics. The only way to enjoy this creature was to swim to him.
Swimming to the whale shark was no easy task. A winter of fly fishing shows, airplanes, bad eating habits and not swimming in ages provided me a better chance of drowning than reaching the shark. And the pace in which the large shadow moved was much faster than it appeared. My only chance was to run far down the beach then swim out and hope to intercept him.
Sammy thought my idea was terrible but I demanded he join. This was a 20-foot-long fish and although a plankton eater, the thought of getting in the water with him myself was intimidating. Off we went on a mad sprint up the beach.
I kept an eye on the shark as we ran. Once far enough ahead I jumped in the ocean and swam out. In the excitement I neglected to remove my shirt, Costa sunglasses or my hat. To make my swim more difficult I was setting my waterproof camera to underwater mode as I kicked.
Once stopped where I thought the shark would arrive I realized I could no longer see him. I kicked my legs like egg beaters treading water trying to raise myself up to see. About then I saw the gargantuan fish. His mouth was wide open and I was horrified to see he was headed directly for me!
Every “what if” in the book crossed my mind – especially what if I got accidentally sucked in his mouth! I kicked furiously to get out of his lane which put me on the ocean side of him – exactly the opposite of where I wanted to be. I was terrified almost to the point of hyperventilating but there was no turning back. “Enjoy it you dummy.”, I whispered to myself.
And enjoy it I did. Fear changed to utter awe and the whale shark swam two feet from me like I wasn’t there. First went his massive head. Then I saw the gills. Each shark gill was two feet long. Then I saw those white-dot markings I’ve seen in photos all my life. His body kept going and going on by. The length of the fish seemed to go on forever! Remarkably I snapped these lucky underwater photos.
The experience passed so quick it seemed unreal. Sammy made it close enough to see the whale shark as well. The excitement between us was unreal. I said, “Let’s do it again. I want to touch him!”
Once more Sammy thought my idea was ridiculous. But when will this chance come again? I swam back to the beach like and Olympian and started running down the beach again. My out of shape body could care less. Next thing I knew I plunged once more and swam out.
As I arrived so did the whale shark. Though uneasy, this time I made sure we collided. The shark went right under me and I reached down and touched him. I wanted to grab on and for a second I did. But he was too fast and far too strong. His skin was much different than I expected – rubberier I’d say. I ran my hand along as he passed then his powerful tail hit me in the belly. It was freaky but mission accomplished!
I don’t remember much about the rest of our afternoon. Not only was I on cloud nine but the energy exerted from all the adrenaline rush left me weak. Grant teased me for being scared of the docile whale shark but let me tell anyone that thinks the same – if you’ve never been in the water with a fish that size – it’s scary as heck!
You never know what might happen on any given day. Especially when you’re fishing the ocean. I didn’t even need to catch a fish to make for today to go down as one of my most memorable since I ran into the dugong in Sudan in 2014.
Jeff Currier Global Fly Fishing