Dorian Monroy

A peaceful presence eases fear of swimming with sharks

By Melissa Curtin

A tour guide can shape or alter your perspective of a place. A great tour guide may also elicit a new passion.

In December of 2019, I returned to Mexico for the sixth time that year. You might say I was on a journey toward “living my best life.” Craving excitement and adventure in La Paz off the coast of Baja, my early morning endeavors no longer involved teaching in a classroom but becoming a student myself. After wiggling into my wetsuit, alongside a small group of girls doing the same, we hopped into a boat with exhilaration and trepidation for what was to come.

Just a few minutes from our hotel, we pushed off from Marina Cortes ready to swim with whale sharks, the largest fish in the ocean. CostaBaja Resort and Spa arranged our fate with OnBoard Baja, a tour company that prides itself on causing minimal impact to the environment.

Dorian Monroy, our boat captain and tour guide for the day, navigated the Sea of Cortez with a big smile while happily sharing fascinating facts and new research information about whale sharks, reminding us these mysterious, gentle giants can grow up to 40 feet long. We also learned that their main source of food is plankton and when the sea gets churned during storms their food gathers closer to shore.

Fun fact: A whale shark eats 8% of its body weight each week.

Dorian explained how Mexico strictly regulates the area so that people can only snorkel with whale sharks in a 10 km square zone and limiting traffic to 14 boats at a time. He told us that more whale sharks are coming to the area each year off and Dorian hopes the zone is declared a protected place. My anxiousness eased a tad when he divulged that typically young whale sharks, called juveniles, come to this area.

Just a 20-minute boat ride offshore and Dorian was already searching the horizon for a fin. It was quickly decided that I was to go first since I was the most nervous.

Dangling off the side of the boat, Dorian signaled for me to jump in when the whale shark was near. Holding my camera, Dorian captured me lowering into the somewhat murky blue-green sea. Somehow grabbing hold of my hand with his free one, Dorian eased my fear, helping to propel me alongside this captivating carpet shark. Eventually, I let go and after a moment of fierce swimming, I locked eyes with this white spotted beauty.. “La Paz” means peace and that’s exactly how I felt in this otherworldly realm next to this juvenile that was longer than my five-foot six-inch body.

As we rose from the surface, I beamed at what just unfolded. Dorian and I cheered and high-fived each other after being in the presence of this magical marvel under the sea. In some weird way, Dorian’s calm presence made me feel less alone in the wide-open waters.

The next  jump had me head on with a whale shark that was over 20 feet long. In fact, the shark unexpectedly crashed right into my face causing me to bolt to the surface and scream. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one scared as the shark descended to the bottom.

Later that day Dorian concocted fresh fish tostadas for our pleasure before another adventure near Espiritu Santo Island to snorkel with sea lions. He slowed the boat down in the middle of the Sea of Cortez while we oohed and aahed over hundreds of dolphins frolicking in the glittering sunlight.

Dorian satiated our giddiness for wildlife as he passed beautiful rock formations filled with birds one would expect to see in the Galapagos, explaining facts you would imagine learning from a scientist or wildlife explorer. “The frigate bird colony makes drumming noises to attract their mate.” We would have missed the blue and brown-footed beauties if he had not told us where to look.

Dorian, who obviously has an unparalleled passion for the land and sea, was a construction worker for many years and wanted a more fulfilling life so he started volunteering on whale shark boats. Did Dorian realize he chose to become such an inspiring educator? Or did he view himself as a student of life like me.

The visual of coming face-to-face with a whale shark will be with me for the rest of my life but so will Dorian’s passion and knowledge about the Gulf of California. Thank you, Dorian, for making these adventures on the Sea of Cortez one of the best days of my life.

About the journalist:
Since traveling around the world at age 20 with Semester at Sea, Melissa Curtin hasn’t stopped globetrotting. The pandemic kept her adventures to local road trips in California but she is eager to be back on a plane. Her website covers and discovers the Best of LA. After a recent home purchase in Palm Springs, California, she is relishing desert living. Find her travel, food, and lifestyle articles in print and online at Lonely Planet, Zagat Stories, Roadtrippers and more.