Big Fish

The Robertson family has a chance encounter with some gentle giants of the sea while cruising the Sea of Cortez.
Del Viento, whale shark
Sadly, this was the best picture I could get from this episode. This is a whale shark with his mouth parted, swimming towards us. They live to be over 100 years old. Michael Robertson

A couple months ago, motoring into La Paz from a trip up north, Windy pulled the throttle back. “What is that?”

I stared ahead, seeing what she was seeing, but unsure, “Rays?”

“I think so. I think those are mantas, big mantas. Oh my god.”


We see rays all the time in the Sea. We see round stingrays on the bottom while diving our anchor and spotted eagle rays sometimes swim by us while we snorkel. Underway, we see the larger mobula rays, black and white and the size of trash can lids. They are especially fun to watch as they leap and flip five feet out of the water, flapping furiously as if in a bid to join the birds above. But none of these rays we see are mantas, the giant, majestic rays of the Sea that can develop wingspans up to 18 feet across.

Del Viento, Frances, whale shark
Frances standing eagerly at the bow while a shark swims by. That’s his dorsal fin sticking out of the water and his tail smacked our hull a few seconds later. Michael Robertson

I took the helm and Windy ran forward to get a better view. “Girls! Come look!”

Then she yelled aft from the bow, “Whale sharks!”


And there were whale sharks too, the creature countless tour boats zip out to see and which we’d tried to do ourselves, but had failed in our anemic dinghy*. Now, they were here, all around us, at least four of them, swimming with mantas.

Eleanor was frantic. “PleasecanIjumpin! PleasePleasePlease!”

Though it usually takes the girl twenty minutes to put a life vest and her shoes on when we’re heading ashore, in about three seconds she’d stripped down, donned her suit and vest and was standing on the edge of the rail. “Now?! Now?!”


“It’s a shark you know, a big one.”


Whale sharks are sharks, but more like whales or mantas in that they filter feed. But they do have a shark profile and they’re big—the largest living fish (some grow to more than 40 feet long and weigh more than Del Viento).


Here, surrounding us and swimming close, were juvenile-sized rays and sharks. The rays had a wingspan that looked about 10 feet and the sharks were about 20- to 25-feet long. I was impressed that Eleanor was eager to jump in alone.

“Alright, now.”

And off she went, into the water less than ten feet from a shark that swam near. Windy jumped in after her and they delighted in watching the huge, gentle giants swimming at the surface near them. After about ten minutes, Frances was chomping at the bit and she and Eleanor traded places.

Del Viento, Eleanor with whale shark
Right after Eleanor jumped in. The shark is the dark shadow, just in front of her, stretching from the upper left corner of the picture towards her. She and Frances and Windy all had much closer encounters, but I never got a shot off. Michael Robertson

These are the episodes I love most about cruising, the encounters and situations that come out of the blue when we least expect them. It’s the same in a conventional life, but here the serendipitous events seem to happen with greater frequency and in ways they never could back home. Too, they’re not always positive (gales and rough seas and breakdowns come to mind), but no matter because in their whole, the good and the bad that happen out here invigorate our life with a dynamic richness that leaves all of us wanting it never to end.


  • Don’t get me wrong, love our dinghy, wouldn’t trade the Portland Pudgy for another, but fast she will never be.

In our twenties, we traded our boat for a house and our freedom for careers. In our thirties, we slumbered through the American dream. In our forties, we woke and traded our house for a boat and our careers for freedom. And here we are. Follow along at