Swimming with whale sharks

Sunday, August 14, 2016 Diving and snorkeling by Elina Pedersen

Swimming with whale sharks is the ultimate once in a lifetime experience. Many people travel thousands of miles to see whale sharks and swim with the gentle giants. Despite being a very popular tourist activity, not much is known about this species’ life and history. There are some things you must learn before you jump in the water to meet the mysterious giants.

Whale sharks are very rare and endangered; thus we must not harm them. There is still a handful of locations around the world where swimming with whale sharks is almost guaranteed.

Facts about whale sharks

Whale sharks, despite its name, are not whales. Instead, they are the biggest fish species on the planet. With their skeleton entirely made out of cartilage having a lot in common with sharks and almost nothing in common with whales who are mammals and not even fish. Whale sharks have a migratory lifestyle and are very deep divers. They can dive as deep as 6000 feet and only come to the surface to feed. That is when you can go swimming with whale sharks.

whale shark

What do whale sharks eat?

Although massive, whale sharks only eat the smallest of the oceans organism – plankton and phytoplankton. The way they eat is also called filter feeding. Whale sharks scoop tasty little bits out by opening their mouth and swimming very close to the water surface, filtering the water through their gills as they swim. Each whale shark is estimated to eat twenty-one kilogrammes or forty-six pounds of plankton and filter more than four and a half million litres of water each day.

Sheldon James Plankton

Do whale sharks have teeth?

Whale sharks have a mouth that can be 1 to 1.5 meters wide with 300-350 rows of tiny teeth and ten rows of filter pads. The teeth play no role in feeding; instead, whale sharks swim forward or suck the water in to filter it. Filter pads separate food from water, allowing plankton to end up on the whale sharks throat.

whale shark filtering water

How big are whale sharks?

Whale sharks being the biggest fish on the planet on average become twelve meters long when they reach maturity. The largest confirmed specimen was twelve meters and sixty-five centimetres long and weighed twenty-one and a half tonnes. Some of the famous fish stories report whale sharks as large as seventeen meters, but all of those encounters are unconfirmed.

Interesting fact: the spots on the body of whale sharks are unique and are similar to human fingerprints. You can submit your photo of a whale shark to the wild book of whale sharks and see if your whale shark was seen before.

Are whale sharks dangerous?

Fortunately for divers and sea dwellers, whale sharks are not aggressive and will most likely won’t even notice you if you decide to swim along. These striking giants have a ten-centimeter thick skin and a bad vision, so even if something touches the shark, it probably won’t feel anything. Nonetheless, refrain from touching whale sharks or using flash photography if you decide to swim with these amazing creatures, as your skin and the bacterial layer may be harmful to them, while flash photography is disturbing and worrisome. Maintain a reasonable distance with whale sharks, as you may accidently miss a tail stroke and get hit by it. Lastly, in some countries, it is illegal to get very close to the whale sharks with optimal distance being four meters. Young whale sharks can be curious and even start playing with divers and snorkelers.

swimming with whale shark

Where do whale sharks live?

Whale sharks live a migratory lifestyle and can be found living almost everywhere in the warm sea.

whale shark distribution map

Swimming with whale sharks

Most whale shark tours are a full day activity that starts very early in the morning. Different locations have a different code of conduct developed between the dive centres, tour operators and marine authorities. Your guide will instruct you on what you can and cannot do. Overall the general rules are simple: don’t get too close to the whale shark; motor vehicles engine should be turned off to reduce the noise and stop moving; you shouldn’t use flash photography, and there should be only one boat per shark.

whale sharks on the surface

Where to swim with whale sharks?

There are a few locations around the world where swimming with whale sharks is almost guaranteed; however, there are many more areas where whale sharks can be spotted accidently during the peak seasons.

Important note: when you go swimming with whale sharks refrain from using sunscreen even if it’s biodegradable. You will be swimming with this fabulous fish as it feeds and certainly you wouldn’t want someone to come to your house and all of a sudden put sunscreen into your meal.

Yucatan Coast, Mexico

The most popular location to snorkel with the whale shark is Yucatan Coast and Isla Holbox in Mexico, located just off the tip of the Yucatan peninsula. The tours run daily June to September and are relatively cheap: $150-$200. The Yucatan area is the one most reliable location to swim with whale sharks.

Swimming with whale sharks Yucatan

You will be picked up very early in the morning, at about five o’clock, and taken to the very top of the peninsula, where you will change to a speedboat and start moving away from the shore. You will receive fins and a mask, so you don’t have to worry about bringing your snorkelling gear.

The guide will allow you to get into water three to four times depending on the number of whale sharks and boats around you. All of the swimmers will be divided into groups of two. Each swim lasts for approximately ten minutes and as one group gets out of the water the next group enters.

You will then get back on the boat, and most providers will take you for some snorkelling, and after to the Mexico’s number two most beautiful beach – Playa Norte. Most of the tours will also offer a small lunch in a form of ceviche salad and drinks. If you are lucky, you may even be offered a beer. After lunch, you will head back to the pier where you started.

Playa Norte

Utila, Honduras

If you are a certified diver and wish to dive with whale sharks instead of just swimming with them, your best spot will be Utila in Honduras. Utila is not only the world’s cheapest dive destination but is also a fantastic place to spot whale sharks in March, April, August and September.

Make sure you go diving or snorkelling on the Northern side of Utila. Keep in mind that the whale shark tours on Utila are not very common. Nonetheless, the captain of the boat will look for whale sharks, and if he finds them, you will have a chance to swim with them. There are a few companies on the island that organise a specific whale shark tour and you will spend a full day on the boat, similarly to the trips in Yucatan, Mexico. Lastly, if you are more into privacy you can rent a small speedboat and the captain will go looking for whale sharks with you.

Interesting fact: Each female whale shark gives birth to over 300 pups at a time. However, the birth of whale shark pups was never encountered in wild nature and only once seen in captivity.

Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

Ningaloo Reef similarly to Utila, Honduras and Yucatan, Mexico is a spot that can guarantee a whale shark encounter if you are going mid-March to July. Your itinerary will look very similar to the one in Mexico. You will be picked up from your hotel early in the morning and take to Tantabiddi port where you will board a speedboat.

swimming with whale sharks

Ningaloo Reef is fabulous for both diving and snorkelling. Most tours will make several stops around the area for you to see the fantastic marine life of the 300-kilometre long reef with more than 500 different tropical fish species. Most tours last a full day and include food and drinks.

Donsol Bay and Oslob (Cebu), the Philippines

Whale sharks are found in many places around the Philippines with the best spotting time being January to May. Two locations in the Philippines guarantee your encounter with the sea giants: Donsol Bay and Oslob (Cebu).

Donsol is a beautiful fishermen village that became known to tourists about ten years ago. Donsol is located in Bicol region of Luzon. Diving is forbidden in this area, and if you were planning to dive with whale sharks you will be out of luck. Getting to Donsol might be a bit tricky, as you will need to get a flight from Manila or Cebu to Legazpi and then get an hour and a half ride by a public van or organise a private pick-up. Donsol whale shark experience is the same full-day itinerary as in Yucatan and Ningaloo Reef.

You shouldn’t go swimming with whale sharks in Oslob (Cebu). In Oslob, the whale sharks are fed by the local fisherman, which affects their habits and behaviour. The whale sharks in Oslob got so used to being fed that they swim towards boats and people, which causes a lot of injuries to these strikingly big animals.

Whale sharks Oslob, Cebu feeding

Not much is known about the migratory habits of whales sharks, or their reproduction and feeding them may affect the health of the population as a whole. In 2016 whale sharks status changed from vulnerable to endangered and changing their habits is something we shouldn’t encourage.

Important note: there are several whale sharks held in captivity all over the world and particularly in Asia (Japan and China). These are very rare creatures and please do not encourage them being captured and put in a tank. They are wildlife, not entertainers, and should roam freely.

Tofo Beach, Mozambique

Tofo Beach, Mozambique has the largest concentration of whale sharks in Africa. The calm waters of Tofo mostly attract juvenile whale sharks that are usually five to six meters long, and you will need to be visiting October to March.

In Tofo, although you may encounter whale sharks during one of your scuba dives, most often visitors prefer to book a whale shark safari. In the afternoon, when all the dives are already out of the way you will board a rib boat and go searching for whale sharks. After you are given a mask and fins to prepare for a snorkle.

whale shark

Boats cannot get too close to the whale sharks as the whale sharks might get scared and start “banking” by turning their back to the RIB boat and try to dive out of the way. After a few swims, you will be brought back to the shore buzzing with excitement and ready to share your experience with friends and family.

South Mahé, Seychelles

If you are planning to go whale shark spotting in August through November, you might decide to go to the island of Mahe in Seychelles. Although, whale sharks are less common here than in Ningaloo, Donsol or Yucatan you are still very likely to see these mysterious creatures. The itinerary is a full day trip with two dives or two snorkels depending on the company you choose.

Rest of the world where you can spot whale sharks

There are some other locations where you can spot whale sharks if you are lucky, and although some companies sell tours to go whale shark spotting in Gladden Spit (Belize), there is a lot less chance you will see the planet’s biggest fish there. Sometimes whale sharks can also be seen in Koh Tao (Thailand) and South Ari Atoll (Maldives), but those locations are mostly famous for diving on its own and divers who encounter whale sharks in those places are considered to be very lucky. Some divers even have superstitions connected with whale sharks, e.g. you should never call a whale shark by name; instead, you can use “big spotty fish” and never ask if you are lucky to see one or you will certainly be out of luck.

Whale sharks are mysterious, endangered animals we should treat with care and respect if we don’t want them to repeat the Steller’s sea cows and Caribbean monk seals destiny, who are now extinct purely due to human actions.

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