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Swim With Whale Sharks

Swim with Whale Sharks by NomadInMe.

An encounter with a majestic Whale Shark could be one of the best things you ever experience. These gentle giants are filter feeders and very safe to swim with. Some of the best places to swim with whale sharks are Mexico, Ningaloo Reef and the Philipines.

In the article, we will cover several topics outlining the Whale Shark, including descriptions and information about the animal. As well as conservation, distribution and the best places to see and swim with these truly magnificent creatures. The author of this article has worked as a whale-shark guide in North West Australia and encountered and interacted with other 150 individual whale sharks, in 2 different locations. Being heavily involved in conservation and guiding tourists, you will get a one of a kind insight with first-hand knowledge on the best places to see them. Plus how the operators should be conducting themselves in the water with regards to safety, enjoyment and conservation.

About Whale Sharks

The Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus) is a famous bucket list animal amongst divers and underwater enthusiasts. It is the largest fish in the ocean with the largest confirmed specimen being recorded at 18.2 metres or 62ft. However, this size is seldom seen today with sharks generally maxing out at the 12-metre mark. It is by far the largest living nonmammalian vertebrate in the animal kingdom. They are predominantly filter feeders. With their main source of food coming from krill, plankton and small fish.

They are found in warm tropical waters generally above 21c around the world and have a lifespan of 80-130 years. They are one of only 3 filter-feeding sharks found today including the Basking Shark and the rare Mega-Mouth Shark. As filter feeders they pose no threat to humans, the locations that they are commonly seen and their slow-moving and sometimes friendly nature allow for a very safe and enjoyable encounter. Despite this, they are a very large very powerful animal, which should be given space and treated with respect.

Very little is still known about Whale Sharks especially with regards to reproduction. What is known is that males grow significantly faster than females however, females grow to a larger maximum size. One particular study found an age of 50 years for a 10 m (33 ft) female and 35 years for a 9.9m male. A part of the struggle in studying the reproduction of Whale Sharks is the great depths that they frequent and the large distances that they can cover.

They are known to dive to depths of up to 700 metres one female individual, a whale shark named Anne. Was recorded to travel 20,000 km in an 841-day journey zig-zagging across the Pacific Ocean, this is the current long-distance record for the species. As impressive and profound these numbers are, one must understand the difficulty in recording and collecting such data.

As far as reproduction is concerned Whale sharks are ovoviviparous. This means that they give birth to live young, however, the embryo is initially developed within an egg. Gaining nutrients from the yolk, the embryo then emerges from the egg whilst still inside the mother. Once out of the egg, it is nourished by secretions from special glands within the mother until it is ready to be born. This method is the most common among elasmobranchs and is used in species such as the sand tiger, great white and basking sharks. This was proven when over 300 Whale Shark embryos were found in a single female close to Taiwan.

Researchers are yet to observe a female Whale Shark pupping or observed actual mating of the species. However, in the Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia, a male was observed from the sky attempting to mate with a smaller female in 2019. Large females suspected of being pregnant have been observed in the Galapagos and it is widely thought that pupping occurs at great depths away from predators. Small juvenile whale sharks have been observed in several locations with the smallest and most recent sighting in the Philippines. On 7 March 2009, marine scientists in the Philippines discovered what is believed to be the smallest living specimen of the Whale Shark. Measuring only 38 cm (15 in).

Whale Shark Conservation

Although no solid data regarding word wide whale shark data is available. The animal is considered ‘endangered’ by the IUCN. This is partly down to the impacts of fisheries, by-catch, and vessel strikes also combined with its long lifespan and late sexual maturation. Another large and devastating factor related to all sharks is the hideous practice of shark finning. The illegal killing of sharks for their fins, skin and oil is almost completely the responsibility of Hong Kong, China and foreign Chinese markets around the world. The consumption of shark fin soup by these market is largely responsible for the destruction of all shark species including Whale Sharks.

Other factors affecting Whale Sharks include global warming and sea pollution. Both of which damage and disrupt the quantity and distribution of the shark’s main food sources. The large amount of plastic entering the ocean and as a direct result of this the microplastics circulating the worlds ocean currents. Have a massive yet unknown impact on the Whale Sharks. This is of particular concern considering the nature of their feeding habits. Filter feeders naturally are more prone to be affected by this type of pollution.

Another issue worth mentioning is a tourism and its effects. In some lesser developed countries. A lack of regulation and law surrounding interactions with the animals can mean that bad practices are allowed to creep on. Whale Sharks despite being large docile animals are without a doubt affected by boats and in water interactions. The Ningaloo reef in north-west Australia coheres to strict interaction rules policed by the department of environment. The rules in this part of the world are proven by conservation experts and scientists to be important for the sustainability of these animals and the tourism that they are involved with. Factors such as the number of vessels and swimmers and the distances kept from the animals from both of these factors are incredibly important. Such regulations do not exist or are seldom followed in other less-developed nations. its important that the tourists understand whats best for the animals and rogue operators can be singled out.

Swim with Whale Sharks

When, Where and How?

Now it’s time to outline our top destinations for seeing these amazing creatures. Some of the locations listed below offer specific Whale Shark swimming experiences. Others are places where you are very likely to see them on snorkelling and diving excursions. We will include the best times and a brief overview of each location to allow you to make the best decisions on which location is best for you.

Swim With Whale Sharks – Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

The Ningaloo reef has to be the top of this list because of the sheer pristine beauty of the waters. Not to mention the large and reliable number of Whale Sharks. I have personal experience working as a guide here and was blown away every single day.

The Ningaloo reef can be accessed via Exmouth or Coral Bay. Many tour operators here offer a 100% sighting guarantee or your money back. This is an amazing feature of the area and is mostly down to the fact that the operators use spotter planes to locate the sharks. All operators must be licensed and adhere to strict rules, including limiting the number of swimmers to 10 per shark. This is great for customers, keeping the experience relatively uncrowded.

A majority of the trips available are full day 6-8 hours and include several snorkelling spots along the way where you can experience the incredible biodiversity of the area. The boats are large, comfortable with food and refreshments included. The Whale Shark season on the Ningaloo also runs alongside a humpback whale migration. Manta rays also frequent the area and its not unusual to see all 3 amazing animals in one day. Operators in Ningaloo are now allowing Humpback Whale swimming experiences, one of the few licensed locations on the planet. If you want to learn more about swimming with whales, view this article https://nomadinme.com/swim-with-whales/

The downside’s to a swim with Whale Sharks on the Ningaloo Reef is accessibility. This part of Australia is very remote. Flights are available from some major Australian airports. Alternatively, it’s about a 15-hour drive from Perth. The waters can get rough during the Australian winter and the pace of the experience can be challenging for some. However, the boats are large and well equipped and the guides are experienced and professional.

Time of year: March to August
Cost: Approx $400AUS
Water Temperature: 23°C or 73°F

Swim With Whale Sharks – Mexico

Mexico may well be the best option for many travellers due to its accessibility and considering it is one of the largest whale shark migrations known about today. Tours are available from multiple locations including but not limited to: Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Riviera Maya, Cozumel, Tulum, Akumal, Holbox island or Isla Mujeres.

The Whale Shark season in Yucatan, Mexico is slightly shorter than previously mentioned. Running from June to September with the best time is June and July. There are many different operators at many different price points available. Mexico’s whale shark migration is said to be one of the densest on the planet. Up to 800 sharks can visit these waters in any given season.

As you can expect, a large variety of boats and companies are available in Mexico, with ranging levels of comfort. You very much get what you pay for. The comfort and length of your journey will not only depend on the sea conditions, size of vessel and where you leave from. Holbox Island is the closest to the locations and is considered to offer the most comfortable journey.

You can also swim with Whale Sharks in Baja on the west coast. Most commonly from the tip of the Baja peninsula in La Paz. The season here is opposite and runs from October to May. The sea of Cortez is an amazing location with much on offer. The migration is however smaller than that of Yucatan and the water colder and with lesser visibility.

Time of year: June to September
Cost: Approx $100-200USD
Water Temperature: 30°C or 85°F

Swim With Whale Sharks – Donsol Bay, Philippines

Donsol Bay in the Philippines has become somewhat of a legendary place for eco-tourism. It began its life as a sleepy fishing village until Whale Sharks were first discovered in 1998. It has now become one of the best-known destinations in the world to swim with these magnificent creatures. Donsol Bay is not the only place in the Philippines you can swim with Whale Sharks. Oslob, Cebu is another popular destination, however, feeding is common in this area. We will be focusing on Donsol because of its sustainable approach to Whale Shark tourism.

Donsol Bay works hard to protect these gentle giants and has the following rules:
-Don’t touch the Whale Shark
-Don’t restrict the movement of the Whale Shark or impede its natural path
-The recommended distance from the whale shark is 3 meters from the tail
-No flash photography.
-No scuba scooters, jet skis or any motorized underwater propulsion
-A maximum of 6 snorkelers per Whale Shark
-Only one boat per Whale Shark

Generally, operators in the area abide by these set rules but with a lack of policing, it seems that a few negatives still happen. Regardless the tours are well run and the sharks are for the most part given the space required. Be sure to book with a reputable operator to make sure you are doing your bit.

Due to the remoteness of Donsol and that the Philippines are a relatively poor country, the boats and infrastructure are more inferior than you would find on many other places on this list. However, the Philipines are a truly beautiful and diverse country with a lot to offer. A visit would be best incorporated into an island-hopping style visit, allowing you to see the other beautiful atolls that the Philipines has to offer.

Time of year: November to June
Cost: Approx $70-$100USD
Water Temperature: 30°C or 85°F

Swim With Whale Sharks – Gladden Spit, Belize

Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve can be found approximately 40km from the coastal town of Placencia in Belize. This gorgeous and pristine part of the Meso-American reef that stretches the length of Belize and more. Hosts a period of mass fish spawning between the months of March and June. During this relatively short period, large numbers of Whale Sharks visit the area to take advantage of the food-filled waters.

With a short season and a relatively long boat ride to get to the reefs. This location comes with less of a guarantee and more of a high probability of encountering the creatures. This part of the Meso-American reef is extremely popular amongst scuba divers. During the spawning periods, many whale sharks frequent the area. The marine park itself covers a large area which will be less densely populated than previous locations.

The town of Placencia is considered the gateway to the reef, being one of the closest points. It’s a small laid back beach town with a few accommodation options available. With no official eco tourism network the whale shark encounters are mostly enjoyed by scuba divers and there is little regulation in place for swimming with them. It is however well worth a mention on the list and a known place to encounter Whale Sharks.

Time of year: March to June
Cost: Approx $100-$200USD
Water Temperature: 27°C or 80°F

Swim With Whale Sharks – South Ari Atoll, Maldives

The Maldives are a popular scuba diving and honeymoon destination in the Indian Ocean. The archipelago is home to Whale Sharks all year round and also frequently visited by Manta Rays. The South Ari Atoll is a protected area and regular diving and snorkelling trips run throughout the years. Sightings in the area are highly likely but not guaranteed. Regardless of a Whale Shark sighting there is an abundance of marine life in this beautiful part of the world.

Eco tourism paired with diving and snorkelling is big business in the Maldives and large parts of the archipelago are protected marine reserve. Many of the islands in the area have only one or two resorts, generally they are all inclusive type vacations. A majority of resorts in the Maldives have their own dive and snorkel boats and can help organise excursions to these areas.

Time of year: All year round
Cost: Approx $100-$250USD
Water Temperature: 30°C or 85°F

Swim With Whale Sharks – Tofo Beach, Mozambique

Tofo in Mozambique is the final highlighted location to swim with Whale Sharks on this list. It is known to have the largest concentration in Africa and its easy to see why the sharks are regular visitors. With hundreds of square miles of coral reef and extremely rich, food-filled waters.

Much of the diving and snorkelling in Tofo is done from the beach in RIBs and a majority of the life can be found relatively close to shore. Because of the nature of access in the area, small boats mean small group sizes. Many of the operators in the area are passionate about conservation and that is reflected in their methods of interactions with the Whale Sharks in Mozambique. Once the sharks are located the boats will be positioned ahead of them, the engines cut and the swimmers are told to enter the water carefully and quietly.

Time of year: October to March
Cost: Approx $50-$100USD
Water Temperature: 27°C or 81°F

Other Locations

Above is the list of key locations to swim with Whale Sharks. There are, however, many locations in the world where you have a good chance of seeing this big fish! Below is a shortlist and description of other notable locations.

Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao is a popular destination for scuba diving and provides regular chances to swim with Whale Sharks. April to June are the best months, this fantastic little island offers cheap diving and a great nightlife. it is a part of 3 islands in the Gulf, Koh Phangan. Koh Samui and Koh Tao.

Bay of Ghoubbet, Djibouti

In October to January chances of spotting Whale Sharks in the small African Nation of Djibouti are very high. Known to have large numbers during peak times, this is worth a mention. The small bay of Ghoubbet is found in the Gulf of Tadjoura, easily accessible from Djibouti City.

Utila, Hondouras

This tiny island makes up one of the Bay Islands in the Caribbean sea off the coast of Honduras. It is very much the Caribbean equivalent of Koh Tao with great and cheap diving and fun nightlife. It’s known as a great location to swim with Whale Sharks, particularly in March, April, September and October. You can find more information on Utila here https://nomadinme.com/30-best-caribbean-islands/.

Wolf and Darwin Island, Galapagos

June to November is the Galapagos islands is when the plankton blooms and the upwellings peak. These extremely remote islands are special in so many ways and at the top of any underwater enthusiasts lists. Some of the largest whale sharks are seen around these islands and they are widely regarded among experts as being one of the main pupping sites.

Similan Islands, Thailand

The Similan Islands are a great place to swim with Whale Sharks and Manta Rays. Particularly from February to April. These islands are found on Thailands west coast in the Indian Ocean and are a very popular diving and snorkelling locations.

Courtesy of GoPro

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