Swimming with whale sharks, known as the “Gentle Giants,” can be both a humbling and exhilarating experience, but there are a few things you should know.
The name “whale shark” can be confusing because they’re not really whales. They’re actually a species of shark, which is classified as a fish, not a mammal, like a whale. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, averaging approximately 40 feet long and weighing up to 20 tons and they can live to over 100 years old. It’s named not only for its great size but its diet; like some whale species, the whale shark feeds on plankton and krill. They are filter feeders, which means they open their massive jaw span to scoop up krill and plankton and occasionally small fish that get in the way. Though their massive jaw span could easily encompass a human without any problem, if ever one got in, they would be immediately ejected since the whale shark’s throat opening is only about the size of a golf ball. Also, they don’t have teeth, so you don’t need to worry about them trying to eat you.
Whale shark tourism has exploded over the past few years, but even though snorkeling with them is surreal, there are some things you should consider first:
Though whale sharks are dubbed “gentle giants” of the sea, there are rules you should observe to ensure a safe snorkel and also to show a healthy respect for their space. Their massive tails can swipe a person pretty hard, so you should always jump in as close to the head as possible and swim fast to keep up.
The rule of thumb is to stay at least 3 feet away from the head and 10 feet away from the tail and never, ever, ever try to touch one! Flash photography underwater is also forbidden. For photography tips, check out this Underwater Photography Guide.
Especially off the coast of Mexico, whale shark adventure tourism has exploded. With that economic boost to the region, there have been a lot of fly-by-night operators popping up that don’t follow the rules or offer safe adventures.
Stick with well-vetted operators that only take small groups and guarantee closely guided snorkels with the animals. Eight to ten passengers per boat is ideal. Report tour operators who crowd or corral the whale sharks with their boats and encourage tourists to mount them or hitch a ride by hanging on their fins. Don’t be lured by cheap specials; pay for for responsible tour operators like Cabo Trek in Los Cabos.
In 2016, these creatures were classified as an officially endangered species by the IUCN Red List. In Asia, they are hunted legally and illegally for their meat and fins, and for use in medicinal products. Plus, they often get entrapped in fishing nets and collide with boats.
Thankfully, scientists are beginning to track them with satellite tags to monitor them, and non-profit groups like the Whale Shark Mexico in La Paz are focused on research, sustainable management, and environmental education.
How You Can Help
Boycott any products using whale shark parts of any kind. Sign petitions that ban shark finning and support places that create shark sanctuaries. You can also virtually adopt a whale shark through organizations like the World Wildlife Federation. Proceeds go toward their preservation efforts.
Whale sharks are inherently solitary souls, only meeting up briefly to mate. They don’t travel in pods, so the only time you’ll experience them together in large numbers is when they are in an area with an abundance of their favorite food.
The following are the best whale shark diving locations in the world, according to PADI:
- Cancun & Cozumel – Specifically Isla Holbox, Isla Contoy, and Isla Mujeres, three beautiful islands that lie in the eastern part of Mexico. The season is official set from June 15 to September 15, but the peak time to swim with whale sharks here is in July and August.
- Baja California Sur – La Paz, Cabo San Lucas, and Cabo Pulmo National Park offers fantastic opportunities for swimming with whale sharks. This is one of the few places in the world where whale sharks can be found as both juveniles and adult pregnant females. November to May are the best months here.
- Belize – The best time to see whale sharks in Belize and Gladden Spit Falls is between March and June.
- The Philippines – The best time to see whale sharks in the Philippines is from December to May.
- Tanzania – Whale sharks can be seen near Mafia Island, located in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania, between October and March.
- Australia – The best time to dive with whale sharks in Australia is during the fall months, March to June each year.
- The Maldives – One of the only places where whale sharks are present in equal numbers all year round.
- Mozambique – The best time to find whale sharks in Mozambique, and Tofo Beach, in particular, is between June and January.
- The Galapagos – The best time to swim with whale sharks in the Galapagos is during the dry season, which takes place between June and December.
- Thailand – Whale sharks can be found in Koh Tao, one of the most beautiful southern islands known for its diving, during the months of March, April, May, September, and October.
- Indonesia – Whale sharks can be seen in Cenderawasih Bay year-round, but August to October is considered the peak season.