Where in the world is the best place to scuba dive with whale sharks, the biggest fish in the oceans?
For some scuba divers the whale shark is the elusive fish they’ve yet to see. Whereas for others, they’ve been lucky enough to see one either scuba diving or snorkeling. I’ve been lucky enough to swim with these magnificent creatures on the Ningaloo Reef, Australia.
The best place to scuba dive with whale sharks is in warm waters of 21°C (70°F) or more in temperature. The whale shark is the largest extant fish in the ocean and a filter feeder. It's also on the endangered list of creatures. Places like the Ningaloo Reef, Australia and Isla Mujeres off the coast of Mexico near Cancun are some of the best places to see whale sharks.
Best place to scuba dive with whale sharks
Whale sharks like tropical waters and are rarely found in waters of less than 21°C (70°F). So if you're a 'blue-water-scuba-diver,' then you're in luck. If your idea of the perfect scuba dive is in warm blue waters of the world, then you maybe lucky enough to spot a whale shark whilst you're there.
Places that fit this description include the Caribbean sea and the Gulf of Mexico, Belize, the northern waters of Australia, Mergui Archipelago Myanmar, the Maldives, Mozambique, Thailand, the Red Sea, the Philippines, Mozambique and the Galapagos Islands.
Let's take a look at some of the best places to scuba dive with whale sharks around the world in detail.
Swimming and diving with whale sharks on the Ningaloo Reef, Australia
The Ningaloo Reef is a lesser known reef of Australia. It's off the coast of Western Australia near to Exmouth in the north. Scuba diving on the Ningaloo Reef is fantastic and at certain times of the year, there's also a good chance to see whale sharks too.
When I experienced the whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef, I did this snorkeling on the surface. At certain times of the year you are almost guaranteed to see whale sharks. They are in the Ningaloo Reef area between the months of March to June each year.
The whale shark boats use a spotter plane to locate the whale sharks in the ocean. That way you are nearly always guaranteed to see at least one whale shark when you're there.
Scuba diving with Whale sharks in Mergui Archipelago
Mergui Archipelago is a remote diving destination off from Myanmar (Formerly Burma). This is an almost untouched scuba diving destination where you're almost guaranteed to see sharks of many different species.
There has also been known to be the occasional whale shark seen at Mergui Archipelago. If you would like to experience remote scuba diving with the chance to see a whale shark, this is the place to go.
Scuba diving with whale sharks in the Maldives
The Maldives are a scuba diver's paradise in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Beautiful coral reefs, sea turtles, large schools of coral fish, manta rays and of course whale sharks.
The warm seas around the Maldives are perfect for the whale shark.
In the Maldives there's no real season for whale sharks. The whale shark population in the Maldives is there year-round.
But it's their rainy season from early May through to late September when there are stronger winds that will lead to choppier seas.
As a sign of how many whale sharks there are in the Maldives region, at the time of writing this article, the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP) has logged over 6,000 encounters with whale sharks since 2006.
One of the best known places to see whale sharks in the Maldives is close to Maamigili, South Ari Atoll.
Of course the Maldives are not only good for whale sharks, but also for encounters with sea turtles, other shark species such as reef sharks, manta rays and dolphins too.
Here's a video showing a whale shark in the Maldives:
Swimming or scuba diving with Whale sharks in the Caribbean
Whale sharks are found in the Caribbean, as the waters are warm and there's plenty of plankton and other microscopic food for them to feed upon.
They've been seen in Bonaire, the islands of Isla Mujeres, Isla Contoy and Isla Holbox, Gladden Spit in Belize, plus other parts of the Caribbean.
Scuba diving and swimming with whale sharks in Isla Mujeres, Isla Contoy and Isla Holbox
The above islands Isla Mujeres, Isla Contoy and Isla Holbox are off the east cost of Mexico not far from Cancun in the Caribbean sea.
The best time to see whale sharks here is between June and September. In particular during the months of July and August, it's been known to see up to 40 whale sharks on one trip to these Mexican islands in the Gulf of Mexico.
You'll see from the video below of swimming with whale sharks in Isla Mujeres, there are a lot of other boat operators around this whale shark sighting.
But be warned, as my brother has just got back from a trip to Mexico and was stopped by some corrupt police with machine guns. He was driving within the speed limit, but was pulled over at gun point with some police wearing balaclavas. Even though he was within the speed limit they insisted he pay a $150 fine. In the end he got away with a $40 bribe.
This is not exactly how you would expect the police to treat tourists in their country. My brother said he'd never go back to Mexico ever again. He was worried these police would take him and his wife and two children and shoot them if he didn't comply.
I was considering Mexico as my next destination to see whale sharks. But now I'll be giving it a wide berth and choose somewhere else to experience whale sharks again.
They did have a good time and they did see whale sharks on their trip out to Isla Mujeres. In fact his daughters (my nieces) experienced two whale sharks on either side of them, with a manta ray swimming towards them in between.It's such a shame these police spoiled the experience for them.
Video of whale shark experience Isla Mujeres
Scuba diving in the Bay Islands in Honduras
The Bay of Islands is a group of eight islands and 53 cays off the coast of Honduras. These islands are also located in the Caribbean sea and are a known place where sightings have been made of whales sharks.
Scuba diving with whale sharks in the Red Sea
The Red Sea houses the perfect conditions for whale sharks, as the waters are warm and tropical. There are many whale sharks seen in the Red Sea by scuba divers, but I for one, despite numerous dive trips there, have yet to see a whale shark in the Red Sea.
However, if you're going to scuba dive the Red Sea and you would like the opportunity to see whale sharks, the southern Red Sea is a better bet.
Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), colleagues from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries have found a large population of whale sharks near Al-Lith.
Al-Lith is on the central coast of the Saudi Arabian Red Sea, which is towards the southern Red Sea.
Best place to swim with whale sharks in Philippines
The whale shark holds a special place for the people of the Philippines, as its on the reverse of their 100-peso bill.
A whale shark in the Philippines is called a butanding or a balilan and they are protected in law. By Philippines law, snorkelers must maintain a distance of at least four feet (1.22 metres) from the sharks. If they don't, there's a fine.
There's also a possible prison sentence for anyone who touches a whale shark. However, there are many reports that these laws are not being followed nor enforced, which is a shame.
There are many boat operators that take tourists out to swim and snorkel with the whale sharks in the Philippines. Both Donsol Bay and Oslob in Cebu are known for regular sightings of whale sharks in the Philippines.
But the problem with the whale shark tours in the Philippines is the tourists are crammed on the boats and there are so many boats around each of the whale sharks, it becomes a less than pleasant experience.
The tour guides are also feeding the whale sharks to keep them interested, which makes the whole experience even less appealing to the average scuba diver.
But if you're destined to see a whale shark as a part of your bucket list, and you don't mind sharing it with a lot of other people in the water, then the Philippines may be right for you. But it might not be the best place in the world for most.
Video of a whale shark experience in the Philippines:
Wild Me Project on whale sharks
According to the Facebook page of the Wild Me Project, the 1000th whale shark has been identified in Philippine waters.
This makes the Philippines the third largest known aggregation of whale sharks in the world, but the biggest in South East Asia. Not only that, satellite tracking has revealed that the waters around the Philippines are important for endangered whale sharks.
EurekAlert states that: 'The Philippines is an important hotspot for whale sharks and globally hosts the third largest known population of whale sharks.'
Whale sharks around Tofo Beach in Mozambique
According to some, the coral reefs around Tofo in the south of Mozambique have one of the highest Whale Shark populations in the world.
The best time to snorkel with whale sharks in Tofo beach is between November and April, as this is the time when whale shark numbers increase. However, whale sharks can be seen year-round off the coast of Mozambique.
There's been recordings of up to 20 whale sharks spotted on one boat trip. You could combine an African safari on the mainland, followed by an ocean safari to see whale sharks in Tofo, Mozambique.
In addition to whale sharks, you're likely to see dolphins, manta rays and turtles. Plus there's a chance to also see humpback whales too between June and October.
Whale sharks around the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands are another scuba diver's paradise. The Galapagos Islands are a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. They are a part of the Republic of Ecuador, but they are 906 kilometres (563 miles) west off continental Ecuador. The sea life in this region is prolific and a wildlife lovers dream.
The two islands Darwin Island and Wolf Island in the Galapagos Islands are where the liveaboard boats go to for the ultimate Whale Shark experience.
The best time to dive with Whale Sharks in the Galapagos Islands is in their dry season, which is between June and December.
In addition to whale sharks, you're likely to see turtles, and rays, including the magnificent manta ray and other species of shark. On the Islands of the Galapagos you'll see penguins, Galapagos tortoises, and marine iguanas too.
Whale sharks in Koh Tao, Thailand
Koh Tao is a top scuba diving spot. Koh Tao translated to English means Turtle Island, which is in the Gulf of Thailand. Their claim is to be second only to Cairns, Australia and the Great Barrier Reef for the number of scuba diver certifications.
Whilst whale shark sightings are not as common as some of the places I've included in this article, they are seen around Koh Tao.
The best places to see whale sharks in Thailand are at the Southwest Pinnacle and Chumphon Pinnacle, which are located approximately 45 minutes away from Koh Tao.
In addition to whale sharks, there's plenty of other sea-life to see. This includes giant groupers, barracuda, stingrays and large schools of coral reef fish
Report your whale shark sightings
At the time of writing this article 'whaleshark.org,' had recorded 9,306 identified whale sharks sightings and 48,426 reported sightings of whale sharks.
If you want to report your whale shark sighting, please visit their site. 'The Wildbook for Whale Sharks photo-identification library is an award-winning visual database of whale shark encounters and of individually catalogued whale sharks.'
Whale shark facts
Here are a few interesting facts about the whale shark:
FACT #1: How big do whale sharks get?
The whale shark is the largest fish in the ocean. It's a slow-moving filter-feeding carpet shark. Whilst Wikipedia confirms the largest whale shark had a length of 12.65 m (41.5 ft) and a weight of about 21.5 t (47,000 lb), they are said to grow to over 18 metres (60 feet) in length.
FACT #2: How big is a whale shark's mouth?
The whale shark's mouth is quite distinctive and wide. The large specimens can have a mouth as wide as 1.5 metres (5 feet).
Their huge mouths are used to draw in the surrounding water which is rich in food. The various microscopic organisms are filtered out, then the water is passed out through their five large pairs of gills.
FACT #3: Can a whale shark eat a human?
Despite the huge size of whale sharks and their '5-foot-mouths,' they are not man eating sharks. The esophagus of a whale shark measures only inches across. Which means that this enormous creature couldn't swallow a human even if it wanted to.
Whale sharks are plankton feeders and they often close their mouths when they are around bigger fish or when they approached by scuba divers or snorkelers.
FACT #4: Are whale sharks aggressive?
Whale sharks aren't aggressive fish. Despite having enormously wide mouths and thousands of teeth, they pose no risk to humans. The whale shark has an average swim speed of about 4.8 k.m.h. (3 m.p.h.) so they are gentle giants and they are very docile creatures.
However, it isn't a good idea for you to get too close to their large tails. A swipe from their tail could be quite serious. So as with all sea creatures, it's good practice to keep a safe distance away and to watch without trying to touch.
Having said that, some whale sharks are quite curious and sometimes approach scuba divers or snorkelers. If they approach you, then they are unlikely to attack you with their tails, as they obviously don't feel threatened.
If this does happen, stay still in the water and watch with interest, as they'll not harm you. Although, the scuba diver in the video below had to keep swimming away from this overly curious whale shark.
This video is of an extremely curious whale shark that seemingly attacks a scuba diver:
The whale shark was actually only curious and interested in the bubbles of the scuba diver. The person concerned was not harmed by the experience.
FACT #5: Do whale sharks have teeth?
Despite the fact that whale sharks are filter feeders and feed mostly on plankton, krill and small fish, they have about 3,000 tiny teeth. These numerous teeth are less than 6mm long and are not used by them for eating.
FACT #5: What do whale sharks eat?
Whale sharks are filter feeders and one of only two extant filter feeding sharks. The second largest extant fish, which is also a filter feeder, is the basking shark. Manta rays, which are a cartilaginous fish like sharks is also large and a filter feeder in the same way.
Whale sharks are extremely patient feeders. In addition to feeding on plankton, small squid, small fish and krill, they've been known to wait for hours for fish to spawn on coral reefs in order to eat the eggs.
Whale sharks feed in two ways:
- The first is by ram-filtration, where the whale shark opens its mouth and swims forward. By swimming forward, the food-filled water is pushed into it's mouth.
- The second method of feeding is by suction. With this method of feeding, the whale shark actively sucks the food-filled water into its mouth instead.
FACT #6: How long can a whale shark live?
The whale sharks that survive to adulthood are thought to live to as long as 100-150 years.
They reach sexual maturity when they are around 25-30 years old.
FACT #7: Do whale sharks give birth to live young?
Not much is known about whale sharks, but it is known that they give birth to live young. Unlike most fish, but like some other sharks species, whale sharks eggs hatch inside their bodies.
Whale shark litters can be up to 300 pups. When they are born they are about 40-60cm (16-24 inches) in length.
Although not a huge amount is known about their life cycle, it's thought that survival rates of young whale sharks is low.
FACT #8: Are whale sharks an endangered species
Due to the over-fishing by humans, the whale shark is on the endangered species list.
The whale shark is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN. This is as a result of growing human pressure on this beautiful creature. Numbers of Whale Sharks (Rhincodon typus) have more than halved over the last 75 years.
These slow-moving sharks continue to be fished by countries like China and Oman and are killed by ship propellers.
FACT #9: Are whales sharks in the Mediterranean?
Even though the Mediterranean Sea is warm enough for whale sharks, they are not found there.
It's probably because they are not able to get to the Mediterranean without swimming through waters that are colder than 21°C (70°F).
FACT #10: What are the enemies of a whale shark?
Once a whale shark reaches maturity and has grown to a large size, it generally doesn't have many predators. However, it's main enemy is man. Up until many of the countries that killed whale sharks for their fins stop hunting them, humans killed whale sharks in huge numbers.
As already mentioned, whale sharks are still hunted by the Chinese and in Oman. But places like India, the Philippines and Taiwan have ended large-scale fishing of Whale Sharks to help their conservation. They have instead turned to 'whale-shark-tourism.'
Juvenile whale sharks are more vulnerable to predation. The smaller baby whale sharks have been found in the stomachs of a blue marlin and blue sharks among other predators.
FACT #11: How does a whale shark defend itself?
Whale sharks protect themselves against these predators using their tail. So always be careful about approaching a whale shark, as you may think they are docile and gentle giants, but if they are feel threatened, they will use their tails in defense.
FACT #12: Do whale sharks migrate?
Whale sharks are migratory fish. In fact they migrate very long distances, where one was tracked 8,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean.
I hope you enjoyed this article about the best place to scuba dive with whale sharks
I’d love to hear from you. Tell us about your adventures of diving and snorkeling, in the comments below. Please also share your photos. Either from your underwater cameras or videos from your waterproof Gopro’s!
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Have fun and be safe!