Where to swim with whale sharks

Discover the best places to swim with whale sharks.

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Where to swim with Whale Sharks

There are few large animals that one can have such safe, intimate and ethical encounters with than the whale shark They may be the largest fish in the ocean, with individuals regularly exceeding 30 ft in length and 10 tonnes in weight, but as filter feeders, their diet consists only of tiny organisms like krill and plankton, as well as eggs and larvae produced by various marine creatures. They are a true gentle giant, which makes swimming alongside these graceful creatures a much sought-after experience.

In order to find enough food to sustain their size, whale sharks travel vast distances and spend most of their lives in the open ocean. However, there are a number of locations around the world where the species is known to congregate in large numbers, usually for just a few months out of the year, with spawning events and plankton blooms turning islands and coastlines into seasonal feeding grounds.

We’ve curated a list of the best places to see whale sharks, focusing on those locations with fewer tourists and more respectful operating practices, which ensure the sharks remain safe while also producing better photography opportunities. As a result, we have left out some of the more popular destinations in whale shark tourism, such as Cancún in Mexico and Cebu in the Philippines, where operators have drawn criticism for feeding, overcrowding and encouraging physical contact with the sharks.

For more information on how to interact responsibly with whale sharks, please access the Code of Conduct provided by the Madagascar Whale Shark Project (MWSP).

 

The best places to swim with whale sharks

Madagascar
St Helena
Belize
Djibouti
Tanzania
Australia
Mozambique
Galapagos

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Where to see whale sharks in Madagascar

We have previously written about the emergence of Madagascar as a new whale shark hotspot, with researchers from the Madagascar Whale Shark Project (MWSP) identifying a remarkable 85 different individuals over the course of a 4-month period in 2016. The researchers focused their study on the island of Nosy Be, off the northwest coast of Madagascar; the waters here serve as “an important seasonal habitat” for the sharks, said MWSP Founder Stella Diamant, lead author and project leader of the study. There are only around 20 so-called “aggregation sites” in the world, which makes whale shark hotspots like Nosy Be so important for the study and long-term survival of the species.

The MWSP undertook their research from September to December, during the transition between Madagascar’s autumn and summer months. Our Whale Shark Research Expedition departs in November 2019 – the prime time of year for whale shark sightings in Madagascar, which also happens to precede the annual monsoon season. The 11-day trip will see guests joining Diamant and the rest of the MWSP team on board the Antsiva, a research-class expedition vessel, lending the journey a very exclusive feel. The researchers’ expertise and knowledge of whale shark behaviour will bring you straight to where the whale sharks are, ensuring you won’t be surrounded by other tourists and their boats.

Nosy Be has also yet to attract the tourist numbers that other whale shark destinations have, with knowledge of the island’s suitability being relatively little-known. Madagascar is a fantastic option for travellers seeking the most ethical option for whale shark holidays, as you’ll be contributing to research and doing so with minimum impact on the sharks and their environment.

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Where to see whale sharks in St Helena

With its commercial airport only opening to international flights in 2017, the remarkably remote island of St Helena in the South Atlantic is another great option for whale shark tourists hoping to get away from the crowds. With the nearest significant piece of land being Angola, over 1,000 miles to the east, this 47-square-mile British Overseas Territory is one of the most isolated population centres in the world.

The fondness of whale sharks for this speck of land in the middle of the ocean can be explained by the findings of a study conducted by the University of York and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme. Published in 2018, the study identified common features in whale shark aggregation sites around the world: each one features warm, shallow water near a sharp drop-off in the seafloor that leads to deeper water. Supervising author Dr. Bryce Stewart explains: "Sharks are ectotherms, which means they depend on external sources of body heat. Because they may dive to feed at depths of more than 1,900 metres, where the water temperature can be as cold as 4 °C, they need somewhere close by to rest and get their body temperature back up.” This explains the tendency of whale sharks to arrive in large numbers at isolated islands.

Unusually for whale shark hotspots, the individuals that arrive at St Helena every year are split more or less 50/50 between males and females, meaning the island may play a vital role as a mating ground. (Juvenile males dominate in other hotspots for reasons that have yet to be properly understood.) Despite the warm summer months of November-March attracting whale sharks of both sexes to the shores of St Helena, the island’s sheer remoteness ensures tourist numbers are relatively modest. This provides excellent opportunities to photograph and swim alongside these gentle giants with minimal interference from other swimmers. On our St Helena Whale Shark Safari, you may also choose to assist researchers with identifying individual sharks by confirming their sex, their size, and the patterning unique to each whale shark.

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Where to see whale sharks in Belize

A welcome Caribbean alternative to the popular whale shark hotspots off Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is the nation of Belize, whose tropical waters are home to a profusion of marine life, a network of over 450 cayes and atolls, and the world’s second-largest barrier reef. Although whale sharks can be seen all along the Belizean coast, the best chances of sightings are in the Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve, located around 22 miles off the mainland. This reserve attracts a large number of whale sharks every year between March and June, who arrive to feed on the huge clouds of eggs produced by spawning snappers and groupers.

Around two decades ago, the Government of Belize identified the importance of this feeding site and established a special conservation zone here, in order to protect both the sharks and the fish that come here to spawn. Additional tourism regulations help to avoid the build-up of tourist boats that afflicts many locations in Mexican waters to the north. If you’re planning on swimming with whale sharks on a trip to Belize, bear in mind that snappers and groupers tend to aggregate and then spawn during the full moon, which means the days immediately preceding and following the event will be prime for whale shark activity. You can keep up to date with the phases of the moon on websites like this one. Although encounters can be had anytime between March and June, the middle months of April and May tend to offer the best chances.

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Where to see whale sharks in Djibouti

This small country located on the Horn of Africa may not be known as a mecca for tourism, but its relatively small number of annual visitors ensures a raw and uncrowded experience with the whale sharks that come here to feed in the Red Sea’s plankton-rich waters between November and February. These months also coincide with the spawning events of swimming crabs, whose eggs provide yet another food source for the mainly sub-adult whale sharks that arrive at this time of year. Other marine life that snorkelers may encounter here include whales, dolphins, jellyfish, starfish, sea urchins, sea turtles and nudibranchs (a type of flamboyantly hued mollusc).

The best place to look for the sharks in Djibouti is within the Gulf of Tadjoura, as well as the Ghoubbet-el-Kharab (“Gulf of the Demons”), which is separated from the former by a strait just 1 kilometre long. The Ghoubbet-el-Kharab attained its ominous name by virtue of the strong currents that swirl through the strait. This natural phenomenon brings in vast amounts of plankton from the Red Sea, which forms the base of a food web that supports an abundance of marine life, including whale sharks, which can often be seen close to shore here. The currents also improve visibility underwater, providing favourable conditions for photography, while free diving with the sharks in the company of marine photographer Joshua Barton will ensure you’re in the right place at the right time for the perfect shot.


Where to see whale sharks in Tanzania

Our next whale shark hotspot centres around the Rufiji Mafia Kilwa Marine Reserve, which comprises the southern section of Tanzania’s Mafia Island and its surrounding marine ecosystem. It is here that silt deposited from the Rufiji River in mainland Tanzania meets the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, ferrying huge amounts of plankton into the mouths of waiting whale sharks. They can also be seen foraging for shrimp near the surface here.

While whale sharks appear at most aggregation sites for just a few months out of the year, evidence suggests that at least some of those found at Mafia are actually year-round residents. “There aren't too many places where you repeatedly see the same whale sharks,” says Simon Pierce, principal scientist and researcher for the Marine Megafauna Foundation. “These days, it's almost like visiting old friends.”

This unusual behaviour means that the whale shark population at Mafia is among the most well studied of all whale shark populations. Pierce’s “old friends” can be identified via satellite tags and even by distinct physical characteristics. Markings as unique as our fingerprints can be found on a whale shark’s left side, between the gills and the pectoral fin, which once catalogued can be used to identify each individual fish that makes an appearance at Mafia.

Pierce and his colleagues work with local tour operators to ensure sustainable practices here, and it’s clearly working, as the Mafia population grew from 100 sharks in 2012 to 180 in 2017 – a rise of 80%. While the whale sharks can be spotted year-round, sightings are at their best between October and February.


Where to see whale sharks in Australia

Enshrined as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011, the Ningaloo Coast is a biodiverse marine reserve that is home to one of the longest near-shore reefs in the world, the Ningaloo Reef, which stretches for 160 miles off Australia’s remote northwest coast. In some areas, the reef is less than half a mile from the shore. The whale sharks’ arrival here, which takes place between March and June, coincides with mass coral spawning events that involve more than 300 species of coral.

Due to this marine bounty, UNESCO estimates that 300-500 whale sharks come to feed here each year – among the largest documented aggregations anywhere in the world. The colourful clouds of egg/sperm bundles released by the coral polyps attract astronomical numbers of krill and plankton, which in turn attract the whale sharks. The coral spawning takes place 7-10 days after the full moon in March and April.


Where to see whale sharks in Mozambique

The Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF) mentioned previously is based in the town of Tofo in southern Mozambique, an apt location for scientists whose research subjects include whale sharks and manta rays, both of whom can be reliably found here in the wider Inhambane Bay region. The bay is a critical feeding ground for juvenile whale sharks, as plankton is a constant food source here.

As with Mafia’s whale sharks, there is a significant resident population that live year-round in Inhambane Bay, although the MMF have found that around 70% of the sharks seen here are transient. Sightings are most common between October and March, when visibility underwater is at its best and the sharks can regularly be seen feeding on krill and plankton near the surface. Bear in mind, however, that cyclone season begins to rear its head in February.

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Where to see whale sharks in Galapagos

Those seeking a truly unique encounter with whale sharks need look no further than the Galapagos Islands Sharks are most commonly seen at the northern end of the archipelago – especially Wolf Island and Darwin Island – between June and November, but in contrast to other hotspots, the team behind the Galapagos Whale Shark Project have discovered that the majority of sharks coming here are mature females – around 90%, in fact. And not only that, but some are pregnant as well.

“Most of these females had big, distended abdomens, which seems to indicate pregnancy,” says Dr Alex Hearn, Conservation Science Director for the Turtle Island Restoration Network. “This is the only known place in the world whale sharks in this condition are regularly seen. It’s a mystery why they are here, but we believe Darwin may be a waypoint from which they move into the open ocean to give birth.” The first whale shark ultrasounds were taken in October 2018, and although none of the sharks studied were pregnant, all were found to have fully developed ovaries, with developed follicles.

To date, no-one has ever witnessed a whale shark giving birth, but the popularity of the Galapagos with pregnant females seems to indicate that the islands possess certain conditions conducive to them. Some theories suggest that whale sharks give birth in deep water as a way to avoid predation, or on raised sections of the seafloor, e.g. the Galapagos Platform. This large lava plateau has a diameter of 174 miles and creates a shallow-water depth of around 1,000 – 3,000 ft at the base of the islands, which would give the sharks more shelter when giving birth.

This safari on board the M/Y Grace includes stops at both Wolf Island and Darwin Island, and can be tailored to include additional time at these whale shark hotspots.

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