About Whale Sharks
The whale shark can grow up to 16 metres in length, with a mouth over a metre wide. So named because it is as big as many whales and like many whales, a filter feeder. Indeed, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) holds many records for sheer size, being not only the largest extant fish species but also by far the largest living non-mammalian vertebrate, rivalling many of the largest dinosaurs in weight.
Their typical lifespan is around 70 years, but they may live over 100 years. As filter feeders they pose no danger to sensitive divers, and being in their presence is both an exhilarating and completely humbling experience.
So where can you get up close and personal with these gentle giants? The most exhilarating way is a chance encounter, but there are several places nearby Australia where you can reliably snorkel, swim or dive with whale sharks if you go in the right season. Here are the seven of the closest to home.
Whale sharks are more frequently observed at Christmas Island between November and April, around the time of the annual red crab migration, when 50 million red crabs make their way to the sea to spawn.
Here’s a first hand account of an encounter with a Whale Shark at Christmas Island:
“Our dive guide had spotted the gentle giant approaching and alerted us as we were skirting the island’s fringing reef. Diving with us was award-winning underwater photographer Scott Portelli, who swam out into the blue twice as fast as the rest of us to get that one great shot before she turned away. But the whale shark just kept on coming and actually swam up to, and around Scott, passing right in front of us, pausing only for a moment to look Scott in the eye and smile. Well it looked like a smile – she opened her mouth slightly, then turned gracefully and 10 seconds later had dissolved into the deep blue from whence she came, leaving us gaping incredulously at each other.”
Photo credit: Kirsty Faulkner.
At Christmas Island encounters are not exactly common, but when they do occur they are completely natural, and to be engaged by such a creature leaves an impression that never really washes off.
On Australia’s west coast, Ningaloo is the place to go for a whale shark encounter. Between mid-March and mid-July, you can enjoy a snorkel on Ningaloo Reef – the world’s largest fringing reef – in the Ningaloo Marine Park, and also go for a swim with the world’s largest fish. Whale shark swimming tours are operated from the towns of Coral Bay and Exmouth.
Small groups of only 10 swimmers at a time are dropped close by these gentle giants as they move through the water, and as a snorkeler, you’ll feel particularly dwarfed by their massive size and even wider mouth.
Photo Credit: Exmouth Diving & Whaleshark Centre.
You can fly to this region in about two hours from Perth or drive there in two days.
Donsol Bay is just an hour’s drive south from Manila, but it’s at the head of the Ticao Pass, which has one of the world’s highest concentrations of plankton due to the strong currents from San Bernardino Strait. From December to May, Whale Sharks come in to feed on the abundance of plankton and krill found in this area.
Incredibly, 30 years ago these creatures where slaughtered as ‘pests’ – eating the food that would feed the fish that would feed the people. In 1998, environmentalists, drew media attention to this activity, and the government banned the killing of Whale Sharks. Since then, a thriving eco-tourism has been built up to see the Whale Sharks in their natural environment.
So as well as the great diving around Donsol and Ticao Island, swimming with the Whale Sharks is an experience of a lifetime not to be missed if you can get the timing right.
The Oslob project started in 2011 lured in part by the success of Donsol. Oslob is a more business-orientated project and gets a bad rap for disrupting normal behaviour (by feeding a migratory species), and allowing too many people in the water at the same time. (There can be up to 20 boat loads of tourist in the bay at any one time).
Here’s one of Diveplanit’s associate’s first hand take on the situation:
“After talking to some of the locals who now work as guardians, they are happier to be earning a living without having to dynamite fish and the animals were transiting through there before this all started. I kind of look at it like chucking a person a tic tac as far as feeding. I’m certainly not happy about some of the rubbing sores some of the younger sharks had from nuzzling the boats for food. It is a hard call but I think it is the lesser of two evils.”
If you’re looking to avoid the crowds, diving from the Philippine Siren will get you in the water at 6am and you’ll be the only divers in the water with these magnificent creatures.
Photo credit: Heather Sutton
You can also arrange a whale shark swim via the Moalboal resorts of Cebu if you are there for a week’s diving. At Magic Island Dive Resort in Moalboal, enjoy a week’s diving which will include Pescadore Island, a favourite haunt of many a passing Liveaboard, and take in a side trip to Oslob.
The Cenderawasih Marine Park, nestled in Indonesia’s Bird’s Head Peninsula close to the main Raja Ampat dive areas, features over 15,000km2 of relatively undisturbed marine and coastal habitat and its extensive coral reefs rank amongst the finest in the world. What’s different about Cenderawasih whale sharks is the fact that they appear to be here 365 days a year and pretty much 24/7.
Most chance encounters with whale sharks are quite fleeting as they mainly swim slowly, but continually, mouths open constantly sifting plankton. But not in Cenderawasih Bay – here whale sharks hang around just below the surface for extended periods.
So what brings them to Cenderawasih Bay – and in such numbers? They have long become accustomed to taking advantage of small fish that spill from the nets of local fishermen (as well as a few extras the local fishermen throw back specifically for them). This ‘learnt behaviour’ provides snorkelers and divers alike with a unique experience. It is quite likely, that several whale sharks will be all around you, including newborns, juveniles and fully grown adults.
There are several liveaboards that include Cenderawasih Bay on their itineraries – but not every itinerary – please check to avoid disappointment.
Just north of busy resort island Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Tao is famous for its cheap diving, and whale sharks are often spotted around Chumphon Pinnacle, a 15-minute boat ride from the island. Whale sharks have also been spotted near Koh Losin, further south in the Gulf.
Encounters are a pot-luck affair, but they are spotted year-round, with a greater chance of an encounter between April to June.
Photo credit: Sophia Geyer
South Ari Atoll
Whale sharks are also year-round residents of the Maldives, tending to favour the western side of the Indian Ocean archipelago from May to December, then heading to the east until April. Being a Marine Protected Area, South Ari Atoll is your best chance for an encounter.
While you’re here, it’s worth contributing to whale shark research as a citizen scientistsby downloading the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme Whale Shark Network Maldives app.
Photo credit: Susie Lawrence
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