When I sat down and wrote out a travel bucket list several years ago, unquestionably the top thing that I wanted to do was to swim with whale sharks.
There’s just something so majestic about them. Whale sharks are absolutely gorgeous. Relatively little is known about them. And who wouldn’t want to snorkel with an actual shark the size of a school bus? (I know that last part might sound a little sketchy, but they’re incredibly gentle. Something like if an elephant-sized lion acted like a sleepy Golden Retriever puppy.)
The amazing news is that it’s very easy to cross this item off your bucket list and swim with whale sharks, but you have to know the best places to swim with whale sharks and when to be there. Little is known about the vast majority of whale sharks’ lives, including where they go most of the time.
But, there have been some relatively recent discoveries about annual whale shark feeding behavior that has identified the 3 clear best places to swim with whale sharks — unquestionably head and shoulders above everywhere else, in my opinion.
When and Where are the Best Places to Swim with Whale Sharks?
The best places and times of year to swim with whale sharks are Isla Holbox and Isla Mujeres in Mexico from June through September, Donsol Bay in the Philippines from December through May, and Ningaloo Reef in Australia from March through July.
The current understanding is that certain organisms which make up much of the whale sharks’ diet like fish eggs, tiny plants, and other super-small things have certain times each year where their numbers boom in these areas. The whale sharks know that and show up, often in very large numbers, to feed while there’s plenty to go around. And, these three gatherings of whale sharks are unique in their regularity and in the number of whale sharks they attract.
So, let’s look at how to actually make getting to swim with whale sharks happen. I’m pumped up just thinking about it!
First, let’s start with the biggest question most people have when they research where to swim with whale sharks: is swimming with whale sharks safe? Yes, swimming with whale sharks is generally regarded as safe if you keep a safe distance and follow basic snorkeling or diving safety precautions.
That means, in general, diving, snorkeling or swimming with whale sharks isn’t any more dangerous than normal swimming, snorkeling or diving if you keep a safe distance and let the whale sharks do their thing. There aren’t any recorded instances of whale shark aggression (it’s really not in their nature) [source], but since it’s just common sense to let a bus drive past you from a safe distance on land rather than get in the way, it’s the same deal with a bus-sized fish in the water.
Whale sharks are incredibly peaceful creatures and act like gigantic, graceful ocean lawn mowers that glide around feeding on tiny plants and other small organisms. So, humans are definitely not on the menu, and in my experience they’re totally content with you being with them assuming that you treat them with respect (which is usually the case for most marine life).
You’ll want to make sure that you’re comfortable swimming, snorkeling or diving in deeper water since that’s where the whale sharks generally hang out. But, many tour operators often provide life jackets or other flotation devices for their clients (and some regions’ governments may even require you to wear them).
Then, just make sure to keep that safe distance. Usually, the rule of thumb is at least 10 feet, but different areas may have different requirements, so always ask before you go. Touching the whale sharks is definitely not allowed, and also not a good idea because the oils on your hands can break down their natural waterproof coating.
Though, while you can’t touch the whale sharks, there’s nothing that says the whale sharks can’t touch you. Sometimes, a whale shark will be content to glide very close by you, and maybe even touch you. In these cases, it’s recommended to go “full starfish,” pulling your hands and feet back and in line with the rest of your body, kind of like how a starfish looks. Since the whale sharks are traveling at relatively low speeds, if they do bump into you, it’s typically not much of an issue, and I thought it actually feels like a little bit of an honor.
Now, where can you swim with whale sharks? Let’s look at each of the most amazing places to swim with whale sharks along with how to get there and what to do once you arrive.
Scores of whale sharks show up every year in the waters off of Isla Holbox and Isla Mujeres near Cancún to feed on a mass of fish eggs and plankton, as well as to breed.
This was the site of my own first whale shark excursion, and the experience of swimming through a group of easily 100 (yes, seriously) whale sharks as they gracefully glide through the water on every side was nothing short of breathtaking.
Manta rays are also very common sights among the whale sharks, which only adds to the surrealness of the experience.
When to Go
June through September is whale shark season in Isla Holbox and Isla Mujeres with July and August being the peak season giving the best chance to see large numbers of whale sharks.
How to Get There
Fortunately, these waters are not far from Cancún, which, as an incredibly popular tourist destination, has an easily-accessible airport.
Once you fly into Cancún’s airport (CUN), you can take a quick taxi to an easy ferry from Puerto Juárez to Isla Mujeres, or a 2-hour bus to the ferry port for Isla Holbox. Isla Mujeres is definitely the easiest island to get to, but Isla Holbox will give you more peace and tranquility if that’s what you’re after.
Tours do depart from Cancún, Playa del Carmen, Tulum or elsewhere in the Riviera Maya, but it’s going to take a lot of extra travel on the day of your tour to get to the whale shark waters which is taxing and may allow you less time in the water. If you’re here for the whale sharks, stay on either Isla Mujeres or Isla Holbox.
Local Whale Shark Tours
My favorite whale shark tours in Isla Mujeres, Isla Holbox and Cancún/Playa del Carmen are:
- Isla Mujeres: Isla Fun Tours
- Isla Holbox: VIP Holbox Experience
- Cancún/Playa del Carmen: Ocean Tours Mexico
Isla Holbox & Isla Mujeres Tips
Mexico really does a great job in the name of conservation of the whale shark, but that does mean there are a few extra restrictions here than in some other parts of the world. This is ultimately for the whale sharks’ and everyone else’s benefit, though, and especially important since whale sharks are currently an endangered species.
Scuba diving was deemed to be too disruptive to the whale sharks, so only snorkeling is allowed (which still grants a fantastic experience). Flotation devices are required for everyone in the water, which usually means life jackets. That might not be ideal for more advanced snorkelers, but some tour operators do allow the use of wet suits (which sometimes count as a flotation device due to the extra buoyancy of air trapped in the suit). You’ll want to confirm with any operator before booking a tour if they offer wet suits, if that would be preferable to you.
Additionally, sunscreen (even the reef-safe varieties) are not allowed in the water with the whale sharks. This is a fantastic call in terms of conservation, but it does mean that you’ll likely be in the sun for a couple of hours without sunscreen before getting in the water. So, make sure to bring plenty of sun coverage (long-sleeved shirt, hat, etc.) to wear before it’s time to get in the water, and a rash guard to protect your back from the sun while swimming with whale sharks in Mexico.
The Philippines is an incredibly gorgeous country, and if you can also swim with whale sharks in this paradise, that’s a definite win.
The Donsol tourism board claims that it has the most whale sharks in the world, which may or may not be true. But, it’s a relatively compact area that runs along the whale sharks’ natural migratory route with annual plankton blooms, so you’re sure to be able to swim alongside plenty.
They also place maximums on the number of boats able to be out on the water at one time as well as how many people can be in those boats, which goes a long way towards managing overcrowding.
When to Go
Whale sharks migrate through the Donsol Bay area in the Philippines from December through May, but you’ll find the most numbers during peak season typically in January, February or March.
How to Get There
Donsol is still a little bit of an up-and-coming sleepy fishing village, which makes for a great low-key travel experience, but it is a little more work to get there.
If you’re flying in internationally, you’ll typically connect either through Manila (MNL) or Cebu (CEB) with your ultimate destination being Legazpi (LGP). Then, once you land in Legazpi, you can take a public van or private car to Donsol which is about an hour-and-a-half drive.
Local Whale Shark Tours
It’s possible to just line up at the docks in Donsol and hop in a boat that loops out to the whale shark area, but these tend to be more crowded and afford you less time in the water. We’d recommend booking through a proper dive center like Bicol Dive Center for a local tour to swim with the whale sharks.
Donsol Bay Tips
Snorkeling (and not scuba diving), is what you’ll be doing if you want to swim with whale sharks here, just like in Mexico. And, also like Mexico, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see plenty of manta rays while you’re in the water. Double bonus!
Also, Donsol Bay is our preferred destination for whale sharks in the Philippines. You can also swim with whale sharks in Cebu or Bicol, but often whale sharks in these areas are fed by humans in order to encourage them to stick around for tourists which disrupts the whale sharks’ natural behavior and migration. So, you can feel a lot better taking a trip from Donsol to see whale sharks being whale sharks without interference from humans.
Western Australia is a part of the Australian continent that doesn’t get as much press as some of the other parts of its country. But, it’s absolutely beautiful, and it has the third of the three biggest natural gatherings of whale sharks on planet Earth.
Ningaloo Reef is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site since 2011 and whale sharks are often so plentiful that many tour operators guarantee that you’ll be able to swim with them, or they’ll book you again on the next available tour for free.
When to Go
A mass coral spawning reliably occurs between March and July each year, attracting great numbers of whale sharks to Ningaloo Reef. Peak whale shark season is typically going to be during May and June.
How to Get There
Your best bet is to fly through Perth (PER) to Exmouth (LEA) — which is around a two-hour flight — where many tours to swim with whale sharks depart from.
Local Whale Shark Tours
There are plenty of tour operators offering whale shark tours in Ningaloo, but several actually operate their own spotter planes to scout the whale sharks’ position that day and relay the information to their boats. This gives you an edge and an opportunity to spend more time swimming with whale sharks.
Ningaloo Bay Tips
Again, here your whale shark tour is going to be solely for snorkelers, which is just fine by us.
Also, something unique about Ningaloo Reef is that, since it’s so expansive (it’s Australia’s largest fringing coral reef) and contains such incredible biodiversity including over 500 species of fish, it attracts tons of marine biologists and scientists to the area. And, many whale shark tour operators employ these scientists as guide on their tours, so it’s possible to learn a ton directly from someone who studies whale sharks. Some tour operators advertise this as a benefit, so it’s worth taking a look.
Lastly, Ningaloo Reef currently holds the world record for highest rate of whale shark swim numbers, so you’ll almost definitely be able to have an incredible experience here.
Whale sharks have an incredible footprint across the globe, residing in every equatorial ocean on the planet. That means that there are lots of other places where it’s possible to find and swim with whale sharks that are worth looking into if you’re going to be nearby. For example:
- Utila, Honduras during March and April
- Gladden Spit, Belize from March to June
- South Ari Atoll, The Maldives from December to May
- Tofo Beach, Mozambique from October to March
- The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador from June through December
The Deep Dive
Swimming with whale sharks isn’t just one my favorite travel or snorkeling memories, it’s definitely one of the coolest experiences of my whole life. No exaggeration needed.
And, incredibly, an experience so grand is actually pretty easy to accomplish once you know where to swim with whale sharks. By using the above information on where the biggest gatherings of whale sharks happen, when they happen, how to get there and which tours to pick, you’ll be snorkeling with these gentle giants in no time. Send us a postcard!
If you have snorkel travel coming up, check out some of our other helpful travel-related snorkel guides below: