Diving with a whale shark is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as the elusive creatures can be found in significant numbers in only a few locations across the globe. These slow-moving animals are imposing in their size and pose no threat to humans. This has only contributed to their growing popularity in the diving world, ranking high on most divers’ bucket list. But if they’re so hard to find, then where to dive with whale sharks? Here’s where you actually have a chance to spot the gentle giants.
1. Darwin Island, Galapagos Islands
Best time to see the whale sharks: June through December
Darwin Island is a small, uninhabited island covering only 2.33 square kilometers (0.90 square miles). The only dive site in the area, Darwin’s Arch, is situated 1 kilometer (0,62 miles) to the southeast of the island. Dubbed by most as the best dive site in the whole Galapagos archipelago, it’s renowned for being home to large pelagics such as whale sharks, silky sharks, Galapagos sharks, and hammerheads.
One of the highlights of Darwin Island is swimming with giant whale sharks that grow up to 12 meters (40 feet) in length. Unlike the whale shark aggregations in the Indian Ocean, which are typically made up of small juvenile males, the majority of sharks spotted in Galapagos are large mature females, and a high percentage of them appear to be pregnant. Research has shown that Darwin Island an important point for navigation for the whale sharks on their route to the feeding grounds in the Pacific Ocean.
2. Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Best time to see the whale sharks: May/June through September
Isla Mujeres is a Mexican island in the Caribbean Sea covering only 4.22 square kilometers (1.63 square miles). It’s a popular vacation destination known for its stunning beaches and excellent scuba diving and snorkeling. The island is renowned for being one of the best places to get up close with whale sharks, as one of the largest aggregation areas in the world.
Hundreds of whale sharks come to the coast of Isla Mujeres on spots like Sleeping Sharks Cave to feed on the plankton brought by the waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. The chances of spotting the animals in season are as high as they can get. Note that in the past years, the Mexican government has imposed a set of rules to protect the whale sharks. Scuba diving is not permitted, but freediving and snorkeling are allowed.
3. Saint Helena, British Overseas Territory, Atlantic Ocean
Best time to see the whale sharks: January through March
Saint Helena island is a remote volcanic outpost in the Atlantic Ocean, part of the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. It’s one of the most remote islands on Earth and there’s never more than one dive boat at a site. Dive sites like Barn Ledge and Torm Ledge are renowned for the abundance of marine life, including the imposing whale sharks.
What’s interesting about St. Helena is that its waters are visited by both male and female adult whale sharks in almost even numbers. Quite unusual, given that there’s usually a significantly larger number of juvenile males in other aggregation locations of the world. This may indicate that St. Helena is a mating area for the whale sharks.
4. Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia
Best time to see the whale sharks: March through August (but they may linger on until October)
The Ningaloo Reef is the largest fringing reef in the world, occupying an area of 705,015 hectares (1,742,130 acres). Simply seeing the immense reef is a thrilling experience, but the area is also renowned for its outstanding marine life. Visitors from all over the world head here during whale shark season to dive or snorkel with these massive creatures that come to these waters in search of plankton to feed on.
Ningaloo is one of the few places on Earth where whale sharks appear regularly in large numbers. Each year, up to 500 sharks gather on the reef to feed on plankton. A spotter plane is used to locate these gentle giants that are typically found in the Exmouth region. If you come in season, dive operators guarantee a sighting success rate of 95 percent.
5. Cenderawasih Bay, Papua, Indonesia
Best time to see the whale sharks: Throughout the year
Cenderawasih Bay is a large bay in the Province of Papua and home to the second-largest marine park in Indonesia. The unique geological and oceanographic features of the area, along with its isolation, have turned this semi-enclosed bay into a center of endemism. In fact, one of world’s leading ichthyologists, Dr. Gerald R. Allen, has labeled Cendrawasih as The Galapagos of Indonesia’s Reefs.
Cenderawasih Bay is the place to be if you want to dive with whale sharks. Unlike other places, where they pass by seasonally, here you can find the sharks year-round. The animals gather under the fishing platforms (called “bagans”) to feed on the fish caught in the fishermen’s nets. Many of the encounters occur in Kwatisore Bay, where they come in large numbers early in the morning.
6. Tofo, Mozambique
Best time to see the whale sharks: October through March
Tofo is a small fishing village lying on the Indian Ocean coast in the Inhambane Peninsula. It’s home to a significant number of diving retreats, as one of the top destinations to dive with whale sharks in the world and quite possibly Africa’s best. The animals are drawn to the area because of the constant availability of zooplankton.
Adult whale sharks are a rather rare sight in Tofo; instead, the area is teeming with juveniles that range between 5 to 10 meters (16 – 33 feet) in length. Hundreds of whale sharks visit this important transit and feeding area each year, and they can be spotted on dive sites like Simon’s Town and Chamber of Secrets. Besides the whale sharks, the region is also renowned for the regular manta ray encounters and the annual humpback whale migration (June through October).
7. Alifu Dhaal Atoll/ South Ari Atoll, Maldives
Best time to see the whale sharks: Throughout the year
Alifu Dhaalu Atoll consists of the southern part of Ari Atoll which is part of a tourism development zone in the Maldives. It’s made up of inhabited and uninhabited islands (which are actually resort islands). Swimming with whale sharks is a popular activity in the region, and it’s something you can experience year-round as the animals move along the atoll.
The whale sharks in the Alifu Dhaalu Atoll are on average 6 meters (20 feet) long. The majority of them are juvenile males. Re-sightings of individual whale sharks at the South Ari Marine Protected Area are common, as the region offers a critical habitat for whale sharks in the pre-mature stage with no seasonality. Dive sites like Kuda Rah Thila and Maamigili Beyru are renowned shark magnets but the animals can be spotted all over the South Ari Atoll.
8. Mafia Island, Tanzania
Best time to see the whale sharks: October through February
Mafia Island, part of the Mafia Archipelago, is home to the first Marine Park in Tanzania. Unlike the neighbouring Zanzibar, Mafia is not yet a bustling travel destination. This has allowed the island and its surrounding reefs to remain in a more pristine condition. Mafia offers some of the best diving on the East African coast and you’re guaranteed to spot whale sharks if you visit during the right time of year.
The whale sharks at Mafia Island remain for longer in these waters than in other places of the world. Research has also shown that some of the individual sharks are resident to the area and do not migrate outside of the island. This means that sightings can be observed throughout the year. The population of whale sharks off Mafia has also shown an increase in the past years. Most of the animals are juvenile males measuring less than 8 meters (26 feet) in length.
9. Utila Island, Honduras
Best time to see the whale sharks: March-April and August-September
Utila is one of the Bay Islands of Honduras measuring 45 square km (17 square miles). The island offers great diving conditions and dozens of dive sites scattered all around it. Utila is sometimes referred to as The Whale Shark Capital of the Caribbean. The animals are usually spotted on the north part of the island and more likely on boat rides as opposed to on dive sites. Guides look for cues like jumping tuna and flocking seabirds.
The congregation of whale sharks around the island may be due to the oceanography. Utila has shallow banks to the south and a large bank to the north and is among the few places on Earth where whale sharks are seen close to shore. They’re usually solitary animals, but it’s not uncommon to see three or more sharks during a dive in Utila. The whale sharks inhabiting these waters are usually 6 to 10 meters (20-33 feet) long and weigh about 15 to 20 tons.
10. Gulf of Tadjoura, Djibouti
Best time to see the whale sharks: November through January
Bordered by Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia, Djibouti is a lesser-known travel destination that holds an ace up its sleeve: it’s one of Africa’s whale shark hotspots. The Gulf of Tadjoura is a spectacular diving location due to the plankton blooms that have turned the area into a feeding ground for the big fish.
Most whale sharks that reach the Gulf of Tadjoura are juveniles that rarely exceed 7 meters (21 feet) in length. Still, they are hugely imposing when you find yourself in the water with them. The whale sharks are most often spotted off Arta Beach where they come to feed, mate, and give birth.
Whale Shark Diving Etiquette
- Do not touch them. This stresses the whale shark that typically dives instantly, ending the encounter for everyone.
- Don’t get too close. It’s recommended to keep a distance of at least 3 meters (9 feet) from the head and 4 meters (13 feet) from the tail. When you approach the animal, do it only from the side.
- Don’t make noise. Splashing and noisy entrances usually scare away the animals.
- Don’t use the flash on your camera. Flash photography disturbs the whale sharks.
Did you know that you can identify a whale shark by using this awesome tool on WhaleShark.org? The software was developed initially by NASA for star-matching but has been adapted for whale sharks. The animals’ bodies are covered by white or grey spots, each individual presenting their own unique pattern. Take photographs of the whale sharks you encounter, upload the photos, and learn more about their behavior. Isn’t that great?
Now that you know where to dive with whale sharks and the rules you need to follow to keep both yourself and the animal safe, it may be time to plan a new adventure. Be sure to tell us all about your experience in the comments below.