Despite being the biggest fish in the ocean, whale sharks are sometimes one of the hardest to spot! In this post, you’ll find the top 5 whale shark diving & swimming locations around the world, along with my first-hand experiences of swimming with these gentle giants.
1. The Maldives
The Maldives has earned its name as being one of the best places in the world to spot whale sharks and of course scuba dive. Although you can encounter them all over the Maldives, the South Ari Atoll is where you can find them all year around, with over 8,000 encounters being recorded in the past decade. The whale sharks found in the Maldives are juvenile and therefore ‘smaller” at a still very impressive 3 to 8 meters. It’s believed the sharks are attracted to the warm tropical waters of The Maldives as it acts as a perfect nursery for them to feed and grow without predators.
Despite their size, they are so graceful that you might not even realise as one glides straight past you on a dive. Whilst we were snorkelling with the marine biologist from the Lux Resort, we watched from above as a whale shark swam straight past a group of divers within touching distance! Not one diver manged to see it! No matter how engrossed you are on a wall dive, make sure you always keep one eye on the deep blue in The Maldives.
Read my full guide on The Maldives right here.
Best Time to Go
Whale sharks are present all year round in The Maldives with the best conditions and visibility in the dry (high) season from December to April, in The South Ari Atoll.
2. Cenderawasih Bay, West Papua, Indonesia
aka Cendrawasih Bay
In a far-flung location off the coast of West Papua, lies Cenderawashi Bay, Indonesia’s largest marine protected area. Forget fleeting glimpses of the back of a whale shark, here you can guarantee up close and personal encounters with up to 7 whale sharks at any one time. On the morning we dived, we were treated to one of the best wildlife encounters of my life! We dived, snorkelled and swam with several whale sharks each measuring from 10 to 12 meters! One of them was incredibly inquisitive and kept coming right up close to look me straight in the eye, which just left me speechless.
If you want to read about our full dive experience in Cenderawashi bay, click here.
The whale sharks have been attracted to this area since the 1940s as they love to feed on the tiny fish caught in the hanging nets of the fisherman. Rising from the depths, the sharks suck on the bottom of the fishing nets until some on the tiny fish are released.
Due to its remote location, the best way to access Cenderawashi Bay is by liveaboard, which gives you the luxury of continuing your diving trip in the surrounding waters, often including North Raja Ampat.
Best Time to Go
We visited in September and had between 4 to 7 sightings across two days. As the fisherman tend to be in Cendrawasih all year round you can guarantee you are always going to spot several whale sharks. If you are staying on a liveaboard, their cruise schedule will give you the best idea of when to go.
Over 1600 whale sharks have made the Philippines their home, the second largest recorded population in the world!
There are many places to see them and you’ll find some of the best sightings in Southern Leyte, Palawan, Puerto Princesa, Donsol Bay and Cebu. However, swimming with whale sharks in Oslob, Cebu has become less ethical over the years and dangerous for these beautiful creatures, as they are being hand fed to attract them for the hordes of tourists that flock there every year.
Donsol Bay on the other hand is leading the way of how whale shark interactions should be and probably the best place for swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines. WWF has worked with the local community to create the role of Butanding (Whale Shark) Interaction Officers to regulate the encounters in the bay. You are not allowed to dive with the whale sharks but you can still enjoy an unforgettable snorkelling experience.
Once you’ve finished diving with the largest fish in the ocean, you must visit Anilao for the tiniest critters in the ocean. If you love the thrill of searching for tiny technicolour creatures and muck diving, check out my post on Anilao.
Best Time to Go:
November to May is the best time to see whale sharks in the Philippines with the peak season generally running from February to April.
During the summer months, whale sharks migrate to two main areas in Mexico creating, which some claim, to be one of the largest gatherings in the world!
Just across the bay from Cancun is Isla Mujeres, where the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea meet. Here you can except far better visibility than any other island and almost guaranteed sightings of whale sharks during the summer months of July to August. The sharks visit the area to feed on the plankton rich waters and spawned tuna eggs and if you are lucky it’s not uncommon to also find Mantas and Mobula Rays.
The island of Holbox is located north west of Cancun, 2 hrs by car, within the Yum Balam nature reserve. The turquoise water is rich with nutrients, plankton and krill, making it the perfect feeding ground for whale sharks.
The nature reserve of Yum Balam “Lord Jaguar” which encompasses the surrounding land and sea, not only provides sanctuary to whale sharks but also crocodiles, manatees and over 400 species of bird.
If you prefer a more relaxed and bohemian vibe then Holbox is for you, as Isla Mujeres can get quite busy with tourists coming over from Cancun.
Can I dive with Whale Sharks in Mexico?
Encounters with the largest fish in the ocean is highly regulated in both Isla Holbox and Isla Mujeres. Only swimming and snorkelling with the whale sharks is permitted, however, as they spend most of their time feeding at the surface it’s actually ideal as you get to spend more time admiring them and less time worrying about running out of air.
Best Time to Go:
You’ll want to visit between June to September when the whale sharks make their annual migration to the surrounding waters. July to August is peak season when you can expect to see large gatherings of these beauties, sometimes over 30 whale sharks in one encounter!
5. The Galapagos – Darwin & Wolf Islands – Ecuador
Along with Cenderawashi Bay, the Galapagos Islands - Darwin & Wolf, are one of the best places to see how gigantic adult whale sharks truly are.
You can scuba dive with the whale sharks in the Galapagos but the only way to do it, is by joining a liveaboard that has a cruise schedule to the Darwin and Wolf Islands. Not only will you get to encounter these gentle giants but there’s a good chance you will also get to see large schools of hammerhead sharks.
Although it has baffled scientists for centuries as to where whale sharks give birth, the females that visit the islands tend to be more rounded giving speculation as to whether they might be pregnant.
The Galapagos Islands and its remarkable wildlife above and below the water is what inspired Charles Darwin to develop his Theory of Evolution.
Best Time to Go:
The best time and place to see whale sharks in the Galapagos is between June to Dec around Darwin and Wolf Island including Darwin’s Arch.