One of the most beautiful and loved fish in the ocean is the Whale Shark. We have seen it often in marine conservation campaigns, as it is an endangered species and a must see for many divers around the globe.
Whale sharks are the largest non-cetacean animals in the world. The average size of an adult Whale Shark is about 9.7 metres and its average weight is 9 tonnes. Even though it belongs to the shark family, they feed mainly on plankton, as it is a filter feeder fish. It has five large pairs of gills and its wide mouth can measure up to 1.5 metres wide, contains 10 filter pads and between 300-350 rows of tiny teeth. Its eyes are located on the front flat head. The body is mostly grey coloured with a white belly. There are three prominent ridges, which run along each side of the animal and the skin is marked with a checker board of pale yellow spots and stripes. These spots are unique to each individual and are often used for counting populations.
Whale Sharks are found in tropical and warm oceans and live in the open sea. They are capable of diving to depths of at least 1,286 metres (4,219 ft), and are a migratory species. With a lifespan of about 70-100 years, they are known to migrate every spring. Coral spawning provides Whale Sharks with an abundant supply of plankton, creating feeding grounds in several areas around the globe. Its range is generally restricted to about ±30° latitude.
Despite its size, the Whale Shark does not pose significant danger to humans. Their gentle nature makes swimming with them a special treat for divers and snorkellers. They are remarkably gentle and curious and usually encounters while snorkelling or diving tend to be friendly and even playful at times. The best policy when diving with Whale Sharks is a passive interaction.
Whale Sharks can be seen by divers and snorkellers in many places, some of the most popular are following:
In the Caribbean sea just off Holbox island in Mexico, from June until August, the world’s largest population of Whale Sharks congregate to feed on the plankton in the area's rich waters. Many fishermen become tour guides for the snorkelling Whale Shark season. Unfortunately diving is not allowed. Isla Mujeres also offers snorkelling encounters with the big pelagic from June until September.
The Whale Shark season in Belize starts in April until June, which allows divers to observe these majestic animals at the Gladden Spit Area, off Dangriga city. Mutton and Cuberra snapper spawn here every year during the full moon and the giant Whale Sharks come to feed on the spawn and to mate.
The Bay Islands in Honduras, in particular Utila, are known as The Whale Shark Capital of the Caribbean. You can enjoy the presence of Whale Sharks from the end of January until April, and from October until December.
In the Pacific ocean, the UNESCO World Heritage islands of Cocos Island (Costa Rica), Coiba Island (Panama), Malpelo (Colombia) and Galapagos (Equator) are part of the Biological Marine Corridor of the Tropical Eastern Pacific, attracting an overwhelming marine biodiversity typically known as Top World destinations for sharks, Giant Mantas, whales and occasionally Whale Shark encounters from May till August, in a healthy coral environment.
The Red Sea also offers encounters with Whale Sharks, more commonly in the north but occasionally in the south as well, from the end of May till the end of July.
You can see Whale Sharks off the eastern coast of Africa, off the Kenya coast from November until January. In the islands of Tanzania (Mafia, Pemba, Zanzibar) from October until March. The area of Inhambane and Tofo, in Mozambique, is famous for Mantas and Whale Shark sightings. The season starts from October through to May. Whale Sharks often frequent the reefs of the beautiful island of Nosy Be in Madagascar and in Sodwana Bay, located in the Greater St Lucia Wetlands Park in South Africa, you can enjoy encounters with this great pelagic all year round.
You can join environmentalists of the Whale Shark Tagging Programme in Seychelles to help identify and tag this species. Alternatively you will be able to snorkel with them on an organised snorkel trip with the Underwater Centre, in collaboration with the MCSS, a centre studying whale shark behaviour. The best season to encounter them is from August until October.
The Maldives is a great location for Whale Shark sightings. Historically they were only to be seen during the south-west monsoon season, but now due to several changes in the environment Whale Sharks can be found swimming around the atolls throughout the whole year. If you are aiming to see them on your holidays, we recommend you to follow the monsoons: in the drier north-west monsoon season (May - December), Whale Sharks are generally seen around the islands on the western side of the Maldives; whereas during the rainy south-east monsoon season (December - April), the best whale shark spotting opportunities are around the eastern side of the Maldives. Best atolls to see them are Ari and Baa Atolls.
There are often encounters in Koh Tao, located in the gulf of Thailand, from March till May and September and October and occasionally in the Andaman coast, in Richelieu Rock, Surin Islands and Hin Daeng in Koh Lanta.
In the Philippines, Whale Shark encounters happen in the nearby seas of the south-eastern part of Luzon, popularly in the village of Donsol. December and January are the peak months, when warm streams bring plankton close to the shore. Whale Shark spotters and fishermen from the area will offer their services to the tourists and will give you a good chance to see and meet the whale sharks. However, spotters are still no guarantee.
Ningaloo Reef, in Western Australia is one of the few easily accessible places in the world where these giants appear in large numbers at predictable times of the year, from mid-March to mid-May. Also belonging to Australia, the beautiful Christmas Island offers large numbers of Whale Sharks from November through to April.
Unfortunately, the planet's largest fish is on the verge of extinction and it has been listed as a 'Vulnerable' species by The World Conservation Union. A number of non-profit organisations keep campaigning tirelessly to protect the world's largest fish from overexploitation and the very real threat of extinction. As for etiquette when diving with whale sharks, non intrusion and avoiding touching is the best policy.