Swimming with whale sharks guide

Not a whale but a gentle giant of a shark, this slow moving, plankton feeding fish lives in all the tropical waters of the world, although some of the largest populations are found around Mexico, Tanzania and the Maldives. Our knowledge of these creatures is limited; where young sharks are born and live and their population numbers remain as secret as the depths of the ocean.
Swimming with whale sharks opens the door to a mysterious, underwater otherworld, inhabited by marine mammoths the size of buses.
Being the biggest fish in the sea has its benefits; the whale shark has no natural predators. The greatest danger is humans. After illegal fishing and death as a bycatch, irresponsible tourism is the next largest threat. A desire to get closer and see more has disturbed habitats and lead to regular vessel strikes, where collisions between boat and animal result in its injury or death. But in the quiet oceans, away from the zoo-like frenzy of feeding bays, where tourists splash around with sharks lured in by plankton dropped from boats, some tour operators are working to conserve these titans of the sea.

Is swimming with whale sharks
for you?

Go swimming with whale sharks if…

…you want to learn more about these unusual animals. All trips are lead by knowledgeable guides and many are accompanied by locally-based marine biologists or leading whale shark researchers, ready to share their research in evening talks. …you want to contribute to the conservation of whale sharks, and use the knowledge you gain from this to help educate others. Most whale shark vacations are focused on out-at-sea research – photographing and identifying the sharks. If you book a conservation vacation, you may also be involved in editing data records, briefing tourists on vacation and planning sea excursions. …you’re keen to practice your photography skills. The best way to identify whale sharks is by the patterns on their skin, so expect to spend plenty of time snapping away with a waterproof camera – and if your trip is accompanied by a researcher, you may even get some photography tips from the pros!

Don’t  go swimming with whale sharks if…

...you want to touch them. Whale sharks are easy-going and can be inquisitive, but that doesn’t mean you should get too close and you should never try to touch or hang onto them, as this causes the sharks stress. …you’re not excited about other wildlife. There’s no guarantee that every day will come with a new whale shark sighting, but in the meantime you can be spotting manta rays in the Maldives, grey whales in Baja Mexico, sea turtles around Isla Mujeres and corals or maybe even monkeys and bushbabies on Mafia Island. …if you’re not confident in the water. You’ll be spending a lot of your time beneath the waves, out in the ocean, alongside wild marine animals – this is not the best time to discover you don’t get on with your snorkelling equipment.

Our top Swimming with whale sharks Vacation

Cancun whale shark vacation, Mexico

Cancun whale shark vacation, Mexico

Whale shark adventure of a lifetime in Cancun

From US $1695 7 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2024: 24 Jun, 22 Jul
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Swimming with whale sharks or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

What does swimming with
whale sharks entail?

Whale shark vacations tend to be small group tours, limited to between eight and 12 people. Most vacations last for around one week, with accommodation at nearby, locally-staffed hotels. Trip depending, you’ll spend between two and four days on the boat, during which time you will be able to swim with the whale sharks, leaving the other days free to explore. In Cancun, this may involve snorkelling with sea turtles above coral reefs or in the underwater statue museum, whereas in the Maldives it could be swimming with manta rays or through multicoloured shoals of fish.

You can choose a trip that involves assisting local conservation groups by photographing and researching the local whale shark population under the guidance of your experienced tour leaders, or opt for a vacation that focuses on simply swimming with whale sharks, wildlife watching and practicing your snorkelling skills. Either way, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to snorkel, scuba dive, free dive or swim alongside the sharks.
On conservation biased trips, you’ll learn how to record their behavior, spot their sex and take underwater photographs. As unique as a human fingerprint, the pattern of spots on a whale shark allows each individual shark to be identified and catalogued. If you want to put your newfound knowledge to good use, you can book a longer, two or three week conservation volunteering vacation in Tanzania or the Maldives, where you’ll work with visiting tourists. In addition to the positive impact conservation has on this endangered species, it’s also beneficial for the people who live alongside them. Some volunteering vacations also include local community projects, such as teaching English and promoting whale shark conservation at schools on mainland Tanzania, or running a Whale Shark Festival in the Maldives.

If you’re an experienced diver, or simply want the freedom to choose the right excursions for you, there is also the option to book an all-inclusive accommodation on Dhigurah Island in the Maldives and choose from a range of different diving trips on offer nearby. If you have less experience in the water, or simply want to spend more time above the waves, you can book a multi activity trip, such as a sea kayaking expedition, and discover a greater variety of local marine species. Sea kayaking in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico, is a fantastic way to get a closer view of the enormous, barnacle-covered grey whales that come here to mate, spot exotic birds among the mangroves and snorkel with sea lions and, of course, whale sharks.

“Practice snorkelling beforehand if you're not used to it, but if you are, then you'll be fine. If seasick in the slightest, bring the necessary medicine; you don't want to waste boat time being ill. If sensitive to the sun, be prepared to put on lots of sunscreen frequently, and take covering up against the sun seriously.” – Nuraini Arsad, on a whale shark conservation vacation in the Maldives

Responsible whale shark tourism

As more and more tourists aspire to swimming with whale sharks during their vacations, so the less ethical elements of this practice start to pose a threat to the species. In the Philippines, whale shark tourism is a booming business, but that’s not necessarily good news for the sharks. Around the coast of Oslob, on the Philippine island of Cebu, the almost guaranteed opportunity of swimming with whale sharks is drawing in the crowds. In order to ensure their clients go away with plenty of shark-filled selfies, tour operators are attracting them to their boats by feeding them fistfuls of their favourite food, zooplankton. This not only disrupts their natural feeding habits, it also means that whale sharks come to associate boats with food, leading to collisions with vessels and propellers that can be fatal.

By choosing a responsible tour operator, you can not only prevent these encounters, but actively contribute to the conservation of the sharks. Make sure you book a vacation with an operator that respects local rules and regulations on whale shark tours, such as the official dates for the whale shark season in Cancun, usually running from June to September. At no point should whale sharks be fed or touched, and a good operator will ensure that tours are limited to small groups to prevent swimmers from getting too close to the sharks or restricting their movement. These kinds of encounters will be much more relaxed for both you and the sharks, and allow you to experience the natural behaviour of these wonderful sea creatures in their marine homes.

Best time to go swimming
with whale sharks

If you’re prepared to travel, any time can be the right time to see whale sharks.
Whale sharks populate tropical oceans all across the globe, so the best time to swim with them depends on where you would like to go. The official Whale Shark Season around Cancun and Isla Mujeres in Mexico is from June to September, with the best months being July and August. Around the Baja California peninsula of Mexico, the best time to spot them is from January to March. Sightings of whale sharks are common near Mafia Island, off the coast of Tanzania, from October to March, while the best time to see them in the Maldives is from September to April.
Written by Bryony Cottam
Photo credits: [Page banner: davidpstephens] [Is swimming with whale sharks for you?: Jeremy Bishop] [What does swimming with whale sharks entail?: Hoang M Nguyen] [Best time to go swimming with whale sharks: Jeremy Bishop]