Where to swim with whale sharks

As the largest fish alive, it’s not surprising that the opportunity to swim with these majestic monsters is much sought after by scuba divers, snorkellers and sea swimmers. You’ll want to spend as much time in the sea as you can, without having to travel far to find them, so being based near a well-populated bay is best. While schools of whale sharks can be found in all the world’s tropical oceans, there are a few places in particular that these placid cetaceans can be seen in surprising numbers.
Baja California, Mexico

1. Baja California, Mexico

Fish life flourishes in the temperate waters of the Sea of Cortez, a treasured marine haven among divers, described as the “aquarium of the world” by legendary underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau and eulogised in the work of John Steinbeck. It’s here, sheltered in the shallow bay of La Paz, that whale sharks surface to feed on the massive plankton blooms that drift on the waves.
Isla Contoy National Park, Mexico

2. Isla Contoy National Park, Mexico

Thirty kilometers north of Isla Mujeres, off the coast of Quintana Roo, this small, protected island is worth an additional stop for anyone on a whale watching vacation near Cancun. Prime territory for whale sharks, the warm waters around uninhabited Isla Contoy are also home to green and loggerhead turtles, dolphins and a huge conglomeration of cormorants, pelicans, frigates and boobies.
Dhigurah Island, Maldives

3. Dhigurah Island, Maldives

This parakeet green, comet-shaped island punctuates an ocean of blue, trailing a tail of powdery white sand in its wake. As paradises go, Dhigurah is a perfect specimen. Its protected waters are home to 15 deep coral reefs and plenty of popular dive sites. Whale sharks are year-round residents, alongside manta rays and a colourful assortment of noble Napoleon fish, spindly needlefish and clown fish.
Isla Mujeres, Mexico

4. Isla Mujeres, Mexico

It’s along Mexico’s Caribbean coast that you’ll find the largest known accumulation of whale sharks, more than 400 of them. Plentiful pods of them can be spotted on most days, with as many as 40 whale shark encounters on a single excursion. In July, the entire island unifies to celebrate the Whale Shark Festival, when whale sharks flock to feed on the summer spawn of tuna.
Mafia Island, Tanzania

5. Mafia Island, Tanzania

Hidden in the shadow of larger Zanzibar, Mafia Island is Tanzania’s top spot for whale shark sightings. Its warm waters are a protected marine park, harbouring a kaleidoscope of corals and colourful shoals of fish. Relatively unknown to most travelers, it appeals to anyone looking for a more relaxed and intimate experience with the local marine inhabitants, in a quiet and remote part of the ocean.
Marine megafauna

6. Marine megafauna

Like remnants from a time gone by, the megalithic proportions of the huge creatures that still exist beneath the waves are simply unseen on land. Destination-depending, you may find yourself swimming in the shadow of a giant manta ray, its eight metre wingspan eclipsing the sun, spotting the outline of a grey whale or the spiny fin of a sailfish, the fastest fish in the sea.
Travel Team
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Whale shark vacations travel advice

Kenneth Johnson, from our supplier Ecocolors Tours, has these tips for swimming with whale sharks in Mexico:

Do I need to be an experienced swimmer or snorkeller?

“People that want to enjoy a whale shark tour do not even need to be confident swimmers since we use a lifejacket and our guide assists customers at all times. Only two customers are allowed in the water with a guide at a time. However, if people already have some snorkelling experience then they can swim for longer with the whale sharks and enjoy more time in the water.”

Why choose the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico?

“We are very fortunate to have the biggest whale shark population in the world. It is not uncommon to see more than 20 whale sharks in a day and we literally have days with more than 100 whale shark sightings. In fact, there is an aerial picture where you can count 420 whale sharks. Now, having said all the above, the most important thing is to enjoy the activity in a sustainable and responsible way. When we can snorkel with one whale shark and interact with him it is simply a once in a lifetime experience.”

How to prepare for the trip

“It is important to first have a good night’s sleep, then on the trip people need to bring a bathing suit, towel, hat, sun blocker (biodegradable) and we always recommend also having a long sleeve T shirt to protect from the sun. If people are sensitive to getting sea sick, taking something to prevent sea sickness may help them to get the most enjoyment from the activity.”
Written by Bryony Cottam
Photo credits: [Page banner: davidpstephens] [Baja California, Mexico: Comisión Mexicana de Filmaciones] [Isla Contoy National Park, Mexico: Giorgio Galeotti] [Dhigurah Island, Maldives: Easa Shamih] [Isla Mujeres, Mexico: dronepicr] [Mafia Island, Tanzania: David Bacon] [Marine megafauna : Sebastian Pena Lambarri] [Kenneth Johnson advice: Hoang M Nguyen]