Swimming with whale sharks has become an international craze for animal enthusiasts. It’s only recently that we’ve been able to track some of their migrations and establish protected waters for their seasonal feeding grounds. To be able to safely interact with the largest fish in the sea is an unforgettable experience.
Whale sharks are found in tropical and warm temperate waters. Amazingly, you can find them from New York to Brazil, California to Chile, Japan to Australia, and off the coasts of the Red Sea, Arabian Gulf, Africa and India. They are a pelagic (open ocean) species and spotting them is extremely difficult. The best times to observe whale sharks are during plankton blooms.
Here is a list of some of the best whale shark sighting areas around the world:
The Caribbean Sea is probably one of the best locations in the world. Divers and animal lovers have many chances to see the whale sharks as they move up the coastline following the influx of plankton. They are spotted year round by Honduras, especially Utila, but the best time is February through April. Belize is their next stop in April and May and also in September. June, July and August they can be found off the Yucatan Peninsula around Holbox Island (an hour from Cancun), Mexico. Plankton blooms are especially prominent during the full moon.
Whale shark season for Thailand’s Similan Islands and Richelieu Rock in the Andaman Sea is February through April, and November through June is the best time in the Philippines.
Central Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef is probably the best known for whale sharks. Their season is from April to July.
The Maldives in the Indian Ocean has two seasons to see whale sharks; they can be seen off the east coast during the southwest monsoon (June through September), and off the west coast during the northeast monsoon (January to March). Tip: June through September is the wet season and seas can be rough.
Whale sharks are slow swimmers which make them easy to interact with. They do have rows of teeth about 2-6 mm in size, but they are filter feeders sucking in plankton and krill and then expelling the water through their gills. Whale sharks can be grey, blue or brownish with a white belly and creamy white spots. The spot pattern above the pectoral fin and personal scars are used to identify individual whale sharks.
Researchers are still doing a lot of guess work about whale sharks. No one has ever seen a whale shark giving birth, their mating behavior or know how long they live (some resources say 60 years, others say 100).To identify male and female whale sharks look behind the belly. Males have claspers, females do not. Usually divers encounter whale sharks 15-25 feet long, but there have been reports of whale sharks reaching 40 feet. How old they are at sexual maturity is still hypothesized. We do know that they are ovoviviparous, which means that the female has egg cases in her uterus, but gives birth to live young. How many? The professional guess is around 300. Females can store sperm and fertilize their own eggs as evident by the different stages of development found in a female whale shark that was captured off of Taiwan in 1995. (Link to article)
Today, whale sharks are listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). They are hunted for their fins and meat in Hong Kong, India and other Asian countries. Taiwan was discovered to be a birthing ground in the summer for whale sharks, and in 2008, Taiwan banned the fishing and sale of whale shark meat.
Many whale shark research programs have been established around the world. Hubbs- Sea World Research Institute has tagged several whale sharks with radio telemetry since 1994. Project Domino in Mexico has studied and tracked whale sharks for the last 8 years with satellite tags, and obtained genetic samples and photo identification. They work with several U.S. universities, the Mexican government, Mote Marine Aquarium and Georgia Aquarium. Other noteworthy conservation programs include the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme, Whale Shark Conservation in Thailand, and Utila Whale Shark Research organized by the dive company Deep Blue Utila.
Celebrations for whale shark enthusiasts are happening around the globe as well. Ningaloo Whale Shark Festival takes place in May, and Isla Mujeres parties for an entire week in July.
Wherever your quest for whale sharks may take you, enjoy a unique and safe encounter with these gentle giants.
To read about my whale shark encounter, click here.
Links to organization websites:
Project Domino- www.domino.conanp.gob.mx
Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme- www.maldiveswhalesharkresearch.org
Utila Whale Shark Research- www.utilawhalesharkresearch.com
Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center- www.wsorc.org
Whale Shark Conservation in Thailand- www.whale-shark.org
ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo Identification Library- www.whaleshark.org
Deep Blue Utila- www.deepblueutila.com
Hubbs Sea World Research Institute- www.hswri.org
Mote Marine Aquarium- www.mote.org
Georgia Aquarium- www.georgiaaquarium.org/support-us/conservation
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with any of the organizations listed above, nor did I receive payment.