For the Best Adrenaline Rush of Your Life, Swim with Whale Sharks
You can see these gentle giants all over the world.
“NOW!” commanded my guide as he dove beneath the surface, kicking like mad. “Go, go, go, go, GO!”
When the moment arrived to jump into the icy Sea of Cortés, there was no time to contemplate that the biggest fish in the ocean was about to come into view. I followed his lead, slipping off the side of the boat as gently as possible despite the adrenaline coursing through my veins.
It was February, and I'd traveled to La Paz in Baja California Sur to swim alongside whale sharks—which can grow up to 40 feet long—as they filter fed in the shallow waters off El Mogote Peninsula. Each year, they come to gorge on a moveable feast of plankton, fish roe, and other ocean flotsam that have collected here via strong winter winds from the North. (With a diet like that, rest assured you have zero chance of being gobbled up; though technically sharks, they are very whale-like, meaning they aren't interested in eating you.)
When the 20-foot-long juvenile whale shark came cruising into view at a steady clip, I realized I’d have to kick my hardest to keep up. It's one thing to absorb whale shark facts from the comfort of a boat—and another thing entirely to find yourself finning in the creature’s realm as it levitates up from the seafloor like a UFO, moving its tail slowly but surely from side to side like a Jurassic creature on a mission.
For a while, the shark’s enormous head—the width of a piano keyboard, and covered in white flecks like a constellation—and mine were side by side. But I was soon outpaced. Huffing through my snorkel, I stopped kicking, letting the entire length of the shark pass me by. For a moment, we were like time travelers on conveyor belts flowing in opposite directions through the recesses of space; floating away into the open sea, its body resembled a marine Milky Way.
With a last look, I pulled myself up the boat ladder, breathless—just in time for the captain to start the engine and get us into position to do it all over again.
If you fancy yourself a swim with these gentle giants—an experience as exhilarating as it is otherworldly—there are plenty of places where you can take the plunge, too. From Mexico to Australia, here are some of the best places around the world to dive with whale sharks.
La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico
The season to swim with whale sharks right off the coast of La Paz in the Sea of Cortés runs from October until the end of April. The whale shark tours here are considered among the most ethical in the world from a conservation standpoint: Activity is heavily regulated by Mexico's environmental authorities, with only 14 boats allowed to run tours each day. Arrive at the beginning of the season for the warmest waters. During the winter months, water temperatures dip into the 60s—but that’s also when there’s the most plankton, and the sharks gather in the greatest numbers.
Operators: You’ll find whale shark tours touted all along the Malecon promenade. Two long-standing La Paz scuba diving and whale shark tour operators with great reputations are RED Travel Mexico (a 3-5 hour trip starts at $500 for up to 4 travelers) and The Cortez Club (rates start at $110 for a four-hour trip).
Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Just as whale shark season is winding down in La Paz, it’s kicking into gear on the other side of Mexico, where mid-May marks the start of whale shark season about 1.5 hours off the shores of Isla Mujeres. While you can spot the behemoths here through September, the peak season for swimming alongside them in large numbers is during July and August, when the Gulf of Mexico is warmest and the sharks feast on plankton near the surface.
Operators: Mexico Divers (rates starting at $150) runs regular trips from Isla Mujeres during whale shark season.
Gladden Spit, Belize
Hit Belize’s Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve from March through June if you've got whale sharks on the brain. That’s when they gather to feast on the spawn of the various fish, including snapper and mutton, that aggregate here to do their thing around the full moon.
Operators: The Placencia Resort offers packages during the whale shark migration that include accommodation, meals, and scuba diving or snorkeling with whale sharks starting at $1,798 per person for five nights.
Ningaloo Reef, Australia
An annual coral spawning event is the dinner bell that brings whale sharks en masse to Ningaloo, a World Heritage-listed marine park off the coast of Western Australia near Exmouth (about a two-hour flight north from Perth). The period between late March and late July offers the best chances of getting in the water with them, but tours are usually offered through September since the sharks tend to linger.
Operators: Ningaloo Whale Shark Swim employs its own spotter plane to find the whale sharks and offers a Whale Shark Swim Guarantee to get you back in the water another day in case you get skunked on your first try. Rates start at $430.
Tofo Beach, Mozambique
The African hotspot for whale shark encounters, Mozambique’s Tofo Beach is home to a resident population of these colossal fishies, so it’s possible to snorkel with them here year-round. October to March, when plankton is most abundant, brings the greatest aggregations of whale sharks; they can regularly be seen rolling some 50 creatures deep.
Operators: Liquid Dive Adventures runs two-hour boat trips to snorkel with the whale sharks—and you may see giant manta rays and dolphins, too. Prices start at about $60.
Cenderawasih Bay National Marine Park, Indonesia
Only accessible by liveaboard diving boats (think small, multi-day cruises for divers, without the questionable evening entertainment), remote Cenderawasih Bay is a unique spot to dive. Here, in the Indonesian province of Papua, whale sharks congregate for leftovers under floating fishing platforms manned by the locals.
Operators: Many liveaboards make this a stop on Coral Triangle itineraries that also visit Raja Ampat, one of the most famous places to dive. Check out the luxury phinisi boats operated by Dive Damai (starting at about $775/night for a single cabin).