Whale sharks sit high atop most divers’ bucket lists. Seeing one underwater, however, is highly dependent on location and time of year. You’ll typically see whale sharks in tropical waters, in the open ocean or near coastal areas. They typically feed upright on plankton, krill, larvae, and fish eggs and can average around 30 feet (10 m) long. Despite their size, they’re completely harmless to humans. Here we’ve listed some of the world’s best places to snorkel or scuba dive with whale sharks — and when you should visit for your best chance to spot one.
Holbox, Yucatan Peninsula Mexico (snorkeling)
The 2011 season saw the largest-ever recorded congregation of whale sharks, numbering 400 animals, at Holbox (pronounced HOL-bosh) Island on the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. The snorkeling season runs from July to September. But note that it can get quite crowded with both snorkelers and operators. Holbox is a 30-minute boat ride from the mainland and in open water.
Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras (snorkeling and occasionally diving)
You can spot whale sharks year-round in Utila, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras. Whale sharks around Utila tend to be smaller, averaging 20 to 30 feet (6 to 10 m), but they’ll often stay nearby if they’re not disturbed since they tend to feed here. You’ll usually see them offshore, away from the reef in deeper water. Utila Dive Center boat captains are some of the most skilled on the island at finding whale sharks, and use surface intervals to search for tell-tale signs such as boils of small tuna feeding on the krill and plankton that attracts whale sharks.
Cocos Island, Costa Rica and Galapagos Islands, Ecuador (scuba liveaboard trips)
Both Cocos Island and the Galapagos are in the open Pacific Ocean. Cocos is a 36-hour boat ride from Costa Rica, and Darwin/Wolf Islands are a 20-hour boat ride from the Southern Galapagos. The whale sharks are rumored to visit Cocos Island as a cleaning station, and the Northern Galapagos Islands to give birth, as it’s common to see pregnant females there. The best time to see them in both destinations is from June to November. On these trips divers may also encounter hundreds of hammerhead sharks, manta rays, and hundreds of schooling fish. Due to the strong currents and isolated location, these liveaboard trips are best for advanced/experienced level scuba divers.
Tofo Beach, Mozambique (snorkeling)
November to April are the best months for seeing lots of whale sharks in Tofo (pronounced Tofu) Beach, Mozambique. Within a 30-minute boat ride, snorkelers have seen up to 20 animals at a time. There’s also a good chance of a manta encounter and great scuba diving generally in this region. Divers may also spot humpback whales from June to October.
Gladden Spit, Southern Belize (snorkeling and scuba diving)
Gladden Spit sits a 90-minute boat ride from Placencia in the Silk Cayes Marine Reserve, on part of the second-largest reef in the Western Hemisphere. The Mesoamerican Reef offers great diving in general, as well as a high probability of snorkeling or diving with whale sharks. The season runs from February through June and sightings are best at the full moon during the mutton- and grouper- spawning seasons when the whale sharks feed.
Cenderawasih Bay, North East Papua, Indonesia (snorkeling and scuba diving)
Cenderawasih Bay features year-round whale shark-sightings, but it’s also one of the most remote locations on our list, with the little in the way of services and infrastructure. Therefore, it’s best to visit via liveaboard. Cenderawasih Bay is also one of the only locations that attracts whale sharks because of human behavior. ‘Bagans,’ local fishing platforms, are rich in small krill and sardines, which in turn attract whale sharks looking for a meal. Aside from the whale sharks this location is also a mecca for scuba divers as part of one of the largest marine reserves in Indonesia with coral gardens, vertical walls, macro life and WWII shipwrecks.
Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia (snorkeling)
Located a short 30-minute boat ride from Exmouth on the remote west coast of Australia, the peak months to swim and snorkel with whale sharks here are March to August. During this time, the water is rich in plankton, drawing the whale sharks in to feed. There are often sighting outside these months as well, but your chances of snorkeling with a whale shark in season are very high. Local operations use spotter planes to locate the sharks. This does make these trips a bit more expensive at around $300 USD.