One of the most fascinating sharks is the largest known fish in the world, the whale shark. Many snorkelers with an interest in sea life would enjoy an encounter with a whale shark. My wife and I were finally able to to see these up close in June 2021. Did we feel safe?
It is perfectly safe to swim and snorkel with whale sharks. They are filter feeders, not predators, eating only tiny plankton. They don’t have teeth, and there have been no deliberate attacks on humans. Despite their huge size, snorkelers can observe them at a relatively close distance. It is a great experience.
Because they are surface feeders, no scuba diving skills are needed to enjoy an encounter. Since they inhabit warm waters, combining a tropical vacation with a whale shark excursion is perfect. Read more about whale sharks and how to safely enjoy an encounter below.
What Are Whale Sharks?
As pointed out above, whale sharks are slow-swimming fish that feed on plankton. They have huge mouths that take in large volumes of water and hundreds of small “teeth” and 20 rows of filters to retrieve plankton and tiny fish out of that water.
Despite the misnomer of “whale” shark, they are not mammals. They are fish, the largest fish and shark in the ocean. Discovered first in 1828, still little is known about them.
It is estimated that they live around 80-120 years. Adult females are the larger gender, averaging 48 feet compared to 28-30 feet for males. Males do grow faster despite their ultimate smaller size. It is not known exactly how large they can grow, but there have been several measured at nearly 60 feet long. (Wikipedia)
Whale sharks migrate long distances and also and can dive to extreme depths (as deep as 6,000 feet!) Because they can be a migratory species, potential encounters vary depending on time of year.
Is It Safe to Snorkel With Whale Sharks?
These fish are completely safe around humans, with no known attacks. There are even some reports of people hitching a ride on their backs. This is a practice I strongly discourage for the sake of the animal. Observe, photograph, take videos, and enjoy your visit, but leave ocean wildlife alone. (PADI on whale sharks)
Of course, the whale shark, being a plankton filter feeder, doesn’t exhibit any predatory behavior. Snorkeling and swimming them is perfectly safe. They are quite a site to see in person. Photos don’t convey their sheer size. A whale shark experience should even be safe for beginning snorkelers, but you may want to consider a little training first.
Do Whale Sharks Have Teeth? Do They Bite?
Whale sharks technically have rows of small teeth, but they are used for filtering plankton rather for biting. Even an accidental close encounter with a whale shark mouth can’t result in a bite. Their jaws and attached muscles aren’t like those of other sharks. They don’t eat anything larger than shrimp and very small fish along with plankton.
Can a Whale Shark Swallow a Person?
Despite their huge mouths, which reach 5-6 feet in width (see my photos below,) whale sharks have an esophagus that measures only inches in diameter (source.) So there is no possible way a whale shark could swallow a human. And in fact, whale sharks will immediately spit out anything that isn’t on their dietary menu (source: Smithsonian Magazine.)
Has There Ever Been a Whale Shark Attack on a Person?
There has been one reported accidental attempt at swallowing a human. A woman found herself directly in front of a whale shark and got caught in its filtered intake. Once her legs reached the shark’s small esophagus, it ejected her from its mouth.
This incident occur likely as an accident, as it was reported the whale shark turned towards the diver as it was feeding. She suffered no harm. (Source and story)
As discussed above, they are filter feeders and not predators. The only adverse effects of a physical encounter with one would be bumps, bruises and scrapes. Such an encounter would also be accidental, and most likely due to a person swimming to close to the shark.
Because their skin is rough, you could be scratched if you come in contact with one. Swimming too close to a fin or tail can result in being bumped, as well. Whale sharks are also injured by these encounters (source PADI.)
Are Whale Sharks an Endangered Species?
They are considered an endangered species, having lost 50% of the population over the last 75 years. Like most sharks, humans are their only predator, sometimes accidentally but often on purpose.
Accidental trapping in nets (WWF) and deliberate hunting for food and for their fins are the biggest threats to whale shark populations. Like other sharks, they are captured, their fins are cut off, and they are thrown back into the ocean to die.
This unfortunate practice has lead to drastic drops in shark populations around the world. The whale shark hasn’t suffered from this practice as much as other species, possibly due to size and also protections being in place around the world. (WWF Facts and Actions)
Indirect threats also affect whale sharks, such as loss of feeding areas due to ocean warming and accidental encounters with boats.
Where and When Can You Snorkel with Whale Sharks
The most common place in the world to find whale sharks is Australia. They are widely distributed in the waters around that continent. They can also be found in the Galapagos Islands, Phillipines, South Africa, the Maldives, Belize, Mexico, and southeast Asia.
One of the most popular places for a whale shark encounter is off the coast of Mexico just north of the resort area of Cancun. They feed in the waters beyond Isla Mujeres. My wife and I finally got to experience whale shark snorkeling there in June 2021 after several years of trying. We’d had prior trips canceled due to weather, poor logistics from cruise ship operators, and visiting during the wrong time of year. We also hope to visit with them again in 2022 while in the Galapagos Islands.
Whale sharks are found in deeper waters of the shores of Cancun from late May through September. The best odds of finding them in Cancun are from June-August. Snorkeling with them requires a 70-90 minute boat ride out to deeper waters, where they surface to warmer waters to feed on the denser plankton population.
Whale sharks are a migratory species, so plan any trips with this in mind. The table below indicates regions and times of year to find whale sharks. One extra benefit is that many of the places and times where whale sharks are found coincide with manta ray, turtle, and whale sightings. So you may get an unexpected bonus visit from other aquatic life.
|Isla Mujeres, Cancun, MX||May-September||Late June-August|
|Ningaloo, AUS||March-October||Late March-July|
|Maldives||Year round||Varies with location|
|Socorro Island, Cabo, MX||November-December||November-December|
|La Plaz, MX||Late October-May||Late October-December|
How to Snorkel with Whale Sharks
Depending on what part of the world you plan on visiting, you will most likely want to book a trip with an experienced whale shark snorkeling guide. You will likely need a long boat ride, and an experienced crew will spot whale sharks much quicker than you’ll be able to do on your own.
Once you book the trip, be sure to ask your operator the rules of snorkeling in that locale. Most countries require that you remain 4-6 feet away from the animals at all times. Some operators require life jackets to be worn at all times, while others allow this as an option. If you like to freedive, ask any potential tour operator about their life jacket policy.
Of course, life jackets are always available for anyone who wants one regardless of the policy. Snorkeling with a life jacket is a little different than without one. They are a little more restrictive, but allow people who aren’t confident in their swimming abilities to participate in snorkeling with a jacket when they might otherwise pass.
It is always a good idea to at least wear an inflatable collar just so your boat captain and guide can keep track of your position even if you are an experience snorkeler or diver. Some areas quickly accumulate multiple boats, so the operators may coordinate different colors of jackets to keep track of their own snorkelers. Cooperate with them to ensure a smooth experience.
Most snorkel and dive operators follow eco-friendly best practices for wild animal interactions. This includes not baiting the water to attract animals, keeping a safe distance to avoid accidental injury to the animal or person, absolutely no feeding and no free rides. Touching a whale shark is even a crime punishable with a prison sentence in the Phillipines. Most operators are now requiring the use of reef-safe sunscreen or no sunscreen at all. Be sure to pack a swim shirt if this will be the case for your tour.
We learned that booking a trip with an operator willing to leave very early in the morning allowed us about an hour of spotting whale sharks and snorkeling with them before larger crowds of boats started appearing. If this is important to you, be sure to find an operator that offers this. You can book private trips for 2-4 people on a boat, or you can join a group of 10-15 people.
Smaller group tours are more expensive, but you don’t have the problems of getting on and off the boat quickly once a whale shark appears. What you decide to book will depend on your expectations and budget. No matter what you choose, you’ll likely to see several whale sharks up close.
What to Take on a Whale Shark Snorkeling Trip
Most operators will offer you equipment, either included or for rent. I strongly prefer to use my own mask and snorkel, but I will often just use the fins provided by the guides. Unless I’m taking a trip focusing on diving and snorkeling, I often leave my fins at home. If I only have one or two activities planned, it isn’t worth the space in my suitcase. But this is a personal choice, so take your fins if you wish.
Take the following items for whale shark snorkeling:
- Snorkeling mask and snorkel
- Snacks in a small waterproof pouch
- Water or other non-caffeinate non-alcoholic beverages
- Waterproof camera
- Swim Shirt or eco-friendly sunscreen
- Comfortable swim suit and cover up or shirt
- Hat or other head covering to avoid sunburn
- Sunglasses for the long boat ride
I used a GoPro Hero 8 (replaced by Hero 9 for 2021) for the above images and videos, and our guide took additional footage with an older model GoPro. Any waterproof camera from my recommended list will work just fine. Depth rating isn’t an issue, as you’ll go no deeper than 5-8 feet if you decide to freedive alongside the whale shark. Learn to use the camera ahead of time. Between my need for reading glasses and the bright sun, there would be no way I could set up my GoPro in a hurry unless I know the menu system well.
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What To Expect When You Find a Whale Shark
Your boat captain will get you to the whale shark as quickly and safely as possible, because these animals sometimes feed and then dive deep for long periods. Over a mile deep at times according to Smithsonian Magazine. Be ready to go when your guide tells you to go. Have mask, snorkel and fins on and camera in hand and powered up.
When the captain shuts off the engine, your guide will point you to your boat exit spot. This will depend on size and type of boat, number of people on board, and location of the whale shark. Prepare yourself for several entries and exits, as the boat will likely move around to find as many whale sharks as possible.
I believe we rolled off of our boat 8-10 times in about 90 minutes of snorkeling. As with all snorkeling and dive boats, don’t crowd the entry ladder(s). Leave space for the person in front of you in case they fall backwards into the water. Once they step onboard, move quickly to the ladder and do the same. Remove your fins at the ladder but leave your mask and snorkel in place in case you fall back into the water, as well.
Whale Sharks and a Bucket List Encounter
So there you have it. Whale sharks are perfectly safe for people to snorkel with, and doing so provides you an up close experience unlike no other. Swimming alongside a 40 feet long fish with a huge mouth and gills opening and closing is hard to describe. Photos and videos don’t quite capture the immense scale of floating a few feet away from an animal 7-8 times longer than you are tall.