Whale sharks are known as “gentle giants” because… well, because they’re gentle, and they’re giant! The largest fish in the sea, whale sharks certainly don’t look harmless, considering they can grow as long as 40 feet and weigh as much 20 tons, not to mention the fact that they have over 3,000 teeth in their gigantic mouths, which can stretch as wide as five feet. Anyone feel like being swallowed whole?!

Don’t worry… In reality, whale sharks don’t bite and they don’t chew, despite having more teeth than a five-pound bag of combs. Whale fish are filter feeders, which means that the biggest fish known to man eats the smallest creatures in the ocean. When whale sharks open their mouths to feed, about 1,500 gallons of water an hour are filtered through their “gill rakers,” which trap microscopic plankton, algae, krill, brine shrimp, and fish eggs. I mean, how amazing is that?!

Swimming With Whale Sharks

Swimming with whale sharks is a thrilling experience that tops many an animal lover’s bucket list. And it’s a very safe activity – for humans, at least. But it can be hazardous for the whale sharks, which are listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN’s Red List of Endangered Species due to the astonishing number of killings every year despite conservation efforts by governments and wildlife conservation groups worldwide. In China, for example, a journalist recently blew the whistle on a factory that illegally processes over 600 whale sharks every year, according to National Geographic. And no one knows how many other such factories exist. For some, a profit of $30,000 per carcass is too much money to resist.

But due to humanity’s fascination with whale sharks and its willingness to drop a huge amount of money for the opportunity to swim with these sweet and curious beasts, whale sharks are worth more to the economy alive than in a bowl of sharkfin soup or a tube of lip gloss. And that’s why most governments regulate whale shark tour providers who operate in their country, setting strict guidelines about the types of boats that may be used to conduct tours, the type of fuel that can be used, the minimum proximity of tourists to the sharks which must be enforced, the maximum number of tourists allowed on each dive, the type of training all tour guides must have, and even the type of sunscreen tourists are allowed to slather on before their excursion.

The Top Ten Places to Swim With Whale Sharks

Whale sharks inhabit all of the world’s temperate and tropical oceans, and they migrate thousands of miles each year. The ideal location for swimming with whale sharks depends on the time of year you’re available to travel. These are just ten of the many places in the world where you can find yourself face to face with a fish the size of a semi truck:

  • From mid-July through the end of August: Holbox, Mexico.
  • During April and May: Gladden Spit, Belize.
  • From April through November: Honda Bay in Palawan, Philippines.
  • From November through February: Cabo San Sebastian, Mozambique.
  • From August through October: Mahe, Seychelles.
  • From April through July: Ningaloo Reef, Australia.
  • From February through May: Richelieu Rock, Thailand.
  • From May through December: the west side of Ari and Baa Atolls, and from December through April on the east side.
  • From May through September: Isla Mujeres, Mexico. The annual Whale Shark Festival here takes place in mid-June.
  • Year round: Utila Bay, Honduras.

Whale Shark Tours: Choose Wisely!

Whale shark tours are big business, and in areas with prime whale shark habitats, competition is fierce. Finding a reputable tour provider is essential for your safety and the safety of the whale sharks. There will be disreputable companies that will try to win your business by promising to get you closer to the whale sharks than any other tour guide. Beware of these companies, which are either lying or breaking the law and putting the whale shark populations at risk.

Before you book your tour, compare the rates of various tour guide organizations. Avoid companies whose rates are considerably lower than those of the competition, or you and a bunch of other suckers will probably end up packed like sardines in some moth-eaten boat without enough life jackets, piloted by some brute who could care less about the wellbeing of the sharks.

Always try to book your tour with a local company rather than a large tour provider based elsewhere. The locals usually have a vested interest in following regulations and protecting their assets (the whale sharks,) and you’ll probably end up in a better spot and learn some interesting local lore along the way.

If possible, book your tour with a company that actively works toward the conservation of the very animals that put food on their table and shoes on their kids’ feet. Some companies participate in whale shark research or contribute a percentage of their profits to conservation efforts, and those are the ones you want to book with.

Do your due diligence and find out what the government’s licensing requirements are for whale shark tour companies and individual guides, and make sure your tour provider adheres to those requirements. Some common requirements for tour guides include proper licensing, conservation training, a whale shark biology course, and CPR and First Aid certification. Common requirements for tour organizations include proper licensing, boats that don’t run on diesel fuel (it’s harmful to the sharks,) and a minimum fee that must be charged for tours.

How to Be a Responsible Whale Shark Tourist

First and foremost, listen carefully to the instructions given by the tour guide, and follow them accordingly. The rules apply to everyone, and they’re taken very seriously by local and national governments. Different locations may have different rules, depending on the general state of the whale shark population, whether the destination habitat includes coral reefs, and other factors.

Since there’s very little risk of tourists being harmed by whale sharks, most of the rules are meant to keep the whale sharks safe. These include avoiding flash photography and keeping a safe distance from the whale sharks for the protection of the animals. Some countries mandate a 16-foot distance, while others let you get as close as 10 feet. Wear only biodegradable sunscreen, and don’t wear any lotions, perfumes, or other chemical substances. And no matter how tempting it may be, don’t touch the sharks, try to hitch a ride on them, chase them, block their path, or try to feed them.

Protecting the sharks’ habitat is equally important. Don’t remove anything from the ocean, and don’t touch the coral. And of course, it should go without saying that you should not throw litter in the ocean.

Swimming with whale sharks is an opportunity of a lifetime and one that you shouldn’t pass up. Being close to these astonishing animals will give you a new appreciation for whale sharks and their habitat as well as contribute to their conservation through the money you fork over for the tour and the taxes that go toward protecting the animals when you funnel money into the local economy.

Whale Shark InfoGraphic