Imagine snorkeling with massive Whale Sharks! They’re the largest fish in the sea, and they migrate right through The Philippines annually. It provided a perfect opportunity to not only see whale sharks up close, but get in the water and actually swim and snorkel with them. Wow. It was certainly one of the highlights of my trip!
How big are Whale Sharks? Huge. The first one we saw while snorkeling was about 20 feet long; they can grow to the size of a school bus! Average size is more than 30-feet and 20,000 pounds. They can grow much larger; a whale shark caught near Taiwan in 1994 was 79,000 pounds, and that’s not even the largest ever! (catching whale sharks is now banned)
Is a Whale Shark a Whale or a Shark? It’s a Shark. It’s a whale-sized shark. Rhincodon typus – the largest fish species still around (I just learned the term is “extant” – the opposite of extinct)
How close were you? Very close (see below photo). I was in the water swimming with whale sharks, and they were so close that I didn’t even see the whale shark at first because I was too close. I looked down and only saw cloudy water, but my friend Julian pulled me over a few feet so I was directly over the dorsal fin. OMG. The water wasn’t cloudy – those were spots on the shark about 5 feet below us. If I accidentally went vertical I could have kicked it with my fin! [see below photo]
Is it safe?? Yes! They’re rather docile and aren’t bothered by humans swimming around them.
Were you in a cage? Nope! We went in the water with massive whale sharks without a cage. Lucky for us, they have no interest in eating us.
What do Whale Sharks eat? Lucky for us, their favorite meal is plankton and tiny fish near the water’s surface. They eat algae and microscopic plants. Their mouths are 4-5 feet wide with 300 teeth (which play no role in eating). It’s a filter feeder – they leave their mouth open for small fish and the clouds of eggs and sperm during mass spawning.
How fast are they? They weren’t moving fast at all – slow enough that we went snorkeling with the Whale Shark for about 20 minutes before he swam off, and then found another for about 35 minutes. Reeeeally cool experience!
Whale Sharks are also known as – Whale Sharks are called “butanding” in Donsol, Philippines, where I was. They’re called “pez dama” in much of Latin America. They’re called “Sapodilla Tom” in Belize, named after the area of the Belize Barrier Reef where they’re often seen. In Vietnam, where the whale shark often known as a deity, it’s called “Ca Ong.”
Where can you go Whale Sharks snorkeling?
We were in Donsol, a known migration area, but there’s lots of places to find, see, and swim with Whale Sharks. Near the US, I’ve read about sightings in Mexico (Isla Mujeres), Belize, Puerto Rico, Panama (Isla Coiba), Honduras (the Bay Islands), and more.
Other places to see whale sharks, according to wikipedia and the book Sharks of the World: Thailand, the Maldives, Western Australia (Ningaloo Reef, Christmas Island), Taiwan, Tofo Beach in Mozambique, Sodwana Bay (Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park) in South Africa, the Galapagos Islands, the Seychelles, West Malaysia, islands off eastern peninsular Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Oman.
When to go whale shark snorkeling in Donsol?
We went to Donsol in the Philippines. I was in Donsol in late March, which was ideal – the peak time to see whale sharks in Donsol is February through April. Whale shark season is from December to May.
Who I went with: I went with Gabbi (from Sweden) and met up with Julian and Christie (from Germany), and we met Sarah there. I traveled with Gabbi all over the Philippines, met up with Sarah to travel throughout Vietnam, and met Julian and Christie in Borneo and went on to meet up in Singapore and all over the Philippines. The four of us went on to meet up in Boracay, one of our favorite parts of our trips. Awesome!
Getting ready for whale shark snorkeling in tiny Donsol, in The Philippines
Swimming with whale sharks was an amazing experience – you’re swimming with whale sharks! It’s definitely an experience you’ll never forget.
The boat is specially designed for these whale shark snorkeling trips — we all get on this little platform and then drop in for snorkeling as soon as we locate a whale shark. Just as we jumped in someone yelled “Free Willy!” (from the movie)
Learn how to photograph the distinctive patterning and scarring on whale shark here, which are used to uniquely identify individuals for long-term, mark-recapture analysis.
Here’s more info on going swimming with whale sharks right in Mexico in Isla Mujeres (a short ferry from Cancun) – check out this post from Jack and Jill Travel.
More photos of whale sharks found here: 1, and here.