Snorkeling with Whale Sharks in Donsol, Philippines

Whale Shark Snorkeling!

Swimming with Whale Sharks!

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!

whale sharks in the Philippines
impressive whale shark photo by Joe Newman

Whale Shark closeup in Donsol, in The Philippines 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)

Whale Shark just a meter away in Donsol, Philippines
Imagine snorkeling and seeing this whale shark just a few feet below you!
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]
Massive Whale Shark and snorkel fins
Notice the little snorkel fins at the top of this photo – we were this close to this massive whale shark!

Whale Shark Diving in Oslob, Philippines

photo by Adam Brill – he captured the mouth open

Is it safe??  Yes! They’re rather docile and aren’t bothered by humans swimming around them.
Whale Shark's dorsal fin - Donsol, Philippines
grainy close-up of the whale shark dorsal fin.
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.
closeup of the whale shark's mouth - I swam ahead to take this, which was a little scary
closeup of the whale shark’s mouth – I swam ahead to take this, which was a little scary
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 have 5 large pairs of gills
Whale Sharks have 5 large pairs of gills. I was enamored by the pattern of bright spots
Snorkeling with Whale Sharks in Donsol, Philippines
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.”
Whale Sharks have tiny eyes on the side of the massive flat heads
Whale Sharks have tiny eyes on the side of the massive flat heads

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.

whale shark mouth open
photo by Elias Levy, who has lots of other great shark pics on his Flickr
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!
enroute to Whale Shark Snorkeling in Donsol, Philippines
Searching for whale sharks with Julian from Germany, Gabbi from Sweden, and Sara and Denmark
Whale Shark Snorkeling trip - Donsol, Philippines
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.
Whale Shark Snorkeling trip - between snorkeling sessions in Donsol, Philippines
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)

maybe took a little too much
hmm… maybe I took a little too much
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.

5 thoughts on “Whale Shark Snorkeling!”

  1. I’ll be in Boracay in January and want to swim with the whale sharks. Can this be organised from Boracay?
    Regards.
    Simone

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