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Diving with Thresher Sharks

I went diving with Thresher Sharks in Malapascua Island in the Philippines and loved it!

SCUBA Diving with Thresher Sharks – Philippines

Imagine seeing a shark with a long tail that can be as long as the total body length. Threshers can only be consistently spotted in a few places in the world, and the Philippines might be in the best. When I was in the Philippines I had to see them up close.

What we’ll cover

In this post I’ll cover why thresher sharks have such long tails, what thresher sharks eat, how big thresher sharks typically are, and where to find thresher sharks, in addition to showing some videos of threshers in motion.  I’ll also detail my specific experience SCUBA diving to see thresher sharks  at the bottom of this page as well.

What’s a Thresher Shark? 

Thresher sharks are mostly known for the size of their tail (“upper caudal fin lobe”), which is typically equal to the length of the rest of their body!  Check out this below photo:

Thresher Shark shows off its impressive tail - Thresher Sharks Philippines
Thresher Sharks have tails equal to the rest of the size of their body. Photo credit: Rafn Ingi Finnsson

Why do Thresher Sharks have large tails?

Thresher sharks are active predators – they use their huge tails not only to swim, but also to swat and stun much smaller prey fish. Whack!   When hunting schooling fish, thresher sharks are known to “slap” the water, herding and stunning prey.

Thresher diet – what do they eat?

Thresher sharks eat squid, octopuses, crustaceans and small schooling fish such as bluefish, mackerel, needlefish, lancetfish, lanternfish, and more.

How big are Thresher sharks?

Threshers range from 8 feet long on the small end, to as big as 20-25 feet long! That’s 2.5 meters to 7.5 meters. 1,100 lbs!

Thresher Shark swimming by
we waited and waited to catch a glimpse of the Thresher Shark

The scientific name of the three most common thresher sharks are Alopias vulpinus, Alopias superciliosus, and Alopias pelagicusBelow is a diagram from this site:

Thresher Shark diagram of features
Diagram of Thresher Shark Features
A thresher shark showing off its impressive tail - thresher sharks Philippines
A thresher shark showing off its impressive tail.

How are thresher sharks like the dolphins??   

Threshers are one of the few shark species known to jump fully out of the water, making turns like dolphins, this behaviour is called breaching. For example, here’s a photo and example for a thresher shark that wandered towards Europe, jumping out of the water.

Videos: Diving with Thresher Sharks:

Where can you find Thresher Sharks? 

They are generally not found deeper than 500 meters (1,640ft). You can find thresher sharks everywhere from off the coast of southern California to South Africa, but there’s not many dive sites that see them with such regularity.

The best place in the world to spot thresher sharks is in the Philippines off the coast of Malapascua Island in the Visayan Sea, located across a shallow strait from the northernmost tip of Cebu Island, at the sunken island sea mount of Monad Shoal at a dive site that’s now called Shark Wall.

Why is Monad Shoal the best place to spot Thresher Sharks?

Why do thresher sharks go there?  Monad Shoal is near the Filipino island of Malapascua – it’s a sunken island at 18-24m whose sides drop off to 230m.

The thresher sharks live and hunt in this deep water for most of the day. However, in the early morning before daylight light, they come up to the Shoal. They’re attracted by its “cleaning stations.”

Here they have a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship with the small fish called cleaning wrasse. The wrasse eat dead skin and bacteria from the shark’s body, its gills, and even inside its mouth. Because the cleaning benefits them, so they’d never think of eating the wrasse as an early morning snack.

The cleaning stations are like a carwash for fish!

My experience SCUBA Diving with Thresher Sharks

Most boring dive ever!  While I find thresher sharks to be fascinating, the actual dive was actually the least interesting SCUBA Diving experience I’ve ever had.

You depart around 430am, in order to arrive before sunrise. The top of the sea mount is about 80 feet down. There’s almost no fish or coral. Once you get to the optimal viewing spot, you just sit on the ocean floor. Yes really. Visibility is often poor.

We sat on the ocean floor doing nothing but waiting and watching for 24 minutes of the dive. Eventually we were rewarded with a thresher shark whizzing past us. Other divers said people often spot Manta rays and schools of devil rays, in addition to hammer head sharks and reef sharks. Also common near the cleaning station are batfish, flutemouths, barracuda, tuna, mantis shrimp, pipefish, scorpionfish, free-swimming lionfish, moorish idols, schooling bannerfish, unicornfish, squid, octopus and various moray eels.

Thresher Shark
Photo credit: Rafn Ingi Finnsson

This 1st video below is a 9 minute chronicle of the experience. Also, it’s fairly similar to ours (except they saw a Manta Ray, aka Devil Ray):

Next, here are two more videos of thresher shark videos:

How to get to Malapascua to see Thresher Sharks?

Getting to Malapascua Island

Getting to the island to see Thresher Sharks isn’t easy. Start by flying into Cebu, the second largest city in the Philippines. Then arrange a private taxi for 4 hours up to a tiny town of Maya. Note, there’s an unreliable bus but I don’t recommend it – it randomly doesn’t come on many days).

You’ll need one of the local fisherman to take you to the boat for a small fee, and then there’s a ferry that “leaves promptly at 8am” (more likely it’s whenever it’s full, which can be either on time or hours later). They operate on frustrating Philippine Time / Filipino Time, so schedules are never strictly adhered to. That’s quite a bit of effort, but once you get there, Malapascua Island is wonderful!

Additional info at MarineBioWiki, and here.

My other shark experiences in Asia:

While I started my trip terrified of sharks, over just a few months I’d end up SCUBA diving with massive Whale SharksWhitetip Reef Sharks, Blackfin Reef Sharks, Grey Reef Sharks, and more.

Philippines map

Snorkeling with Whale Sharks!

Imagine snorkeling with Whale Sharks!  They’re the largest fish in the sea, and they migrate right through The Philippines annually. It provides a perfect opportunity to see whale sharks up close. You can also get in the water and actually swim and snorkel with them. Swimming with whale sharks. Wow!

Swimming with Whale Sharks!

Firstly, I’ll share their size and what they eat. Secondly, you might be wondering if they’re dangerous.  Thirdly, I’ll show you how close you can get. In addition, I’ll share photos about my experience swimming with whale sharks too.

photo from snorkeling with whale sharks in the Philippines
impressive whale shark photo by Joe Newman

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)

Whale Shark snorkel closeup in Donsol, in The Philippines

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 can you get?

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.
On my whale shark snorkel trip, I looked down and only saw cloudy water. Then my friend Julian pulled me over a few feet so I was directly over the dorsal fin. OMG. I learned that the water wasn’t cloudy. Those were spots on the shark about 5 feet below us. If I accidentally went vertical I could have nearly 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.

Do you need to be 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. This is a 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

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 Snorkeling with Whale Sharks?

I went snorkeling with whale sharks in Donsol in the Philippines. It’s a known migration area. You can also do it nearby in Cebu.

There are lots of places to find, see, and swim with Whale Sharks. Near the US, I’ve read about sightings in Mexico (in Holbox and Isla Mujeres), Belize, Puerto Rico, Panama (Isla Coiba), Honduras (the Bay Islands), and more.

Other places to swim with whale sharks

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 trips allow you to see the mouth open
photo by Elias Levy, who has lots of other great shark pics on his Flickr

When to go whale shark snorkeling?

This depends on which location you choose. We went to Donsol in the Philippines in late March. This is ideal. The peak time to see whale sharks in Donsol is February through April.  Whale shark season is from December to May.
ready for snorkeling with Whale Sharks - between snorkeling sessions in Donsol, Philippines

What kind of boat do they use for whale shark snorkeling?

The boat has a design custom for these whale shark snorkeling trips. First we all get on this little platform. Then a spotter locates a whale shark. Next, we drop in for snorkeling. With my snorkel trip, just as we jump in someone yells “Free Willy!” (from the movie)
here's the boat for our whale shark snorkel trip - perhaps I took too much sunscreen
hmm… maybe I took a little too much

How to photograph whale sharks

Learn how to photograph the distinctive patterning and scarring on whale shark here. To clarify, these are used to uniquely identify individuals for long-term, mark-recapture analysis.

From snorkeling partners to new friends:

You can also make some great friends! For example, my whale shark trip included an international mix. I went with Gabbi (from Sweden). I met up with Julian and Christie (from Germany), and we met Sarah there. All four are now friends!
  • I traveled with Gabbi all over the Philippines, and later visited her in Sweden.
  • After meeting Sarah that afternoon, we later met up to travel throughout Vietnam
  • I originally met Julian and Christie in Borneo. We went on to meet up in Singapore and all over the Philippines.
  • Then 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 in the Philippines. Great crew!
Getting ready for whale shark snorkeling in tiny Donsol, in The Philippines
In conclusion, swimming with whale sharks is an amazing and memorable experience. You’re swimming with whale sharks!  It’s definitely an experience you’ll never forget. Therefore I definitely recommend it!

Swimming with whale sharks in Mexico

Here’s more info on going swimming with whale sharks in Mexico in Isla Mujeres (a short ferry from Cancun) from Jack and Jill Travel.
If you’re craving even more photos, I also enjoyed these photos of snorkeling with whale sharks here: 1