Snorkeling with Whale Sharks in Donsol, Philippines

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

7 thoughts on “Snorkeling with Whale Sharks!”

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

    1. Hi Simone! Swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines is awesome but seasonal from this tiny island of Donsol when they’re reliably swimming through. As far as I know, Boracay doesn’t have places where there’s a high probability of seeing whale sharks.

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