Recently, there’s been a lot of controversy online about swimming with whale sharks. This has mainly centred upon the experience on offer in Oslob in the Philippines. This opportunity to swim with whale sharks relies upon the feeding of whale sharks and doesn’t feature the best care and safety, for both patrons and the whale sharks. Overcrowding is a feature, plus there’s been numerous reports of people being encouraged to touch the whale sharks. (Read more about the situation in Oslob here and here.)
However, just because some operators have a bad reputation, doesn’t mean that all swimming with whale shark operations should be avoided. Even other operators in the Philippines (such as in Donsol) have far better practices, and there’s other locations around the world where it’s possible to swim with whale sharks. I’ve previously had an excellent experience swimming with whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef in Australia, and I want to tell you why I think it’s the best place in the world to have this amazing encounter with these giant creatures.
1. High Likelihood of Success of Swimming with Whale Sharks
Whale sharks are only a seasonal visitor to Ningaloo Reef, which is located halfway along the Western Australia coastline (in between Perth and Broome). They generally migrate to the waters between April and July, so you need to visit during this period to head out on a whale shark trip (which is also the best time of year weather wise, avoiding the heat and cyclone season over summer). However, it’s very likely that you will see and swim with the whale sharks, as spotter planes operate overhead, and notify the different boats down below of when they spot whale sharks. If you do happen to not see any whale sharks, usually you can return on another trip for free, but this is quite rare! The downside is that whale shark trips are quite expensive, to cover the costs of running the spotter planes.
2. Ecologically Sound Practices
The practices for interacting with wildlife in Australia are some of the best in the world. This extends to swimming with whale sharks. It’s a condition of the licenses granted to boats by the Department of Parks and Wildlife that only a maximum of ten people can snorkel with a whale shark at a time. This means that multiple boats aren’t dropping off swimmers at the same time. And if your boat has more than ten snorkelers, you’ll need to take turns.
This isn’t usually a problem, as the whale sharks tend to just slowly drift along in the water, feeding on plankton, rather than swim quickly. It also means an ideal experience for you, as the waters aren’t crowded, and you can just chill out and enjoy the experience of being up close with one of these gentle giants. A guide will also always be in the water with you, and more crew will be ready on deck if you need assistance.
There’s also a strict no touch policy in operation, with swimmers not even allowed to approach the whale shark closer than 3m or 4m around the tail, meaning it’s easy for your guide to police and ensure the whale shark is treated with respect. Also keep in mind that you are not allowed cameras on selfie-sticks.
3. Spot and Swim with Other Wildlife as Well!
On the whale shark trip I went on, we swam with three different whale sharks. But that wasn’t the only fun part of the day. On the way out there (and to check that everyone is competent at snorkelling), your boat will stop at the reef for an initial snorkel or dive. I took advantage of the opportunity to go diving, and went diving at a popular site known as the “Manta Ray Cleaning Station”. True to its name, we spotted some manta rays hanging out here and getting a clean off the small fish, while we were swimming around the ocean floor, just metres away.
Other creatures that you are likely to spot include dolphins, dugongs, turtles, and whales, particularly towards the latter part of the whale shark season, as it moves into the whale migration season. You may be able to tick something else off your bucket list! Additionally, despite being not as well known at the Great Barrier Reef, the coral reefs are also spectacularly beautiful!
More Info: Most whale shark trips leave from Exmouth, with a few from the smaller village of Coral Bay. To start planning your trip, check out the excellent website of the Ningaloo Visitor Centre. They can provide information on operators offering you the chance to swim with whale sharks at Exmouth and swim with whale sharks at Coral Bay.
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