Adventure Australia

The Best Place in the World to Swim with Whale Sharks

Swim with Whale Sharks at Ningaloo Reef

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.

Swim with Whale Sharks at Ningaloo Reef

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!

Diving with Manta Rays

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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Swim with Whale Sharks

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20 Comments

  • Reply
    Anda
    March 6, 2016 at 4:23 pm

    My husband would appreciate your post very much because he is a scuba diver. I know hid did a night dive to see the Manta Ray in Hawaii once. I don’t dive, but even if I did I don’t think I’d be after sharks or whales. They look too scary, even if technically there is little chance they may attacked.

    • Reply
      sjcleaver
      March 7, 2016 at 8:19 am

      It’s definitely a great spot for diving, but so much less known than the Great Barrier Reef.

  • Reply
    Toni | 2 Aussie Travellers
    March 6, 2016 at 7:41 pm

    We haven’t made it over there yet but we’ve heard from several people who’ve been on the Ningaloo trips that they are excellent, thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Reply
    Janna on a Jaunt (@jannaonajaunt)
    March 6, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    I actually had the chance to swim with these gentle giants in Oslob but decided to skip it last minute. Ever since I started traveling, I try to be more conscious about what I do and although I still have a lot to learn, I think articles like this provide great insight so thank you!

    • Reply
      sjcleaver
      March 7, 2016 at 8:18 am

      Thanks so much Janna! I’ve also began to think more about this recently.

  • Reply
    mark
    March 6, 2016 at 9:04 pm

    I bet this is an amazing experience. I believe as long as its not hurting the wales its something that should be allowed on a small scale

  • Reply
    Tess Andrade
    March 6, 2016 at 10:48 pm

    I had just missed whale season when I travelled to Australia 🙁 It must be such a spectacular thing to witness. As for the no-touch policy, it’s frightening to see some people not sticking to this simple rule. I have witnessed it myself underwater. I just want to scream at them and say ‘leave them alone’! I hope I can make it back to Australia one day and swim with whale sharks….

    • Reply
      sjcleaver
      March 7, 2016 at 8:20 am

      Best of luck! It’s crazy that some people think it’s okay to touch wild animals, even when it’s forbidden.

  • Reply
    Meg Jerrard
    March 6, 2016 at 11:41 pm

    I’m so glad to read this post – I saw the title of it and expected it to be a list of places around the world, and was going to ask whether or not you recommended Ningaloo Reef specifically. We’ve just moved home to Australia so Perth is on the list and this is literally the thing I want to do the most.

    So I’m glad to hear that it’s a responsible wildlife encounter and one of the best in the world. Thanks!

    • Reply
      sjcleaver
      March 7, 2016 at 8:21 am

      That’s great to hear! The whole western coast of WA is a great place to visit if you do a road trip. I also highly recommend Karijini National Park!

  • Reply
    Katja
    March 7, 2016 at 12:05 am

    This is one of those activities that I have wanted to do for years! We missed out on Ningaloo when living in Australia but I’m hoping we’ll get to experience here in Mexico, where we now live, soon.

    • Reply
      sjcleaver
      March 7, 2016 at 8:21 am

      I’ve heard that you can do it in Mexico, but haven’t done it personally so can’t compare. Have a great time!

  • Reply
    Penny Sadler
    March 7, 2016 at 1:02 am

    I’ve not been snorkeling or diving in so long. This sounds like a lovely experience with not too many people and abundant wildlife to observe.

  • Reply
    Nisha
    March 7, 2016 at 1:21 am

    I don’t think I am ever going to swim a shark! I’ll happily be a chicken. 😛

  • Reply
    Rob
    March 7, 2016 at 3:23 pm

    Thank you for this article, my son really wants to swim with whale sharks, but after reading quite a few posts about the questionable tactics in the Philippines, I was questioning whether this is something I was comfortable doing. Now seeing that there are responsible tour operators I think we can make it happen!

    • Reply
      sjcleaver
      March 7, 2016 at 3:43 pm

      It’s glad to see that you care about the operators. There are definitely well-run, responsible operators out there!

  • Reply
    Bill
    July 4, 2016 at 12:36 pm

    I could not refrain from commenting. Very well written!

  • Reply
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  • Reply
    Wander Deeper
    November 6, 2017 at 8:33 pm

    We absolutely love this post! We couldn’t agree more with your tips on swimming with Whale Sharks. Having lived and worked there for a year, we may have even been the ones who took you out on your tour!! We would love to offer a couple of added bits of advice (if we may!) In that, if you’re visiting Coral Bay, you must do the drift snorkel from Paradise Beach – of course, it’s free and any local or receptionist can tell you where to begin. It drifts you right back into the bay as you float across huge lavender and cabbage coral patches that are hundreds of years old amidst an array of beautiful fish and if you’re lucky, a turtle or two! There’s also a 2,000 year old coral bombie, called Ayres Rock that you can swim or SUP board out to from the bay; a massive coral that is simply teaming with life. (Just a note to all those newbies out there, please don’t stand on it & remember.. look don’t touch.)
    We adored living there for a year, it will always hold a special place in our hearts.
    Cape Range, a national park just past Exmouth, also has a stunning snorkel spot called Osprey Bay which we stayed at many times, we even saw a cow tailed ray and white tip reef shark there, as well as a juvenile wobbiegong! The whole Reef is teaming with life, it’s just an awe to behold such a flourishing ecosystem.. WD.x

    • Reply
      sjcleaver
      November 6, 2017 at 10:27 pm

      Thank you so much for leaving so many wonderful tips! I loved the area and am hoping to return with my current partner one day, and will have to do the Paradise Beach snorkel especially.

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