One Year of Whale Sharks in the Most Beautiful Places on Earth
In general, whale shark migration follows ancient patterns. However, their migration and the food sources that influence it are directly affected by seasonal and other climate changes. Additionally, sometimes whale sharks are just beneath the surface, easy to spot from a boat or in the water snorkeling, and at other times they are located at depths too deep even for divers. As with all wildlife, whale sharks can be elusive, but the experience of viewing or swimming with these magnificent fish is well worth the effort. And following whale sharks will bring you to the most beautiful spots on the planet.
The Philippines: Donsol Bay
Trip Tips: Donsol Bay, Luzon, Philippines
When: December to May
Where: Luzon in north of Philippines
How: From Manila, short flight to Legaspi.
Why Responsible: Former subsistence fishermen turned guides. No diving allowed to protect whale sharks.
Secrets: Donsol Bay attracts the largest whale sharks in the Philippines
From Whale Shark Hunting to Whale Shark Tourism - and Conservation
This one-time fishing village at the southern tip of Luzon Island in Sorsogon Provence, Philippines was historically dependent on subsistence whale shark hunting. But in 1998 the local government decided there was a better way to ensure the economic wellbeing of its people.
With help from the World Wildlife Fund and others whale shark hunters became marine life spotters, tour guides, and eco-system protectors. The new local marine tourism industry contributed to raising living standards and proving to the local community that live marine life is more beneficial to their families than hunting and fishing.
Donsol Bay is a Whale Shark Protected Area.
The bay itself has a "no diving - snorkeling only" rule. Not only is this rule good for the sharks, but it is great for shark viewing too. Whale sharks regularly come to the surface to feed. As long as snorkelers keep their distance, the sharks seem quite content to share their feeding grounds, making for some wonderful, close-up and extended viewing.
Working Toward Sustainability
The World Wildlife Foundation continues to work with the village helping to develop additional responsible wildlife viewing opportunities (see below). In fact, according to WWF's Project Manager in the Philippines, Mr. Raul Burce, "Anchored on the three principles of sustainable ecotourism, natural asset protection, direct community benefit and enhanced visitor experience, Donsol's community-based whale shark ecotourism program stands as one of the best sustainable wildlife interaction offerings in Southeast Asia."
While you are there, do not miss the opportunity to take an evening mangrove firefly cruise! Can't envision what a firefly tour could be? Imagine a dark sky, a warm breeze and millions of tiny stars flickering all around you. It is magical.
Marine Life Bonus: Manta Rays and zillions of colorful reef fish.
Wildlife Bonus on Land and in the Air on Luzon Island, Philippines: Fire Flies! And birds, including the endemic whiskered pitta.
Not All Whale Shark Experiences in the Philippines are Responsible.
There are well-known areas near to Donsol that regularly bate and feed whale sharks to encourage them for the tourists. This is detrimental to the whale sharks for many reasons including:
1) Altered Natural Behavior: Feeding alters the animal's natural behavior.
2) Food-borne Sickness: The food offered is not regulated or supervised for purity or quality.
3) Scarring & Damage: Feeding encourages the whale shark to come too close to the boats and many show scarring.
4) Death: When food is associated with divers, bubbles and boats, whale sharks become more vulnerable to poaching and serious harm by propeller boats. This has highly alarmed researchers.
This appeal was released in 2012, the practice continues today. We highly recommend that you stay far removed from Oslob, Philippines or other locations that encourage irresponsible and dangerous behavior.
Gladdin Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve,
Trip Tips: Gladdin Spit & Silk Cayes Reserve, Belize
When: March -June Peak: April - May
Where: 22 mi / 36 km off the coast of Placencia, Belize
How: Only licensed guides can bring you to swim with whale sharks.
Why Responsible: This is a protected conservation area.
Secrets: 10 days after the the full moon is the best time. Marine birds nest in the islands.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Whale sharks congregate at Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve, located on the Belize Barrier Reef System (UNESCO World Heritage Site). This is the only place known in the world where the snappers aggregate to spawn; whale sharks follow them here to feed on the snapper eggs.
Follow the Moon: The sharks can usually be seen from March to June, with April to May being the peak months. Traditionally, the best time to see whale sharks is from two days before to 10 days after the full moon.
Marine Life Bonus: Caribbean reef plus three other shark species, bottlenose dolphins, 6 ray species including both spotted eagle and manta rays, 4 sea turtle species including the hawksbill sea turtle, large fish such as cubera snappers, dog snappers, mutton snappers, barracudas, and colorful coral and reef fish such as the parrotfish.
Critically Endangered Coral: Critically endangered coral species can also be seen here: staghorn and elkhorn coral. Lamark's sheet, elliptical star, star coral, fire coral, montastraea corals, and rough cactus coral.
Wildlife on Land and in the Air in Belize : Iguana, and rainforest species: puma, giant anteater. Sea birds nest on the islands.
Read more about Galddin Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve, Belize
Ningaloo Marine Park, Australia
Trip Tips: Ningaloo Marine Park, Australia
When: mid March - July
Who: The whole family.
Where: Exmouth. Tip of the Northwest Cape, Western Australia.
How: Perth to Learmonth Airport, shuttle bus to Exmouth.
Why Responsible: Home of Ecocean where Whale Shark research was born.
Secrets: Sea turtles nest here! Reef shark nursery close by.
Whale Sharks, Whales, Sea Turtles and a Festival, Too!
This UNESCO World Heritage listed marine park is situated along the Ningaloo Coast on Australia’s north - western coast. Whale sharks are a big part of the responsible tourism centered economy of Exmouth, a small town home to some of the earliest whale shark research. Mass spawning of the local corals bring the whale sharks here from mid–March until mid–July to feed. And don't forget to explore the amazing karsts and caves that make up
Festival Time is Family Time: Plan your visit to include the Ningaloo Whale Shark Festival! Exmouth had held a small, vibrant festival featuring artists, live music, great food, even a "fun run" celebrating the reef and whale sharks on and off for years. They grew so popular that community members and local business people expanded it to 3 days and made it an annual event of education and celebration.
The Whale Shark festival is held in May. Bring the whole family and take time to see the landlubber wildlife too.
Come For Whale Sharks - Stay for Whales
The later part of Ningaloo’s whale shark season overlaps with the humpback whale arrival (June to November). If you find yourself here at other times of the year, you can still catch the sea turtles nesting on Ningaloo’s beaches (November to March). Watch their hatchlings emerge (January to March).
Reef Shark Nursery. There is also a natural nursery for juvenile reef sharks a short distance from Exmouth near the town of Coral Bay at Skeleton Beach. They can be seen from September to February.
Marine Life Bonus: Dugong, manta ray, whale: humpback, Minke and blue, dolphins: bottlenose, spinner, and Indo–Pacific humpback; sea turtles including green sea, loggerhead, and two other species, and at least four additional shark species: blacktip reef, whitetip reef, and grey reef sharks.
Wildlife Bonus on Land: Emus, Kangaroos.
Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Trip Tips: Isla Mujeres, Mexico
When: June - September, July for the Whale Shark Festival
Where: Off the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula,
Who: Bring the family
How: Cancun airport, ferry to Isla Mujeres.
Why Responsible: Over fishing & shark hunting economy turned to community-wide ecotourism & conservation. Most businesses locally owned.
Secret 1: Visit Tortugranja , the turtle sanctuary on the island's west coast.
Isla Mujeres, off Mexico's Yucatan coast, is part of the Mesoamerican or Great Mayan Reef.
The Moon Goddess' Island
1500 year old legend has it that Ixchel, Mayan goddess of the moon, fertility, medicine - and happiness - made this her home.
According to island stories, it was the light shining from her Temple that helped sailors navigate the seas. When the explorer Francisco Fernandez de Cordoba "discovered" the island in 1517 its only inhabitants were Ixchel's priestess and her female retinue. Cordoba dubbed it Isla Mujeres which means, "Island of Women".
Sometime between 1517 and 2000 much of the the island's local economy drifted into subsistence fishing and whale shark hunting. All that is changing as the island turns away from killing the great fish and moves successfully toward responsible marine tourism.
John Vader, Ceviche Tours co-founder with local islander, Louis Refugio "Cuco" Sanchez says it best: "Instead of selling a fish, if you bring people to snorkel with that fish, you can make a sustainable living off of the life of the animal". Indeed - and have some fun too! Today, Isla Mujeres is one of the world's favorite places to swim with whale sharks! Read our tips on Isla Mujeres here.
Ixchel's "Happy" Influence
Ixchel's influence can still be felt in the island's relaxed and happy atmosphere. Isla Mujeres is less than 4.5 miles (7km) long and perfectly located just a ferry ride across the bay from the more built up and sophisticated Cancun.
Take a boat tour or snorkel and swim with the great whale sharks who glide through the water scooping up the spawn of thousands of colorful fish. And do not miss the annual Whale Shark Festival! Bring along the kids and their grandparents too - it is fun for the whole family.
Marine Life Bonus: Sail fish, sting ray, nurse shark, and green, hawkbill and loggerhead sea turtles.
Wildlife on Land: Iguana, trejone (a type of badger)
Nosy Be, Madagascar
Trip Tips: Nosy Be, Madagascar
When: October - December
Where: off the North-west coast of Madagascar, Africa
How: Fly in from Antananrivo Airport, Madagascar or from Johannesburg, SA
Why Responsible: Supports wildlife conservation efforts and local population.
Secrets: Watch the sundown over the ocean from Mont Passat, the island's highest point.
The island of Nosy Be (Malagasy for "Big Island") is the largest island forming Madagascar's (the world's 5th largest island) Nosy Be Archipelago. But it is the reason for its other nick-name that stays with you long after you leave: Nosy Manitra, the perfumed island. The heady scents of ylang yland, vanilla, sugar cane fill the air.
Nosy Be's clear blue-green waters are home to one of the planet's most biodiverse reef systems thanks to its 300 reef-building coral species and the rich waters of the South Equatorial Current.
The South Equatorial current, which originates in Indonesia, flows west across the Indian Ocean. When it reaches Madagascar, it splits forming the Northern Mozambique Channel where it deposits fantastic Indonesia connected marine life - including whale sharks, rays, and rare whales like the Omura's and Brydes.
In 2007 researchers from the World Wildlife Foundation discovered Nosy Be's high concentration of whale sharks. Then political instability forced the study to halt. By 2015 the news was better: researchers were back studying marine life. It was also worse: Off Nosy Be whale sharks had declined 50% since 1991 (whale sharks numbers fell 79% along the southern coast of Mozambique).
Recently, The Madagascar Whale Shark Project, a collaboration between the Marine Megafauna Foundation, the Florida International University, and Les Baleines Rand’eau’s non-profit Les Baleines Ass’eau formed to study the situation. Be sure to visit them at Madirokely on Nosy Be. Look up MMF Founder Dr. Simon Pierce or Project Leader Stella Diamant. They may have a Citizen Science project you can participate in while there. Or they can fill you in on the whale sharks, manta rays, and other marine life (and maybe have a drink with you on the beach).
Marine Life Bonus: Humpback whale, Bryde's whale, Omura's whale, manta and mobula rays, spinner dolphins, Thursiop dolphins, and green turtles and leatherback turtles.
Land and Bird Life on Nosy Be island, Madagascar: Although Madagascar has been called the Indian Ocean's Galapagos and "a hotspot of biodiversity" historically the country has not been a hotspot of conservation. Its unique endemic wildlife still continues to decline. But conservation efforts are beginning to improve. Responsible wildlife tourism practices are helping. On Nosy Be check out Lokobe Reserve for the endangered black lemurs found only here. NOT RESPONSIBLE: Stay away from venues that encourage feeding or handling wildlife.
Mafia Island, Tanzania
Trip Tips: Mafia Island, Tanzania
When: October - Feb
Where: Off the coast of Tanzania
How: 1 hour flight from Dar A Salaam, Tanzania.
Why Responsible: Marine tourism is a big part of the local economy.
Secret: Love to Kayak? Get one at Kinasi or Lua cheia and explore the little islands around Mafia.
New "Discovery" is Ancient Treasure! Whale sharks at Mafia Island, Tanzania may be new news for the world, but not to the locals who call them, Papa Shilingi. The name means "coin shark" for the dots that decorate their bodies and look like precious coins.
Speaking of names: contrary to its English connotation the name "Mafia" Island is thought to be derived from the Swahili for "Healthy dwelling place." That's a title the island lives up to. Relax. Take an evening walk on the beach, watch the stars make patterns on the water ...
Situated off the coast of Tanzania, Africa, Mafia Island sits in the Indian Ocean thirteen miles (21km) from the countries Rfufiji Delta on its east central coast. It is south of the island of Zanzibar (but not part of it) and far less touristy.
Mafia Island is surrounded by barrier reef making for some fantastic marine life sightings. On its southern end it part of the Mafia Island Marine Preserve, the largest marine preserve in the Indian Ocean. Divers here are treated to spectacular 15 meter high reef walls and plethora of marine life species.
A very responsible guide: Once on the island, look to Kitu Kiblu at Kilindoni for a responsible and unforgettable whale shark experience. Swim or snorkel with the whale sharks just for fun, or become a citizen scientist with your camera. Want to be one of their interns?
These whale sharks are surprising. The Mafia Island whale sharks have provided some unexpected data to researchers. The video above from our good friends at The Marine Megafauna Foundation was filmed by Steve De Neef during one their research field session there with Dr. Simon Pierce, Dr, Chris Rohmer, Alex Watts.
Fly into or out of Mafia Island by way of Selous (from Dar a Salaam) on the mainland and make time for a wildlife safari before or after your whale shark adventure.
Mafia Island Wildlife Bonus: Fruit bat, bushbabies and possibly even a small herd of hippopotomus.
Mafia Island Marine Life Bonus: 400+ vibrant fish species, green, hawksbill and other sea turtles, eagle rays, humpback whale, white tip reef shark, bottle nose and spinner dolphins.
Mafia Island Birds: Whimbrel, Black and white reef herons, bee eaters, plovers and other sea and shore birds.
Praia do Tofu, Tofo Beach, Mozambique
Trip Tips: Praia do Tofo, Mozambique
When November to March
Where: 14 mi/22km from the City of Inmambanne.
What: Small beach town (less than 100 small houses)
How: Maputo Airport, 7 hr drive to Praia do Tofu. Why Responsible: MMF works with fisherman & tour providers to ensure sustainable practices.
Secret: Home of MMF. For an insider's Whale Shark experience contact MMF about one of their Citizen Science projects.
Where World Class Fun is Turned into World Class Science
Mozambique has had an uneven recent history. However, there are efforts to restore its once vibrant tourist industry and its magnificent natural places – it also is one of the greatest destinations on the planet to view whale sharks.
Home of the Marine Megafauna Foundation
The Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF) has had a presence on Tofo Beach since 2009, in their words: "working along side the local community, local businesses and government to create a Mozambique where marine life and humans thrive together"
You may find Dr. Andrea Marshall here, known world wide as the Manta Queen after the BBC aired her documentary. Or "Whale Shark Whisperer", Dr. Simon J. Pierce who leads MMF's whale shark research. Today MMF is one of the world's most important research organizations for rays and whale sharks.. Their education program on Tofo has already turned over 1800 Mozambique children into Future Ocean Guardians training and encouraging the Island's young people to be protectors of the ocean.
Citizen Scientists Help Whale Sharks
The Marine Megafauna Foundation periodically offers special opportunities to join them in up-close marine megafauna research. Watch the video above. Although that particular opportunity is past we will keep our eyes open for others offered by this organization. But you don't have to wait to head to Tofo Beach.
The Land of Good People
Tofo Beach is not just about science. There is plenty of fun to be had touring off shore and diving or snorkeling, too. The famous Portuguese explorer, Vasco De Gama visited the city of Inhambane (14 miles / 23 km from Tofo Beach) in the early 15th Century. He liked the people so much he dubbed the city, "Terra de Boa Gente" or Land of Good People. Experience it for yourself.
Marine Life Bonus: Manta ray, eagle ray, devil ray, cow nosed ray, bottlenose dolphin, white tip reef shark, barracuda, and many reef fish including Spanish dancers.
Wildlife Bonus Wildlife on Land and in the Air in Mozambique: Mozambique has over 600 bird species; look for migratory shore birds and the beautiful Madagascar bee-eater.
Whale Sharks on the Road Less Traveled
La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico
Trip Tips: La Paz, Mexico
Where: Southern tip of Baja California Sur, Mexico
When: October to April Peak; November
Who: Families, kids over 6
How: Fly into la Paz
Why Responsible: Multiple tour operators & community cooperate to protect wildlife.
Secret: The Sea of Cortez has 900 islands, 244 have UNESCO Biosphere status.
Baja California is where desert (Sonoran) meets sea (the Pacific on its western coast and Sea of Cortes on its eastern side). The Baja California peninnsula is 755 miles (1250 km) of wonder. But the nature at its southern tip will fascinate you.
Baja's capital city of La Paz sits on shore line of the Sea of Cortes. La Paz means "Peace" in Spanish and the city peacefully keeps a comparatively low "glitz" profile, preferring to concentrate on becoming Mexico's leader in responsible nature tourism.
Mexico protects its whale sharks, but La Paz takes special interest in their welfare. Private boats are not allowed in whale shark areas. Whale shark encounters are only through licensed experience providers. Here snorkeling is encouraged, but diving is not permitted with whale sharks. Note: Expect the water to be here cold in winter, dipping to the upper 60's. You will want a thicker wet suite.
The World's Aquarium
That is what Jacques Cousteau called this incredible place. Whale sharks can be found here all year. However, the best (and most responsible) time to see them is when they congregate in the Cortes Sea from October to April. And the best location to see them is a short boat ride from the boardwalk. Magote is a sand barrier peninsula located opposite the city of La Paz. It has an ecosystem so crucial that the Ramsar Convention listed it as an internationally important wetland. A new golf course there is highly controversial.
Duel Species Citizen Science: Combine your whale shark swimming with a mission to study black sea turtles. Contact us for more information.
Marine Life Bonus: Grey whale (Magdalena Bay, on the Pacific Ocean side), California brown sea lion, harbor porpoise, common dolphin, manta ray, sea turtles.
Land Wildlife Bonus: the combination of desert, wetland, and shoreline ecosystems make for some interesting bird watching. Numerous iguanas, lizard and gecko species, badger, ringtail, black Jackrabbits and more.
Bird Watching in La Paz: Look for 14 heron and egret species, pelican, magnificent frigate birds, boobies, plovers, woodpeckers, and even warblers.
Tips for Smart Whale Shark Viewing
Preparing for Your (Responsible) Whale Shark Adventure
In order to view whale sharks along side them in their habitat, you need to be a good, strong, and experienced swimmer. This species likes open water, read: ocean. Even though they are slow swimmers, it’s still a challenge to keep up with them due to the ocean currents.
Best Practices for the Responsible Wildlife Tourist
Watch this video reminder from the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program, but be sure to consult our Responsible Whale Shark Swimming Chapter! Your actions make a difference for wildlife survival.
Please check out the Whale Shark Field Guide Chapter 3 for more Responsible Whale Shark Swimming ideas.
Simon J. Pierce PhD : Co-founder and Principal Scientist for the Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF) , Science advisor for Wildbook for Whale Sharks & Director of WildMe, Member IUCN Shark Specialist Group Follow @Simonpierce See his marine photography. Follow @MarineMegafauna