Swimming with whale sharks is becoming an increasingly popular activity, with images of these gentle giants all over social media from Mexico, to the Philippines and Australia. But it is important to consider how ethical your experience swimming with them will be. I snorkelled with whale sharks a few years ago from the island of Holbox, north of the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. This was probably one of the best experiences of my life and something I am so pleased that I did in Mexico!
Having had such an incredible time with whale sharks, I have been desperate to go again and recently looked into other locations to do this, specifically the Philippines. Only to find upon research that in certain areas, such as Oslob many of the whale sharks are baited with krill by fisherman, creating a reliance on humans for food which is not good for them or for the eco system.
I read stories of boats creating a circle around the shark essentially trapping them, sharks being bumped by the boats, ridden on by tourists, touched and too many people being allowed in the water at once with the animals. Upon reading all of this I wanted to share with you my experiences of diving in Holbox, which bares no resemblance to these stories and is a place where the whale sharks are protected and a more natural encounter can be experienced!
WHY CHOOSE MEXICO
Several years ago the World Wildlife Organisation began working with the local fisherman in the area to create guidelines for taking tourists to view and swim with the whale sharks. As such there are very strict rules about seeing whale sharks and from my experience I can confirm they firmly enforced.
WHAT TO EXPECT
If you choose Holbox, you will take a boat ride which can be over 2 hours straight out into the ocean. Deep water, not the shallows we are now seeing these animals in in other countries. You will likely have 6-12 people in your boat, unless you choose a private boat which is recommended if you would like more time with the whale sharks. And I would advise you to take some sea sickness tablets before you leave, as it can be a very bumpy journey and several people (including me) were sick on our boat.
Finding a whale shark feels much like finding a needle in a haystack! You will boat around looking out into the vastness of the ocean, no land in site hoping for a sighting. Once you do find one, which hopefully you will, then the guide will remind you of all the rules before you are allowed to enter the water. This may be the second of even third time you are told the rules. One of the principle rules being do not touch the whale shark!
Only two people are allowed in the water with a guide at any one time. This is so that the whale shark is not disturbed by your presence. If more than one boat arrives to view that same shark, again no persons from that other boat will be allowed to enter the water until it is clear. Plus the boats make efforts to stay well away from the sharks so as not to crowd them.
If you are lucky like I was, then you may only have a few people in your boat and have plenty of time to enjoy swimming with the whale shark and be able to go back into the water several times. However, I have been told others have only been able to go once or twice into the water so make sure you have your camera ready the first time! If you are especially lucky, you will get to see more than one whale shark. I recommend giving yourself a few days in case you do not see any on your first day or you love the experience so much that, like me, you go back again the next day!
WHEN TO GO
Between June and September the largest aggregation of whale sharks are seen around Isla Mujeres, with many sightings around the less touristic island of Holbox and more recently Isla Contoy. I went to Holbox at the end of May / beginning June and was fortunate to see three whale sharks on day 1 and one whale shark on day 2. This is also a great time to visit the island when the weather is beautiful and you can enjoy many other activities like kite boarding and kayaking and see plenty of flamingos and dolphins.
I hope this post has inspired you to see the whale sharks in an environment that does not interfere with them, bait them or cause harm or distress. These are wild animals and we are fortunate to be able to view them in the natural habitat. Please make sure that you fully research your trip before planning and find a country that protects these beautiful animals.
And if you are interested in seeing them in the Philippines, then Bonsol in the Sorsogon province of the Philippines is also a protected area for whale sharks where the Donsol Whale Shark Research and Ecotourism Sustainability Program was set up with the help of WWF Philippines in 1999. I am planning a trip there in April and will share my experiences there when I visit!
Please share you own tips on how to become a responsible tourist, and any other advice for swimming with whale sharks in the comments below. And please pin this article!