Swimming with whale sharks has exploded onto the backpacker scene in recent years, quickly becoming a bucket list activity for many. There are a handful of hotspots all over the world to dive and snorkel with whale sharks, including one along the Banana Pancake Trail and a couple of others just a short detour away.
Whilst the desire to snorkel (or dive) with the world’s largest fish is understandable, the rapidly growing interest in this activity has arguably disrupted the natural world and some backpackers claim that certain destinations should be off-limits for swimming with whale sharks.
If you are considering swimming or diving with whale sharks on your backpacking trip to Asia, first pat yourself on the back for reading this article. An informed traveller is a responsible traveller!
We are going to give you the lowdown on everything you need to know about this practice, from the best places to swim with whale sharks to the ethical concerns which sway the opinions of many.
To help get the most up to date opinions on this topic, we reached out to our wonderful Facebook community, full of travellers like you! They told us their first-hand experiences which helped us put together this article.
Whale Sharks: An Overview
Whale sharks hold the title for the largest fish in the sea and can grow up to 12 metres long. They are so big, that if you compare them to an American style school bus, you wouldn’t find much difference in the sizes!
Like whales, these sharks travel a long way, although there is still little known about their migration patterns. This does mean that they appear in different hotspots all over the world depending on the season.
Whale sharks are filter feeders which means that they can’t bite. They take in food through their massive mouths, using a filter system to separate the water from the small fish, shrimp and plankton that they live on.
Like with many sharks, the whale shark is endangered. This is mostly thanks to their fins being considered a delicacy in Asia. If you see shark fin on offer around Asia, do not partake. This is not only disturbing the ocean balance but actively pushing many species of shark towards extinction.
Are Whale Sharks Dangerous to Humans?
You may have already guessed that because whale sharks are filter feeders, they have no desire to eat humans. Whilst the mouth of a whale shark can be up to 1.5m wide, their throats are very narrow which means you wouldn’t even be swallowed accidentally. Good to know!
Whale sharks are commonly referred to as the sea’s ‘gentle giants’ partly because of their diet and also because they are such slow swimmers. With an average swim speed of just 3mph, their movements are easy to predict and you should be able to swim alongside them comfortably.
When it comes to staying safe when swimming with whale sharks, remember to stay away from the creature’s tail. A 4 m distance is usually recommended around this area to ensure swimmer safety. Although these sharks are not predators, they still have powerful tails which can leave you feeling more than a little winded if you get hit!
Swimming with Whale Sharks: Ethical Concerns
Whilst swimming with whale sharks is growing ever more popular, there is debate as to whether this a practice which can ever be done ethically. In some areas, the whale sharks are fed to guarantee sightings. This disrupts their natural migration routes which provides an artificial experience.
Whilst there are rules about keeping your distance from whale sharks, these are regularly flouted by tourists who want to get up close to the animals to touch them and take selfies. These actions are officially forbidden but some report that guides rarely enforce these rules.
As to whether swimming with whale sharks is ethical, sadly, there is no clear cut answer. It all depends on your point of view. This is what a few of our Facebook community had to say:
“I went to the Philippines with the hope of swimming with whale sharks but once I’d heard what it’s like decided it just wouldn’t feel right to participate. A local told me that there are some issues with the whale sharks getting damage to their skin due to the fact they usually don’t go that near the surface frequently in the wild but due to the constant feeding to keep them there for tourists, they stay near the surface too long. Plus the whole thing just felt horridly “snap a picture and go” and so I feel it misses a lot of the true real beauty of seeing a wild animal. People are putting themselves before the animals (as usual).” – Rach.
“Don’t do it … it’s disgusting… like a circus… we went and saw how it’s handled and refused to do it… our conscience wouldn’t let us” – Michelle.
“I understand why it isn’t ethical, but my opinion is it is not the worst thing in the animal world that is going on. They’re in their natural habitat and it generates a lot of tourism and jobs for people in the Philippines. If it all suddenly stopped wouldn’t that actually be worse as the whale sharks have now been conditioned to go to that exact spot every day for food?” – Laura.
“We went [to Southern Leyte] and it was great. Very ethical and they only went with one boat. We were about twelve people going into the water and they were very strict that you’re not allowed to touch the whale sharks. Since they are not feeding the whale sharks and they are wild animals there was no guarantee to see any, but we were lucky and saw four of them. Really good experience!” – Elin.
Swimming with Whale Sharks Ethically: Checklist
1. Do your research. (Well done, you’re checking off that one already!)
2. Choose your destination carefully. Aim to swim somewhere which has a no feeding and touching policy. See our analysis of places in Asia to swim with whale sharks below.
3. Leave your suncream in your hostel unless you have a marine friendly one. Suncream chemicals can damage marine life so make sure you look for one without negative effects.
4. Do not block the path of the whale shark when swimming.
5. Whilst guidance varies in place to place, it is recommended to stay at least three metres from the side of the whale shark and 4 metres from the tail.
6. Don’t touch the animals as they can become injured and pick up infections.
7. Never use the flash when taking photos.
8. Choose a tour which adheres to rules regarding maximum numbers of guests. A good guideline is no more than seven people with one whale at one time (including your guide).
Diving with Whale Sharks
It is possible to dive with whale sharks, however, in some areas such as Donsol in the Philippines, restrictions on diving are in place as it is easier to keep track of visitor numbers this way. Make sure to check in the area you are visiting and speak to specialise dive shops for more information.
Where Can You Swim With Whale Sharks in Asia? – 6 Choices
1. Cendrawasih Bay, Papua, Indonesia
Whale sharks can be found year-round in Cendrawasih Bay, Indonesia, although this area is difficult to access if you are not on a liveaboard dive trip. Most of these visit from August to October, making this the peak season.
Whale sharks demonstrate an unusual feeding pattern in this area. They suck on the underside of fishing nets, extracting small fish. When this first began happening, the whale sharks would become tangled in the nets, so the local fisherman began feeding them off the side of the bagans instead. Therefore, it is possible to pretty much guarantee sightings in the area.
Average cost per trip: 17 million IDR for a liveaboard (1160 USD)
Ethics: It is hard to determine whether or not Cendrawasih Bay is an ethical destination for travellers who want to swim with whale sharks. It is hugely under-visited, partly due to the cost of the liveaboards and also because of the remoteness of the area. This means there is no formal code of conduct in place although the WWF is working with the Indonesian authorities to establish rules for visitors.
The whale sharks are fed in this location which is problematic. However, the area is hugely important to conservationists who have been able to study the whale sharks in more detail here than anywhere else.
Although the Maldives is usually out of backpacker price range, affordable trips have been cropping up and if you’re lucky, you may just find yourself in this island paradise. You could be forgiven for assuming that swimming with whale sharks would attract far fewer crowds on the Maldives, owing to its supposed exclusivity, however that is not always the case.
South Ari Atoll
Whale sharks are most commonly spotted in the area around South Ari Atoll. This is where the smaller whale sharks feed, staying for around 2 months. It is possible to see whale sharks year-round in the Maldives, however, this can be more difficult in May – September because it is the wet season and the weather is not always reliable.
Average cost per trip: $100 US+ for a day trip
Ethics: It is undoubtedly promising that Dhigurah Island is home to the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP). Their main aim is to study the species and protect the ecosystems and biodiversity.
Despite this, there has been the claim by some that there are still an awful lot of tourists who can swim with the whale sharks at any one time. The best place to book a swim with whale sharks experience in the Maldives is with your accommodation provider, so the best thing you can do to ensure an ethical experience is speak to those offering the tours and make sure the trip aligns with the ethical checklist above.
3. Oslob, CebuPhilippines
Perhaps the most popular whale shark swimming spot in the whole of Asia, Oslob (in the Philippines) is a destination which has come under fire in recent years. The main reason for this is because the whale sharks do not naturally migrate here, they are enticed by the offer of food from local fishermen.
Average cost per trip: 1000 PHP (20 USD)
Ethics: These trips might be the cheapest that you’ll find but there is a good reason for this. The area is so oversaturated with tourists that the operators can afford to drop the price.
The feeding of the animals disrupts their natural migration patterns which many scientists claim can greatly harm the animals and impact their ability to survive in the wild. The whale sharks have come to associate boats with food which is particularly problematic when you consider the main threat to these endangered species is the trade for their fins.
The association with boats also causes the whale sharks to get regular injuries from propeller strikes. This happens when they come to the surface to get the food.
We asked our Facebook community about their experiences swimming with sharks in Oslob, this is what a cross-section said:
“I did not feel it was ethical at all. I went to Oslob. Would not go again. Hundreds and hundreds of people diving near them, touching them, basically swarming them. It was literally like a conveyer belt of people just constantly streaming past them. They said not to touch or go near them, but plenty of people were doing it anyway and they didn’t do a lot to stop people. It was actually kinda heartbreaking for me to see personally.” – Alex.
“I did it in Oslob in November 2019. Woke up at 5:30 am but actually went for snorkelling at around 6:30 am. Meanwhile, we were waiting they gave some instructions not to touch, not to wear sunscreen and keep a distance. If you don’t follow [the rules], they’ll fine you or something else. My boat group was cautious and the boatmen would direct us to swim around the boat if they saw we went too far or whale sharks coming close by. If everyone follows instructions I think it’s ethical. I’d do it again.” – Theara.
“We did twice and it was in Oslob, it was a nice experience. The rules are very strict and proper guidelines were given to the swimmers but the problem is that some tourists don’t follow instructions/guidelines. Swimmers should remain a 3-5m distance from the whales but some swim closer which is not good for the whales. Some even touched them.” – Jennalie.
One of our readers directed us to this video for a real look at the Oslob whale shark experience. Skip to 19.21 for the arrival in Oslob.
4. Donsol, Sorsogon, Philippines
Donsol is often touted as a much more ethical place to swim with whale sharks in the Philippines. The best time to see them here is from December through to May as they are in the Philippines on their natural migration routes. There is a no diving with the sharks rule in Donsol but you can still snorkel.
Average cost per trip: 1200 PHP (25 USD)
Ethics: As Donsol is on the migration route for the whale sharks, they are choosing to be there and not being baited by food. There are strict rules when swimming with them and sightings are not guaranteed (as they shouldn’t be with any animal in the wild)!
There is a maximum of six swimmers per boat (plus drivers and guide). You are not allowed to touch the whale sharks and swimmers are told to stay at least 3 metres away from the head and body and 4 metres away from the tail. As Donsol is now known for its more ethical approach, they do have a problem with demand and overcrowding.
5. Sogod Bay, Southern Leyte, Philippines
For the most authentic and arguably ethical experience, head to Southern Leyte. Sightings of whale sharks are not guaranteed but places like Sogod Bay have an excellent track record for sightings. December – May are the best months of the year for swimming with whale sharks.
Average cost per trip: 3000 PHP (60 USD)
Ethics: Much like in Donsol, there are strict rules regarding swimming with whale sharks in Southern Leyte. No diving is permitted and there is a strict no-touching rule. None of the fish are fed and as only small groups are permitted to enter the water with the whales, all of these rules are strictly enforced. Owing to the popularity of Oslob (for cheap trips) and Donsol (for being more ethically friendly), Southern Leyte has not yet had to endure the same influx of travellers.
Peter’s Dive Resort located in Padre Burgos has been recommended to us by several people and has a great ethical ethos.
A few of our readers have swum with whale sharks in Southern Leyte and no-one had anything bad to say about the experience! These are a few comments about their experiences:
“I snorkelled with whale sharks in Sogod Bay, Southern Leyte, and it was amazing! It’s not guaranteed you will see them as they are migrating but they don’t get fed or interfered with. I went in early December and was very lucky, I lost count of how many we saw. You can stay in the National Park for 2 hours max, there was just our boat (maybe 14 people) for most of the time then another arrived from another company as we were leaving. The crew spot the sharks and you jump in, they are curious and come for a look at you and then swim away. No touching allowed.” – Laura
“I went to Southern Leyte and absolutely loved it. I dive a lot as well and I love to see the whale sharks in the wild, so because of that and because I think its animal abuse to feed them and disturb their natural behaviour, Oslob was an absolute no go. It would have been convenient but I don’t want that at all, so me and my partner went to Castle Resort on Southern Leyte. They take you out on a small boat, we were with 4 guests in total, to snorkel somewhere first. After that, we went to pick up the spotter boats and all together we went to the bay where they last spotted whale sharks. The four of us were the only people in the water and 2 massive whale sharks hung around for around an hour (just swimming there, we didn’t feed them anything). It was amazing and felt really natural. I would definitely recommend going there.” – Corina.
6. Koh Tao, Thailand
Koh Tao is THE spot to dive in Thailand so it probably comes as no surprise that it is a great place to spot and swim with whale sharks. They are frequently sighted around Shark Island, South-West Pinnacle and the Chumphon Pinnacle which are dive sites nearby. The latter two options are best for divers but Shark Island is great for snorkelling.
Whale sharks tend to be sighted most during March, April, May, September and October.
Unlike in the places listed above, there are no tours which specifically advertise swimming with whale sharks (to our knowledge – please let us know if you know of some)! You have the highest chance of seeing them if you are diving in one of the above locations. Prices for diving in Koh Tao vary but both courses and fun dives are generally good value money.
Swimming with Whale Sharks: Our Verdict!
Swimming with whale sharks can be a magical experience and offers a chance to become a part of nature. However, it is important to remember that these animals shouldn’t exist solely for our entertainment and that they deserve respect.
Sadly, in some destinations, with Oslob being the most notable of these, it looks like the welfare of these magnificent creatures has been pushed to the side. Instead, profit takes precedent. Whilst the desire to swim with the world’s largest fish is completely understandable, it has never been more important to the survival of the species to make good choices when it comes to this kind of animal tourism.
After a very lengthy discussion in our Facebook group, it seems that Southern Leyte in the Philippines is currently the most ethical place to swim with whale sharks in Asia. This was also reflected in our research.
However, whilst local authorities need to crack down on unnatural feeding and limit tourist numbers, the onus should be on all of us, as responsible travellers, to do our research and make the right decisions when it comes to interacting with animals.