Seeing whale sharks (Rhincodon Typus) in the wild is an experience rivalled by no other marine animal encounter. Their sheer size, grace and mystery is mesmerizing and if you are lucky enough to get “eyeballed” on the way past, that moment will stay with you forever!
It is claimed the biggest fish in the sea can grow to 18 metres in length (although the largest recorded was just over 12 metres) and can live between 80-130 years. They have the ability to dive to sub 1,000 metres and thanks to satellite tagging technology, we know they have been known to migrate 12,000 miles. They are sometimes solitary and sometimes as part of an aggregation to feed or mate.
They are filter feeders, drawing in plankton, krill, fish eggs, crustaceans, small fish and larvae that float on the ocean currents. This is why they have such a large mouth. The shark expels the unwanted water through their massive gills like a sieve. Such a large fish however needs to eat a LOT of zooplankton to satisfy their appetite – an average of 20,000 grams each day!
Whale sharks have an individual fingerprint in the form of white spots and lines that enables scientists to identify them. The best angle to photograph them from is straight on facing their left pectoral fin (but the right side is also possible). Global recognition algorithms can then track down if the individual has been seen before. All photographs are helpful though as other features such as scarring can also help identify previously logged individuals. Go to www.whaleshark.org for more info.
Our top 5 destinations guide below is not a definitive list by any means. Indonesia, Philippines, Australia, Mozambique, Thailand and the Red Sea also have their fair share of the giant spaceship fish! Please remember to practice responsible behaviour around them, as the whale shark is listed as Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
- St Helena
Known as the Galápagos of the Atlantic, the island of St Helena sees a whale shark aggregation between December and March. This is not a feeding frenzy as such but more a mating and birthing event, as many females appear to be already pregnant. You can snorkel with them offshore and there are strict rules of 8 people in the water at any one time. This remote outcrop can now be reached by a short flight from Johannesburg and there are seamounts, wrecks and caverns to explore. You can also expect to see dolphins, turtles and mobula rays.
Whale sharks can be seen year-round in some parts of the Maldives like Ari Atoll - a Marine Protected Area frequented by more than 350 individuals. In the wet season from May to October the northern Baa Atoll is well worth a visit. The south-west monsoon creates massive amounts of plankton across feeding station Hanifaru Bay. Greater tidal ranges around the new moon phase bring the most plankton and the most encounters. Snorkelling only is permitted in this UNESCO World Heritage site. Manta rays also frequent the area.
- Mafia Island
Mafia Island Marine Park is located off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa. It enjoys a seasonal migration of young male whale sharks between November to March each year. They come to feed in the channel at Kitu Kiblu where you can snorkel with around 100 docile individuals. You are also likely to see dugong, turtles and giant frogfish at this Indian Ocean Paradise.
Along the Caribbean coast of Mexico between June and September hundreds of adolescent male whale shark gather for a feeding frenzy. The Biosphere Reserve is just off the northern tip of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula around the islands of Mujeres, Holbox and Contoy. Scientists believe the young whale sharks aggregate because of spawning tunny eggs. This is a snorkelling only excursion, and you may also be lucky enough to see barrel-rolling manta rays. Also, along the Yucatán are the cenotes – well worth a visit!
Wolf and Darwin are 14 hours north of the main Galápagos Islands and are a magnet for whale sharks between June and November (90% of which are pregnant). While the Humboldt current is at its strongest this time of year, it seems the whale sharks are not at these rocky outcrops to feed. Dr Simon Pierce of the Marine Megafauna Foundation believes they are calibrating their built-in GPS as they can detect the Earth’s magnetic field. “Historical volcanic eruptions at Darwin have created concentric rings of magnetically polarised rock on the seafloor, providing a detailed relief map for animals – if they have the right equipment to read it.” More than 180 individuals have been identified in these temperate waters and none of them have ever been seen outside the islands!