There are few places in the world you can swim with whale sharks and even less where you can do it ethically. Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia is frequented every year by whale sharks between the months of April and August with some sightings lasting until November.
I’ve swam with whale sharks a couple of times, the first was in Oslob, Philippines which is unfortunately terrible for the whale sharks. You can read more about that in the resources section below. Australia offers an alternative which is much better for the animals but that comes at a higher cost and (a very low chance) chance that you may not see whale sharks.
Swimming with whale sharks on the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia is often considered one of the highlights of a trip around Australia. And I’d have to agree. Being in the water with these huge animals is an amazing experience and the fact that there’s so few places you can do it makes it even more special.
Whale sharks reach an impressive length of 15 metres and have mouths that are over 1.5 metres wide. They are inquisitive fish that are naturally peaceful, slow moving, and unaffected by snorkelers swimming around them. Whale sharks congregate in large numbers in Ningaloo Reef off the coast of Western Australia to eat the plankton that drifts closer to the surface. Whale sharks are harmless filter feeders, that aren’t at all interested in taking a bite out of humans. Plankton, copepods, krill, and fish eggs make up most of their diet and they eat upwards of 20kg per day.
How do You swim with whale sharks?
Most tours are run pretty similarly. You will either be picked up or meet at their meeting spot in the morning, be briefed about the day and head out on the boats while awaiting advice from the planes as to where the whale sharks can be found. You’re provided with a wetsuit and instructions about when to jump into the water and which direction to swim. A photographer will swim alongside the whale shark and you will do your best to keep pace with both of them. Usually, tours will encourage the weaker swimmers to go first as they’ll be the first to lose pace with the whale shark. After you’ve swam with the whale sharks a few times you’ll have a couple of snorkel tops on the way back to shore.
I decided to go with Ningaloo Discovery. There were 10 people on our boat of varying levels of swimming ability. You need to be confident in the water but not a strong swimmer. I don’t consider myself a strong swimmer but was able to swim alongside the whale sharks. You’re provided with fins so it’s more about keeping pace with the whale shark by kicking rather than a swimming technique. You also need to feel comfortable in the open water as the longer you swim the further you’ll end up from the boats.
The longer you can maintain your kicking the longer you’ll be able to swim with the whale shark. Some guests could only swim next to the whale shark for a few seconds before they dropped off. A couple of us were able to swim alongside the whale shark for hundreds of metres which is great because you can spend time with the whale shark and have a longer chance to get some great photos. Everything is very well organised, and I felt safe the entire time, even when a few hundred metres away from the boat in open water.
How Much Does It Cost?
Swimming with whale sharks is expensive and most tours cost between $400 to $600. While this seems expensive, keep in mind that a plane is used to spot the whale sharks and then instructs the boats where to go. There are also the boat drivers, dive masters and underwater photographers that need to be paid. In addition to the staff, boat, plane and food there is also a fee the tour operators must pay that goes towards Whale shark preservation.
When Can you Swim with Whale Sharks?
April through August are the most common months to spot whale sharks on the Ningaloo Reef.
How to get to Exmouth?
Exmouth, like a lot of towns in Western Australia is far from anywhere else. We drove from Broome down to Exmouth which took 14 hours. If you’re coming from the south, then Perth is a 13-hour drive away. Alternatively, you can take a two-hour flight from Perth to Learmonth Airport which is a 25-minute drive from Exmouth. Currently there aren’t any direct flights from outside of WA.
Can you Take Photos with the Whale Sharks?
Yes, you can take your own photos, but all tour companies have experienced underwater photographers to take photos of you with the whale sharks. Our photographer was great, she was a very strong swimmer and knew how to make sure everyone ended up with a great photo even those that weren’t strong swimmers.
Which Tour Company to Choose?
Tours operate everyday by a few tour companies that are similar in their price and schedule. The more expensive tours usually include a better lunch and a smaller number of people. I decided to go with Ningaloo Discovery tours as it was one of the cheapest. I was able to book a few days in advance but I recommend booking as soon as you know the dates you’ll be in Exmouth. If it’s too windy or there’s a storm the tour will be cancelled, and you’ll be refunded if you can’t join another tour. This happened to me but I was rescheduled onto a tour a few days later.
Is it Safe to Swim with Whale Sharks?
Swimming with whale sharks is safe. Whale sharks are friendly and pose no threat to humans. However, you are in the open ocean and while there is the chance that sharks are in the area there haven’t been any reports of shark attacks on the tours. Also, there are many boats in the area and planes so a shark would quickly be spotted. Also, sharks are generally friendly, people (like me) actually choose to go diving to see them, they’re rarely dangerous to people.
Where else Can You Swim with Whale Sharks?
It’s possible to swim with whale sharks in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Most places offer diving tours and some snorkelling, but Australia is the only place where you’ll be in the open ocean guided by the planes above. Possibly the worst example of tours and their negative impact on the whale shark is in Oslob in the Philippines. Fisherman feed the whale sharks each day and hundreds of tourists are taken on small boats just offshore to swim with the whale sharks. Whale sharks in the area are malnourished and very regularly struck (sometimes accidently) by humans. The whale sharks learn that boats mean food and are often cut by boat propellers when approaching boats. You can read more about the unethical practice in the resources section below.
Expensive but worth it
Before travelling around Australia, one of the things I was looking forward to the most was swimming with whale sharks in Western Australia. The experience didn’t disappoint. The price is justifiable so if you can fit it into your budget, I highly recommend it. Plus, there’s so few places in the world you can swim with whale sharks and the only place in Australia are the tours leaving Exmouth and Coral Bay. Swimming with the whale sharks in Exmouth has been one of the best things I’ve done in the ocean. I was lucky enough to dive with Manta Rays while staying on Heron Island and swim with sharks in Fiji’s Beqa Lagoon.
Travel Resources for Exmouth
Viator – Huge selection of activities, tours and experiences with great cancellation and price match policies.
Get Your Guide – Great selection of experiences from sea, land and air.
SkyScanner – The best place to start looking for flights. They compare prices from a huge amount of airlines.
Hostelworld – Thousands of hostels with millions of reviews. You can also contact other travelers before you arrive.
Travel Insurance – None of us plan to fall off motorbikes or break a leg snowboarding but if it happens make sure you’re covered.
Booking.com – One of the best accommodation booking pages available. This is my benchmark before searching for a better deal (which often can’t be beaten).
AirBnB – Huge range of home to rent across the globe and discounts for longer stays.
RentalCars.com – The best site for renting cars while travelling, they find the best rates and provide great insurance options.