Encounter the world’s largest fish as the gentle giants move into shallower waters around the planet.
Text by Timothy Lo, photo by Paolo Lora
Swimming with a whale shark is on top of many scuba divers’ bucket lists. The world’s largest fish can grow to a whopping 12 metres long and weigh up to 21 tonnes. But it’s a gentle giant, feeding mainly on plankton and small fish that it sucks in through baleen filters in its huge mouth. Famously docile, divers have been known to hitch a ride on the huge fish, although conservationists discourage this and getting too close may scare the shark away.
From March to June, whale sharks gather off Belize in Central America to feast on clouds of eggs released by spawning fish at Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve in the Caribbean. Whale shark diving and snorkelling trips head out of Placencia, in southern Belize, around the time of the full moon (two days before the full moon and up to 10 days after) when the fish spawn. As well as the whale sharks, you might see pilot whales, dolphins and huge numbers of spawning fish or dive into the world’s largest ocean sinkhole, the Great Blue Hole, which can be seen from space and was one of Jacques Cousteau’s top 10 dive sites. On land, visit the Monkey River, the ancient Mayan ruins at Xunantunich or go zip lining through the jungle.
On the other side of the world, whale sharks also gather at Ningaloo Reef off Western Australia from March to June. This underwater wonderland is renowned for its crystalline waters, remarkable marine life and amazing weather. It is the largest and most accessible fringing reef in Australia, with more than 250 species of coral and 500 species of fish. As well as whale sharks, divers might encounter turtles, dugongs, dolphins and even humpback whales (June to November). On land, the 1.25km Yardie Nature Trail provides stunning views of the reef and Yardie Creek in the company of rock wallabies, parrots and birds, or tackle the more challenging Yardie Gorge Trail.
Closer to home, the Similan Islands of Thailand, 84 km northwest of Phuket, are a marine paradise. The nine little islands have white coral-sand beaches, huge boulders and rainforest filled with monkeys, squirrels, lizards and bats, but the real attractions are underwater. From February to April, whale sharks may be seen anywhere in the area, but particularly Richelieu Rock and Koh Tachai. Although they are never common, sightings in the area have increased in the past couple of years. Divers may also see manta rays, lots of different corals and some amazing underwater topography, including swim-throughs, channels and gorges.
Gladden Spit, Beliz (www.belizescuba.com)
Ningaloo Reef, Australia (www.visitningaloo.com.au)
Similan Islands, Thailand (www.phuket.com/island/similans)