What to do to have a successful whale shark outing
We have had two good but different experiences snorkeling with whale sharks so now we are experts on the subject.
Luckily for you we are going to share that expertise and for once we may even be worth listening to.
- Know when the whale sharks will be swimming where you are going.
Yes, this should fall under the “duh” category but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth mentioning. Whale sharks migrate. If your friend swam with them in the Philippines six months ago and you hop a flight to the Philippines today you are highly unlikely to see any whale sharks. It’s as easy as Googling “What time of year can you swim with whale sharks in …” (You would put in the name of a place, not … We’re never sure how bright you are.)
- Do allow time to reschedule your trip if that becomes necessary
If you follow this advice and wake up to bad weather, seas that are too choppy for boating or go out but don’t see any whale sharks, then you’re out of luck. If you can, allow up to a 3 day period when you could go and schedule for the first day. So, if on that first day it doesn’t happen, you can probably get a free return trip to try again while you’re still there. (Assuming you made sure to choose an operator with that policy.)
- Invest some time checking providers and their reviews before you schedule a trip
This can take an hour or so (that you would have wasted on Facebook anyway) but most people don’t often snorkel with whale sharks so it’s worth getting it right. Some things to look for in providers are recent good Trip Advisor reviews (yes, we know Trip Advisor is controversial to some people but it’s been immensely helpful to us), some mention of safety in their blabber about themselves, a guarantee of a partial refund or another trip if you don’t see a whale shark on your outing.
When we went at Ningaloo Reef in Australia (on the basis of advice a total stranger from Australia gave us in a bar in Boston) we chose to use an operator that had their own plane to spot the whale sharks. When we went with Olympus Tours (who actually partners with Contoy Adventures to do the cruises) in Isla Mujeres, Mexico this year we flirted with on them Twitter. Once they flirted back we checked and saw that they had excellent Trip Advisor reviews.
Ok, we start out a bit strangely but end up fine in the end!
- Do plan on the possibility of seasickness and prepare to thwart it
You will probably go out for 45 minutes at least and possibly well over an hour before you get to the whale sharks. The seas can be “energetic” in the boat and when you get in to snorkel. You can get seasick in the boat or swimming in rough water.
We wear wristbands that can be purchased at any CVS or most marinas. They prevent seasickness.
If you take medication for seasickness try not to take any that will put you to sleep for the day!
- Expect a lot of other people to be at the exact same spot where you are going
This has become a very popular activity and with the whale sharks only in any given area for a couple of months that, not surprisingly, is when everyone goes there to do it. The ships all seem to get the same scoop as to where the whale sharks are appearing that day and they all go to that spot. (This was an advantage of the company with their own plane – they got a bit of a head start.)
Your time will be limited based on conditions and on being sure everyone gets a chance. Typically they say something like 2 people can go in for 5 minutes then get out and the next 2 get in and so on until everyone has had a chance.
It’s extremely unlikely that you can get in and swim around taking selfies with your head in the shark’s mouth for as long as you like.
This also means be ready to go when it’s your turn. Don’t start looking for your mask and flippers then – get in!
- Find out ahead of time if they will take pictures of you and what/if they will charge for them
Do not be like two unnamed women we know of who, in both Australia and Mexico failed, despite having underwater cameras, to get even one decent picture of a whale shark.
These are exactly the sorts of people who try to pass themselves off as “experts” on snorkeling with whale sharks!
- Behave yourself
No means no. Any reputable guide will tell you not to touch the whale sharks so don’t decide your one little touch is the one that’s OK. It isn’t.
Don’t jump in crowded waters with other people and bring your selfie stick that makes you suddenly 4 feet longer.
Don’t kick people with your flippers or swim in front of them.
Whale sharks may not attack you but your fellow whale shark aficionados may justifiably plot against you and you’re a long way from shore.
- Respect the environment and the sun
We’ve been told to wear biodegradable sunscreen that the tour operators all conveniently sell for high prices. But the one time we used it it left a disgusting oil slick on the water. We left thoroughly unconvinced that it’s environmentally any better than regular sunscreen. We solved the problem by swimming in wetsuits or rash guard. Either blocks the sun quite effectively.
- Tip your guides well if they do a good job.
Like most service jobs they probably live on their tips and not their wages. Dealing with a bunch of impatient, wet, tourists all day can’t be easy! (Especially the tall dude with the selfie stick who probably gave the worst tip.)
What not to do when planning a whale shark outing
- Don’t go if you can’t swim.
The possibility of choppy seas, crowds of people, getting freaked out, etc. make you ineligible even if you’re willing to wear a life jacket. We have seen people attempt this and they, to be extremely kind about it, are a pain in the ass and don’t enjoy the experience anyway.
- Do not expect to get your own good photos at least the first time you do it.
This is probably like making home porn videos. The first ones will probably show all of the wrong stuff and miss the action even if you have the right, um, equipment.
We are decentish at underwater photography and have yet to get even a C- level of swimming with whale sharks picture. (That’s why we bought several for this post and used some from our friend Alfio Hernandez, renowned dental professional/whale shark photographer/newlywed.)
- Don’t pick this activity to be the one you decide to do on the cheap
You want a good boat, environmental and safety considerations, not too many other people on the trip and to have a great time. When we went with Contoy Adventures in Mexico our in-the-water-guide, Paco, realized Brunette wasn’t going to get to the whale shark in time (she can’t use flippers and you don’t really care why) so he grabbed her hand and got her over to the whale shark pronto.
When we went in Australia it cost nearly $400 apiece (because of that private plane). So when at the end of the trip they offered to sell us a video for $50 that showed us swimming with the whale sharks we were indignant and said “no”.
Later we realized we didn’t have one single picture showing us with a whale shark. We spent thousands going to Australia, a ridiculous amount on the outing and took a stand on principle over fifty bucks!
- Decide we made it sound like too much trouble. Do it, it’s a lot of fun!
FCC disclosure: Olympus Tours gave us our whale shark outing in Mexico for free. We thank them and did not alter our advice or smartypants attitude based on that. We can be bought, but it would cost a lot more than that.