Diving with Whale Sharks is one of those experiences that will make you smile and smile…and smile! Despite their foreboding name, and stonking set of particulars – measuring over 40 feet long, weighing more than 30 tons each, with skin 10 centimetres thick - the world’s biggest fish is, in fact, one of the most docile creatures in the ocean.
Easily distinguished by their wide, flat heads, blue-grey bodies, speckled torsos, and characterised by three distinct ridges on each side, there’s no mistaking these ocean giants. Their presence dates back to the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, with the first recorded sighting in 1828.
The largest fish in the world survive largely on plankton and krill, which they consume using a sieve-like filtering system. Barometers of ocean health, the absence of whale sharks in an area can suggest a change in the ecology.
Whale sharks are found in tropical ocean waters, throughout the equatorial belt, but if you embark on a Philippines, Western Australia, Gulf of Mexico or Maldives diving holiday, you can almost guarantee a sighting, providing you book at the right time of year.
Whale sharks are fairly slow creatures, capable of travelling at up to 5 kilometres an hour when migrating to find food, using their entire bodies to propel themselves through the water. But they can often be found drifting slowly through the shallows when they’re feeding; when diving with whale-sharks on a Philippine or Maldives diving holiday, for example, it’s easy to view them in their natural habitat by gently finning alongside them for a short while.
Adopting correct protocol and responsible behaviour when scuba diving around whale sharks is vital, in order to avoid disturbance and protect the natural habits and long-term sustainability of the species. Whale sharks are classed as ‘vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN), which means that they are at risk of extinction in the medium-term future - the main threat is from harpoon fishing.
Before embarking on a whale shark dive, any responsible diver operator will brief you on how to behave and what not to do. Basic guidelines include not touching or swimming too close to the whale shark, limiting the amount of divers viewing any one whale shark at a time and never chasing it or restricting its pathway. Each locality should also have restrictions as to the number of dive boats allowed in a whale shark feeding area at any set time and some restrict diving altogether, allowing snorkelers only.