For sure is an absolute bucket list adventure, to be able to swim with the world’s largest shark. Considered the holy grail by many. Even though the world’s largest shark sounds a bit scary, they are in actual fact harmless. Gentle giants is a name affectionately given to them and suits them well. They are ocean nomads crossing great distances all over the world. Fortunately for us we know a few areas where they like to congregate. Here in Indonesia we have Cenderawasih Bay and Triton Bay in West Papua. I recently just explored Gorantalo in the north of Sulawesi. While in Mexico you have the famed La Paz area in Baja. These are places we visit on our Snorkel Venture tours, and while nothing is guaranteed this is our best chance to snorkel with whale sharks. Though they can turn up anywhere on any one of our trips. Just got to be lucky.
So let’s jump into some quick facts about the whale shark. As mentioned before it is the largest fish (Shark) in the ocean, With the largest specimen measuring at 20 meters. Most weigh between 15 and 20 tons when mature. If you think of a big bus, that’s about the size of a whale shark. Whale sharks can live up to about 60 years with some reports believing they can reach 100 or even 150 years old. Whale sharks give birth to live young that develop from eggs inside the mother. They can give birth to up to 300 pups, measuring between 35 and 70 cm in length. Whale sharks have a vast area they populate. With the majority living in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, with a small percent living in the Atlantic. Whale sharks have been spotted as far north as New York. Whale sharks do migrate throughout the oceans, on the hunt for their favourite food, plankton.
The mouth of a whale shark can contain over 3,000 tiny teeth. Even though they are massive in size, these gentle giants are actually filter feeders. There are only three known filter feeding shark species. The basking shark and megamouth shark being the other two. Both huge in size as well. In Fact in 2018 the first ever recorded video of a live megamouth was in Komodo. A site where we snorkel often. But that is another story. Whale sharks feed on tiny planktons including krill, jellyfish and eggs of tuna. They can filter huge quantities of water either by sucking water into their mouths, or by swimming at the surface with their gigantic mouths wide open. They have to consume large quantities of plankton and other small organisms in order to stay alive. Whale Sharks have been documented to eat larger prey such as squid or small fish including sardines, and anchovies. They are equipped with sensory cells above the mouth to help the shark detect food in the water. It is thought that whale shark movement patterns are linked with the spawning of coral and plankton blooms throughout the oceans.
Whale sharks all have a unique pattern. Exactly the same as we have unique fingerprints. This area is found between the gills and pectoral fin. Now researchers are able to take photos of the flank of the whale shark, and run it through a database to see if it has been recorded before. This has been great for determining how far and wide they are traveling and which whale sharks are going where.
Though they are found throughout all the locations we do tours, it is very rare to just stumble across them. It does happen on our trips but you have to be lucky. That’s why we have our best chances and interactions in specific locations. Here in Indonesia we visit Cenderawasih Bay and Triton Bay. What is bringing in the whale sharks is the relationship they have with the fishermen. The fishermen are working on floating platforms called bagans. The platforms are used to catch anchovies and other small fish. This is what the whale sharks really want. The fishermen here now working with eco tourism in mind feed the whale sharks, in turn keeping them in the area. It has been a great success for the whale sharks, as the locals are now seeing they are worth protecting. But it is also great as they can come and go as they wish without fear of being caught
This is great for us as snorkelers. The whale sharks will be swimming along the surface giving us our best views and interactions. When they are feeding like this they are very much in the zone. Not too fussed by what we are doing and focused purely on feeding. So much so that on a recent trip I was photographing one whale shark in front of me, and another swam straight into me coming in from the deep looking for food. Nudging me out the way. Was very gentle and made me laugh. As always with our interactions in the water we always want to give any animal in the ocean the space it needs. We always set the rule of giving them at least three meters space and not to chase them. They swim way better than us for starters. But the more relaxed we are, the chances are they will come to check us out and get close. They are very inquisitive when they want to be. Really don’t mind coming and checking you out.