February 2, 2024 • Travel Ideas
There may be no more humbling reminder of our place in nature than to swim with whales or whale sharks, relics of a time when giants once ruled the earth.
While swimming with whale sharks (the world’s biggest fish) can be done in a number of places, swimming with whales is possible in just a few special locations. Whales are sensitive creatures, and to swim with whales requires careful planning to ensure both the safety of the animals and people.
Oceanic Society has led environmentally sustainable wildlife encounters for the last 55 years, with a deep commitment to ocean conservation. Below are some handpicked travel opportunities led by our team of naturalists that will get you close, safely and responsibly, with these ethereal giants, while also supporting their protection.
First, you may hear their songs, hauntingly beautiful chords announcing their arrival. Then, imagine creatures — larger than school buses — drifting gracefully into view from the depths. The deep gaze of their eyes or a gentle nudge between a mom and her calf could be moments that stay with you forever.
Travelers swim with a humpback whale in Silver Bank, Dominican Republic, one of just a handful of places on Earth where this experience is possible.
This is swimming with humpback whales, the famous acrobats and explorers of the ocean. A species that exhibits unique language (even local dialects), cultures, and a gentle disposition.
While humpbacks may be most famous for spiraling through the air, few realize that they are one of the most migratory animals on the planet. One humpback tracked traveling over 10,000 miles between warm-water breeding and icy hunting grounds.
Where to swim with humpbacks? Oceanic Society’s tour to Tonga, named one of National Geographic Traveler’s 50 Tours of a Lifetime, offers a great chance to swim with humpback whales. Each year, thousands of humpbacks migrate from feeding areas near Antarctica to the tropical waters of Tonga, where they mate, give birth, and nurse their young.
On the opposite side of the earth, the Dominican Republic’s Silver Bank hosts the largest congregation of humpback whales in the world. In the warm Caribbean waters, they gather to breed and raise their young, allowing humans to swim amongst them during this tender time.
When is the best time to go? Oceanic Society leads tours to Tonga in August and September, considered the best time frame to swim with whales. The congregation in the Dominican Republic reaches its peak in March, which provides ample time to listen to whale songs, swim amongst new mothers and their calves, and witness their famous acrobatics.
Many cultures revere whale sharks as legendary creatures. In Mexico, ancient Mayan artifacts seemingly depict whale sharks. Kenyan legends explain that their spotted pattern is because the gods showered them in coins. Amongst the Labuan Bajo near Komodo, Indonesia, whale sharks are “god’s fish” who rescue fishermen in crisis.
A snorkeler swims beside a whale shark in Indonesia. © Pete Oxford
When you swim with whale sharks, which grow to more than 40 feet, it is easy to understand the mythos. Their starry skin mirrors constellations in the sky. They are solitary beings, usually feeding alone in tropical waters before disappearing into the ocean’s twilight, diving as deep as 6,000 feet. Only in 1995 did researchers learn how they birth, when a dead female was caught holding over 300 eggs at varying stages of development.
Thankfully for ocean adventurers, whale sharks don’t seem to mind company. Humans can tag along with other fish hitchhiking on the backs of whale sharks as they vacuum swathes of plankton.
Where to swim with whale sharks? The Sea of Cortez, sandwiched between the Baja peninsula and Mexico’s mainland, is one of the best locations in the world for swimming with whale sharks. Oceanic Society leads whale shark snorkeling expeditions in La Paz.
Meanwhile, swimming with whale sharks in Komodo National Park might be the region’s best kept secret. As tourists swarm the rugged island landscape to view the iconic dragons, whale sharks swim just off the coast amongst the vibrant waters of the Coral Triangle.
With luck, whale sharks can also be seen as part of other Oceanic Society adventures in the Azores, Portugal, in the waters of the Indian Ocean on our Seychelles cruise, and in other parts of Indonesia, such as Raja Ampat and the Banda Sea.
When is the best time to go? Whale sharks are best seen in the Sea of Cortez from December through April, which coincides with other migratory species — including humpback whales and the famously friendly gray whales.
Experiencing Komodo National Park is best in the dry season, April through November, which sees whale sharks feeding in the nearby tropical waters.
Swimming with whales is possible in many locations throughout the world, as is the opportunity to encounter whale sharks. However, these animals are not only threatened, but are also sensitive to disturbances from both people and boats. Oceanic Society only leads tours to swim with whales and whale sharks in places where tourism is managed effectively and local operators are taking steps to minimize the impacts of tourism on these animals. Working with a trusted operator is essential to ensure that the experience is ethical, legal, and protects rather than exploits the environment.
Learn more about how Oceanic Society’s ecotourism model transforms local economies to value wildlife as a dependable tourism asset rather than a consumable good. Each traveler that books a multi-day Oceanic Society tour directly sponsors the removal of 200 pounds of plastic from the ocean. Plastic removal not only helps to keep our oceans and coasts beautiful, it also helps protect the habitat of vulnerable species and provides job opportunities in impoverished communities.