Swimming alongside the largest fish in the sea is one of the most ultimate snorkeling bucket-list experiences. Thailand is one of the destinations where in-season sightings of whale sharks are almost guaranteed. We were lucky enough to meet these gentle giant, read how we went snorkeling with whale shark on Koh Tao!
Whale sharks are dangerous?
Not! Done, so I think this was a very short paragraph! To explain a bit better, let’s see how they live and why are they totally harmless to humans. The largest confirmed individual measured 12.65 meters (41.50 ft) in length, however, there have been unconfirmed reports of 20 meters (65.6 ft) long ones!
Despite their size, they are feeding on plankton and small fish which are filtered from the water as they cruise the world’s oceans. It also feeds on clouds of eggs during mass spawning of fish and corals. Their mouth can be as big as 1.5 m wide, contains 3000 tiny teeth. Whale sharks have a pattern of white spots, on a dark grey background plus white underbelly. The pattern is unique to each – makes easier for scientists monitoring them.
Whale sharks are found in warm waters worldwide including Maldives, along the coastlines of Madagascar, Mozambique, Kenya, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia plus Utila in Mexico, Puerto Rica. They are also seen in Australian waters off Queensland, northern Western Australia, and the Northern Territory. Whale sharks are consider vulnerable by ICUN. Unfortunately there are still areas where unregulated fishing / hunting for Whale sharks occurs. They are hunted for liver oil, cartilage, fins which are used in Shark fin soup.
Where to see whale sharks in Thailand
Whale shark sightings can occur just about anywhere, but these gentle giants are still rare animals. Best spots in Thailand are Richelieu Rock in the Andaman Sea, Hin Daeng (South of the Phi Phi Islands). On the other side, there is high chance to spot whale shark on Koh Tao: Chumphon Pinnacle famous about regular sightings. Numbers were decreasing slightly from 1998, but the last few seasons have been pretty good, with occasional sightings even at Phuket dive sites, such as Shark Point and Koh Doc Mai.
There are normally most whale shark sightings in April and during February/March. Most of these are at Richelieu Rock, on the schedule of most Similan Islands trips and around Koh Tao. We visited the Koh Tao area and we can confirm: there are whale sharks on Koh Tao! Now we tell you where to go if you also want to go snorkeling with this incredible creature!
Whale shark on Koh Tao – when and where
March to June is often referred as ‘season’ with highest chance to spot whale shark on Koh Tao! October – December are good months too. The best places to see whale shark on Koh Tao: Chumphon Pinnacle, Sail Rock, South West Pinnacle, White Rock, Shark Island. The first 4 spots are mainly for divers, if you want you can join to boat trips as a snorkeler. With a bit of luck you might see one if it swims close to surface. We recommend go to Shark Island, that’s the place where we had the amazing experience to swim with this gentle giant!
Shark Island: best place to snorkel with whale shark on Koh Tao
Shark Island is just 800 meters far from Sai Daeng Beach – the easiest way is to go there to hire a kayak, but you could rent a speed- or long tail boat too (of course with staff). On Sai Daeng beach kayak costs 200 baht per hour, you might reach Shark Island in less than 10 minutes. Other option is to swim to Shark Island (we did that) but only for confident swimmers! Currents might be strong on open water! Pay attention to boat traffic, carry signal diving buoy with yourself!
The whale shark we saw on left side of the island. It was such an amazing moment to spot this peacefully swimming gentle giant. If the visibility is good (more then 15 meters) you have good chance to spy her/him from the surface if it’s around. Whale sharks can dive to chilly waters hundreds of meters deep but they need to return to the surface to warm up, so they enjoy spending time close to surface. For a few minutes, just the two of us were swimming along the 4-4.5 m long whale shark. Such a magical time! After divers from boats nearby also noticed that whale shark is around, so suddenly there were 3 boats around us, approx. 40 people in the water (divers and snorkelers too). The whale shark seemed not surprised, continued slowly swimming around close to surface.
It was good to see that no one tried to touch her/him, people just observed and took photos of it. After about 30 minutes, she/he got bored of the „audience”, disappeared in the deep, but left lifetime memories!
Note: Always check the weather before heading to Shark Island on your own! Even by fair weather, if forecast predicts storm, or you see dark clouds approaching from the direction of Koh Phangan (you see that island from Sai Daeng beach), better to stay on the shore. Don’t forget, it’s tropical climate, conditions can change in seconds, storms arriving with heavy rain, strong wind! Visit Shark Island on sunny days by calm water!