Imagine attending an underwater ballet starring a double-decker bus, semitrailer, and a full-size RV—and you’ve got a front row seat to the show. Sound unlikely? That’s how it feels to swim with the world’s biggest fish: the whale shark.

Despite their size and the notoriety of sharks in general, these mega-fish (measuring about 40 feet long and weighing at least 15 tons) are famously docile. The globally endangered creatures are also one of the ocean’s greatest mysteries. They are constantly on the move and spend a lot of their time at great depths, so we don’t know much about whale sharks’ life cycles or breeding habits. But we do know that these filter feeders love to eat—a lot. And in the same way we frequent our favorite restaurants, whale sharks are known to surface regularly in biologically bountiful spots around the globe to fuel up on plankton, fish spawn, and small shrimp before disappearing into the deep again. So if you’re looking to frolic with these oversize fishies, head to one of their favorite places and dive in.

Ningaloo Reef
Exmouth, Western Australia
Folks have been flocking to the Ningaloo Reef for whale shark meet-and-greets since the 1980s. The marine park is a fiercely protected UNESCO World Heritage site and as such is regulated to ensure that both human and fish are having a good time in the water. There are a number of snorkeling tours operating out of nearby Exmouth, but most share spotter planes, which scout out whale shark activity to direct tour boats. Go with Ningaloo Whaleshark Swim, which has its own spotter plane and doesn’t have to share information, for a better chance of a crowd-free encounter.
Best months: March to July

     

Praia de Tofo
Inhambane, Mozambique
The waters just south of Tofo are home to the largest whale shark gathering in Africa. Last year, at the World Convention on Migratory Species, 126 countries signed a pact that protects the juvenile male whale sharks in this important feeding area from being caught and killed for fish markets. For an easy afternoon snorkeling tour, book the “Ocean Safari” with Peri Peri Divers.
Best months: year-round

article continues below ad

Isla Mujeres
Quintana Roo, Mexico
This Cancun-adjacent island isn’t just popular for spring breakers: during the summer, it also plays host to the largest aggregation of whale sharks in the world and can see as many as 1,000 during a single season. The annual mass spawning of little tunny fish provides an energy-rich food source for the gentle giants, who gather by the hundreds to slurp up the fish eggs in the aquamarine waters. Intrepid snorkelers can dive right in and rub shoulders with the sharks as they feast.
Best months: May to September

A diver and a whale shark do an underwater dance in Belize.
Gladden Spit
Placencia, Belize
At the Gladden Spit Marine Reserve, snapper spawn in late spring, attracting hungry whale sharks. After feasting on the milky clouds of eggs near the surface for about 10 days following the full moon, the whale sharks descend back into the deep. This area, located about 25 miles off the coast, is a snorkeler’s paradise; it was declared a protected site almost 20 years ago, so it’s also teeming with colorful reef critters, hammerhead sharks, dolphins, sea turtles, and manta rays.
Best months: April to June

Darwin Island
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
Around the Galápagos’s northernmost islands, where the sharky waters are as busy as a city intersection, pregnant female whale sharks reign sovereign. Their favorite pit stop, Darwin Arch, is affectionately nicknamed “The Bus Stop.” Because this national park is so remote and prone to strong currents, don’t plan to snorkel. Instead, sign up for a multi-day diving cruise. Underwater photography buffs should check out adventure outfitter Aqua-Firma—it will be running a snorkeling and photography trip led by renowned whale shark researcher and photographer Dr. Simon Pierce in August 2019.
Best months: June to October
     

South Ari Atoll
Maldives
Younger whale sharks always enjoy cruising for tasty morsels in the waters above this reef’s shallow plateau, and it is possible to snorkel or dive with them year-round. Download the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme’s tracking app, called Big Fish Network, which can help you identify the whale sharks you encounter during your visit. You can even check in on your favorites after you leave.
Best months: year-round

Al Shaheen oil field
Qatar
It may sound surprising that whale sharks reside in the Persian Gulf—and that’s because it is. The water here was previously thought to be too hot for the sharks, but coral reefs began flourishing on the oil platforms, attracting many fish not commonly found in the area. The Al Shaheen oil field attracts one of the largest whale shark gatherings in the world (hundreds return to the site each year), but the whale shark population went fairly unnoticed until 2007, when an oil worker posted a photo of the sharks online. Tourism here hasn’t exactly picked up—you’ll be hard-pressed to get the proper permits, calm conditions, and speedy boats that are required to reach the site. For now it’s a popular destination for researchers studying whale shark feeding habits, but the truly obsessed should keep an eye on this hot spot in the years to come.
Best months: May to September

The Georgia Aquarium is the only aquarium in the US with whale sharks on display.
Koh Tao
Thailand
Koh Tao is already a coveted dive destination thanks to its colorful, relatively untouched reefs, and in the past several years, lucky divers have seen an increase in whale shark encounters. Most of the sightings have happened at Chumphon Pinnacle, a short boat ride from the island, where the water is a little deeper, so find a local dive company and head that way.
Best months: April, May, September

Georgia Aquarium
Atlanta, Georgia
You don’t need a passport for this one—or a boat. The United States’ largest aquarium is home to four whale sharks that were saved from fish markets in Taiwan. The exhibit called “The Ocean Voyager” is the size of a football field and is the only place in the United States that allows visitors to connect with the world’s biggest fish in a controlled, seasick-free environment.
Best months: year-round

>>Next: You Don’t Have to Surf to Fall in Love With This Bohemian Moroccan Beach Town