Whale Sharks: Everything Photographers Need to Know

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean. This makes them the largest sharks on the planet! These filter feeders live in warm water around the world, presenting many opportunities to encounter one in the wild.

Swimming with whale sharks is a special experience. Like most travel and wildlife encounters, the more we learn beforehand, the more appreciation we will have for the animal and its habitat. Greater knowledge simply magnifies the sense of awe. And whale sharks are AWEsome.

Sections:

(Quick Jump to PHOTO TIPS)

Whale Shark Quick Facts

Biology & Natural History

Food Sources & Feeding

Are Whale Sharks Affected by Climate Change?

Best Whale Shark Scuba Diving

Best Whale Shark Snorkeling

Photo Tips

whale shark and remoras swimming
A whale shark (Rhincodon typus) swims up to the surface with a number of remoras hanging on tight. La Paz, Mexico. Check out my underwater photo gear.

Whale Shark Quick Facts

Scientific Name: Rhincodon typus

Diet: Krill, Plankton, and more

Average Life Span: 70 to 100 years! (note that marine animals kept in captivity at aquariums and amusement parks have drastically lower life spans).

Maximum Size: Up to 40 feet (12 meters)

Maximum Weight: Up to about 20 tons (18 metric tons)

Endangered?: Yes

whale shark and pilot fish feeding
A whale shark ram feeds with an entourage of yellow pilot fish.

Biology and Natural History

Whale sharks are true sharks even though they look like whales. From the surface, you might think there’s a whale in the water, but once below the surface, a whale shark’s tail movement is unmistakable.

Whale sharks breathe through gills just like all fish (and sharks). When you see them on the surface, they’re not there to breath like cetaceans – they’re often feeding on plankton and other food sources that live in the first few feet of the water column.

Color Patterns: Whale shark individuals can be distinguished by the spot patterns on their backs, since each has a unique assortment of spots. Their belly is a white color. This dark coloring on top helps make whale sharks (like many sharks) harder to see from above, while the light bellies make them more camouflaged when looking up from below.

Maturity: It takes 30 years for a whale shark to reach maturity (reproduction age). This prolonged juvenile stage is one of the reasons that the global whale shark population is now considered endangered. Thirty years is a very long time for a whale shark to survive the growing challenges for marine life in the ocean, and many do not have a chance to reach full maturity.

Scientists still have much to learn about whale shark reproduction, including mating habits, breeding grounds and number of pups. One thing we do know is that whale sharks give birth to live young.

whale shark ram feeding at the surface
A whale shark ram feeding at the surface in La Paz, Mexico.

Food Sources & Feeding

Whale sharks feed primarily on Plankton – small organisms that form a key element of the ocean food chain. They also eat krill (very, very small shrimp), fish eggs cast spawned into the water column, and other minuscule nektonic life floating in the water column.

Whale shark feeding is very cool to watch. They use two primary methods. The first is ram filter feeding, where the whale shark swims through the water, scooping up clouds of plankton (or other food), filtering out the water and swallowing the food.

The second feeding technique is great for snorkelers. The whale shark will pivot into a near vertical position and gulp clouds of food in a stationary position. The whale shark stops swimming to do this, allowing snorkelers to watch and shoot photos in a stationary position.

juvenile whale shark swimming in la paz
A juvenile whale shark swims effortlessly at the surface. Notice the intricate spot pattern on its back.

Are Whale Sharks Affected by Climate Change?

Yes. Whale Sharks are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Redlist. These are the biggest fish living in the ocean and we don’t even know how many there are. Much research needs to be done.

According to the IUCN, current threats to whale sharks include oil and gas drilling, shipping lanes (strikes by large ships), human overfishing impacting food sources, and human activities like fishing the whale sharks directly.

Luckily, many organizations and dedicated activists are working hard to help protect whale sharks for future generations.

Best Whale Shark Scuba Diving

Whale sharks are present in many dive locations around the world, with relatively consistent sightings during prime seasons. That said, these are wild animals and encounters can never be guaranteed. Below are a few well-known whale shark scuba destinations.

MALDIVES:  The Maldives offer scuba divers a dream vacation. Warm, clear water and white sand beaches greet divers, who often choose liveaboards over resorts in order to see a wider variety of the local diving. The Maldives is widely known as one of the best places to scuba dive with whale sharks and manta rays.

  • When: February – November
  • Experience: All levels
  • Liveaboard Boat Operators to Research: Aggressor liveaboard, Emperor liveaboard, Maldives Master liveaboard, Scubaspa Maldives liveaboard, Manthiri Maldives, Carpe Diem Maldives.

SOCORRO ISLANDS (Revillagigedos Islands): Experience wild open ocean diving at these seamount islands in the open Eastern Pacific. Seamounts like this are a magnet for pelagic life, and divers may see oceanic manta rays, dolphins, whales, and whale sharks.

  • When: Winter – Spring
  • Experience: Intermediate, Advanced
  • Operators to Research: Nautilus, Rocio Del Mar, Solmar V, MV Valentina.

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS: The Galapagos has a big reputation among scuba divers. Schooling hammerhead sharks, green turtles, penguins, mola molas, and of course, whale sharks. The most famous diving is at the northernmost islands of Wolf and Darwin, dived exclusively via liveaboard.

These two areas are the highlights for scuba divers, but subject to rough conditions, temperate water, and very strong currents.

  • When: June – December
  • Experience: Advanced
  • Operators to Research: Master Liveaboards, Humboldt Explorer, Galapagos Sky.

UTILA, HONDURAS: Crystal clear Caribbean water awaits divers in Utila. Whale sharks can be seen year round and lucky scuba divers have the chance to experience a great encounter. A wide range of other sites will keep divers eagerly blowing bubbles.

  • When:  Year-round, but Nov-May for best visibility.
  • Experience: All levels
  • Operators to Research: Deep Blue Utila, Turtle Bay Eco Resort, Utila Dive Center, Underwater Vision, Barefoot Cay Resort.

KOH TAO, THAILAND: Koh Tao is known as a place for affordable tropic scuba certifications, however it holds up as a great destination for those looking to combine topside social life with great possibility of whale sharks. Sail Rock is one of the most popular sites for the sharks.

  • When: March – June
  • Experience: All levels
  • Operators to Research: Simple Life Divers, Crystal Dive, Sunrise Divers.

Are there more places to scuba dive with whale sharks? Absolutely… but I can’t reveal ALL of them!

*Note: I haven’t personally visited any of these locations to scuba dive, so these operator suggestions are based off 2nd hand industry knowledge.

whale shark snorkeling isla mujeres mexico
Snorkelers capture photos from the panga on a cloudy day swimming with whale sharks off Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

Best Whale Shark Snorkeling

If you ask me about swimming with whale sharks, I would say to ditch the scuba tanks and plan a snorkeling excursion. The best (consistent) whale shark encounters you’ll find are while snorkeling. Each of these areas has great local scuba diving as well, so you can plan a fun combo trip. Here’s where to go:

QUINTANA ROO, MEXICO: Every summer off the coast of Isla Mujeres, a large number of whale sharks aggregate to feast on spawning bonito (Sarda sarda) eggs. The great thing here is that these eggs are translucent, drifting in crystal clear blue water, which creates exceptional photo conditions.

Reliability is high (you can find as many as 100 whale sharks), and you may even see some manta rays. Note however, that it can get insanely crowded out there.

  • When: July – August (peak season)
  • Operators to Research: I’m leaving this blank; there are just so many. Note though, that many operators like Pro Dive cater to “all-inclusive and cruise ship tourists” and not to avid underwater photographers. Be sure to make sure you select an operator that will give you the experience you’re looking for.

EXMOUTH (NINGALOO REEF), AUSTRALIA: Exmouth is the embarkation point for many whale shark snorkeling tours in the Ningaloo Marine Park. Large numbers of whale sharks aggregate here, making it a very solid choice for a southern hemisphere whale shark photo trip.

  • When: March – August
  • Operators to Research: Ningaloo Whaleshark Swim, Ocean Eco Adventures, Kings Ningaloo Reef Tours, Ningaloo Discovery Whale Shark Tours, Ningaloo Blue Dive, Ningaloo Whale Shark Swim, Live Ningaloo.

LA PAZ, MEXICO: La Paz has an indescribable magic to it, although as a California native I may be a little biased. Whale sharks are nearly a sure thing during the late summer into fall, which can be combined with epic sea lion snorkeling, scuba diving and more.

  • When: September – November
  • Operators to Research: Fun Baja, Cortez Club, Club Cantamar.
whale shark and snorkeling photographer in la paz
A snorkeler composes underwater photos with a young whale shark in La Paz, Mexico.

Photo Tips

I love whale shark trips because the experience isn’t served up for you – it maintains elements of chance and adventure. All divers help keep eyes on the water to spot the sharks, then you must watch the behavior of the animals before the guide gives the call to stealthily slip into the water.

Once in the water, you may or may not get close to the fish, and may or may not capture great photos. This is the thrill!

Notice that a lot of these tips don’t relate to buttons on the camera – they relate to your approach to the situation. I guarantee that if you follow all these tips you’ll be on a level above your trip-mates and in the best position to capture great photos.

1. Do Your Research

We’re already on the right track here! Before you enter the water, you should have a strategy for composition angles, autofocus settings, exposure mode and possible exposure compensation, metering, drive mode (shooting mode), and ISO strategy.

Email me to set up a private Skype session to dial in your settings before the trip.

2. Listen to Your Guide

Chances are that your guide can very intimately explain behavior cues and other factors that will help you get a great shot. Build some rapport and ask for tips.

3. Be Ready to Jump

You should be in the water within one second of the dive guide saying “Dive Dive Dive!” The dive call is not the time to put on fins and pull your mask over your head. You need to be ready on the swim step.

When you do jump, be sure to know where the whale shark(s) is; you shouldn’t jump blindly, otherwise you waste valuable time figuring out which direction to swim.

Good practice is to review your calls beforehand. “Dive Dive Dive” means jump in the water. “No!” or any other call means you should not jump. The word “Go” should not be used as a dive call since it sounds similar to “No.”

Lastly, be stealth and quiet when you slip into the water. Jumping like a flying octopus results in a big splash, that might cause the whale shark to quickly change swim direction.

4. Ditch the Strobes and/or Streamline

Snorkelers: You’re going to be swimming quickly through the water and likely won’t have time to worry about positioning strobes. Ditch the strobes and arms and focus on ambient light photography. An added bonus is that your camera rig will be much more streamlined for quick swimming.

Scuba Divers: You’re likely planning to see lots of other great marine life on your scuba dive, so you definitely want to bring your strobes. Almost all photo encounters will result from a whale shark swimming right by you.

5. Rely on Your Camera – It Thinks Faster Than You Do

Take advantage of the auto modes on your camera. I will often shoot on Aperture value or Time value (shutter value) with whale sharks and dolphins. I’ll also often use Auto ISO with a limit set to something like 320 (or 640 for partly cloudy days).

With these settings, the camera will meter exposure, allowing me to shoot in all directions without making manual adjustments.

Take a look at My Underwater Camera Gear.

6. Check Your Images Constantly, Make Adjustments, and Shoot Again

All your photos will all appear the same if you don’t make any changes while swimming with whale sharks. If you have a nice long encounter, pause every few shots to review images, ensuring your exposure, focus and composition are correct. Make adjustments if needed and then continue shooting.

If you’re making quick jumps, then review your images once back on the boat, make necessary camera settings adjustments and then prep for your next jump.

KEEP READING

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Brent Durand

Professional underwater photography and ocean adventure writer.