Whale sharks are the largest shark and incidentally, largest fish species in the world too. They can grow up to 20 metres in length but they average at around 5 to 10 metres, and can weigh around 11 tons. Although they are sharks, they are filter feeders like whales which mean they feed on tiny creatures like plankton.
Whale sharks have a flattened head with a blunt snout and very short sensory whiskers like catfish have called barbels. Their body can have a grey to brown colouration with white spots and pale stripes, and a white belly. Much like human fingerprints, the spots patterns of each whale shark is unique to the individual.
These gentle giants roam the oceans often travelling thousands of kilometres, often alone, to feed and reproduce. Like other sharks, whale sharks produce eggs and females give birth to live young, although it's never been observed. Because of fishing and other threats, they are classified as endangered and are a protected species.
Although they are frequently spotted among some Maldives islands, still little is known about them. However, the Maldives has a very active whale shark research and conservation effort in the form of the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP).
The best places to see whale sharks are at a few of the country's Marine Protected Area, namely around the islands in the Maldives' Baa Atoll and South Ari Atoll. Here are where you should go to see them:
Baa Atoll - Whale sharks will appear more frequently in areas with more plankton, and Hanifaru Bay in Baa Atoll sees a huge plankton concentration during the South West monsoon, from May to early October. The narrow portion of Hanifaru Bay sees the most whale sharks and is recognised as the largest known whale shark feeding ground in the world.
South Ari Atoll - The few areas in South Ari Atoll where you can get up close to whale sharks are around Dhigurah, Rangali, and Sun Islands' surrounding reefs. Dhigurah is also the base of the MWSRP, which you can visit to learn more about their conservation efforts and whale sharks in general.
You can spot whale sharks all year round. However, if you want the best chances of seeing them, you can visit around the beginning and end of the monsoon season, in May and November, or even December when there's good visibility and calm waters. Best time to get out to the water is around three to five hours before the high tide.
To have the best experience and also to protect these majestic creatures, here are some tips you should follow:
- Keep a safe distance from the whale sharks; at least four metres away.
- Do not obstruct the whale sharks or swim right in front of them.
- You should at least have basic swimming skills. After all, you'll be in the open ocean.
- Avoid touching them and using flash as you can provoke or irritate them.
- Bring what you need on your Maldives whale shark tour such as your waterproof camera, hat, footwear, extra clothes, eco-friendly sunscreen lotion, and a wetsuit if you have your own.
- Use only eco-friendly biodegradable sunscreen lotions to avoid harming the marine creatures of the area.
- You can use MWSRP's own Whale Shark Network Maldives app to track sightings of individual whale sharks around the world and even upload your own photo of one you encounter to help researchers.
If swimming with whale sharks is on your wishlist, then the Maldives is one of the best places to do that. You'll not only get to see them on a Maldives whale shark tour, but also learn a whole lot about these majestic creatures thanks to the Maldives having an active whale shark research community.