Meet the biggest fish in the sea—the whale shark! Whale sharks (or Rhincodon Typus) are actually sharks, not whales. But don’t let the size of these gentle giants scare you. Whale sharks are actually one of the most docile marine species, and pose no threat to humans.

Measuring up to 20 metres long, the whale shark holds the title of the king of the sea, as the biggest fish and shark in the ocean. Fortunately for most marine life (and us humans), however, this gentle species of shark enjoys eating tiny plankton.

Their appetite for plankton and preference for warm waters make Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef the perfect place to migrate to in the spring. These friendly creatures can be spotted swimming alongside boats or playfully interacting with scuba divers.

To help you get acquainted with these sociable sharks, we’ve created a guide to whale sharks 101 with everything you’d want to know about this majestic species.

Whale Shark Behaviour

One of the most common questions our marine biologists get is ‘are whale sharks dangerous?’ Fortunately for anyone visiting Ningaloo Reef in the spring, the answer is a resounding no! Whale Sharks are actually considered one of the most docile species of fish, making them perfect swimming companions in Exmouth’s pristine waters. Experts agree that these gentle giants pose no significant danger to humans as their diet consists of plankton and tiny fish.

Whale sharks are usually solitary creatures, although they are known to gather in large schools as they migrate to areas with an abundance of plankton and warm waters—like Ningaloo Reef. They are known for their friendly behaviour as they will often swim alongside boats. 

Whale Shark Appearance and Characteristics

If there’s one thing you’ll notice about the whale shark right off the bat, it is its massive size. On average, whale sharks measure between 9 and 12 metres long, although there have been accounts of whale sharks as large as 20 metres. They can also weigh over 12,500 kilograms, allowing them to secure the title of biggest fish (and shark) in the sea.

To match their large bodies, the whale shark also has an exceptionally large mouth—measuring around 1.5 metres wide. Inside their mouths, are anywhere between 300 and 350 rows of teeth—which they rarely use because they are filter feeders.

Similar to baleen whales, whale sharks passively filter their food through a system called cross-flow filtration. Their heads are rather flat, allowing them to open their mouth very wide to scoop up tiny fish and plankton. Their food is then filtered through their gills.

Each whale shark has a unique spotty pattern on its body. Its thick skin is rough to the touch, protecting this gentle beast from scratches and other harm. It also features a pair of dorsal fins, a pair of pectoral fins, and a caudal fin.

Habitat

Whale sharks love warm tropical waters. Every spring, this docile species migrates to Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef, giving visitors the chance to swim alongside these gentle giants. They love coastal areas, which is why the coral spawning of Ningaloo Reef’s continental shelf is the perfect habitat. Whale sharks also enjoy plankton, krill, and tiny fish as their main diet, which is why they often congregate in areas where these species are abundant.

Outside of Western Australia, whale sharks can also be found in other tropical waters where temperatures range from 21-30° C. Most of the waters they inhabit fall between the 30° north and 35° south latitudes, in countries like the Philippines, South Africa, Mexico, Belize, and Ecuador although Western Australia is considered the best viewing areas in the world.

Best Time of the Year to See Whale Sharks

In Western Australia, the best time of the year to see whale sharks is in the spring months between March and August. Every year during this time, whale sharks migrate to the World Heritage site of Ningaloo Reef, off the coast of Exmouth. This is considered one of the best sites in the world for whale shark snorkelling as the warm coastal waters attract countless whale sharks to the region. Visitors here can have an unforgettable encounter with these amazing creatures, coming face to face with these friendly sharks in WA’s pristine waters.

Threats to Whale Sharks and Conservation Efforts

Whale sharks are listed by the IUNC as an endangered species due to their declining population. Like many other marine species, the biggest threat to whale sharks is, unfortunately, humans. These gentle giants are hunted in certain countries for their meat, oils, and fins, which are considered valuable on the international market. In addition to being hunted, whale sharks often get injured and sometimes die accidentally due to boating accidents or by falling victims to bycatch (accidentally getting trapped in fishing gear).

Because of the threats already facing these beautiful creatures, it’s essential to take maximum care to prevent accidentally disturbing this endangered species. If you’re planning to go swimming with whale sharks, it’s important to only visit them in the company of licensed Exmouth operators, like our team at Ningaloo Whaleshark ‘N’ Dive.

We have a marine biologist on board each of our tours, who understands whale shark behaviour and who can answer any questions you may have about these gentle giants. This ensures an up-close encounter that is unforgettable, educational, and harmless to the whales.

Outside of Western Australia, whale sharks can also be found in other tropical waters where temperatures range from 21-30° C. Most of the waters they inhabit fall between the 30° north and 35° south latitudes, in countries like the Philippines, South Africa, Mexico, Belize, and Ecuador although Western Australia is considered the best viewing areas in the world.

Swimming with Whale Sharks in Exmouth

If you’re ready for an unforgettable experience of a lifetime, we invite you to get up close and personal with the gentle giants of the sea—whale sharks. Not only will you be able to say you swam with actual sharks in Western Australia’s pristine waters, but you’ll have the chance to speak with one of our passionate marine biologists to learn everything you want to know about the biggest fish of the sea.

Our Ningaloo Whaleshark ‘N’ Dive tours depart daily, allowing swimmers of all ages to snorkel alongside these beautiful giants.