I was snorkeling off the Pacific Coast of Mexico with my friend and former dive instructor, Ceci, when I saw what looked like a spiny tetherball with a beak spiraling from the depths towards the surface. I lifted my mask and Ceci lifted hers, preempting my question.

“It’s a blowfish,” she said, matter-of-factly. Then, “All fish are weird.”

To wit: the whale shark. Not a whale at all, and only technically a shark (with a cartilaginous skeleton, gill slits, and pectoral fins it belongs to the shark family of fish), the whale shark has an enormous mouth with up to 350 rows of tiny teeth and 10 filter pads. Like baleen whales, they’re filter-feeders and eat by straining algae, plankton, and krill from the seawater, but their name more likely derives from the fact that at sizes of up to 40 feet long and 47,000 pounds, they are the largest fish on the planet, and can live for up to 80 years. Weird, right?

Whale sharks live in all tropical and warm temperate seas, so the regions where you can swim with them — they’re known to be gentle with divers — are numerous. Whale shark numbers, however, are dwindling; the animal is on the endangered species list.

The migration patterns of whale sharks aren’t fully understood, but there are ways to increase your chances of a sighting. Where you catch up with the whale sharks will depend on the time of year and the region you’re in.

This article was originally published on November 19, 2012.

1

Oslob Cebu, Philippines

When: Year Round
Skill: Snorkelling for Beginners, Dive option included too.
Do it: Oslob Whale Sharks
Photo: Pacific Klaus

2

Mahe, Seychelles

When: August - October
Skill: Beginner to experienced
Do it: Aqua-Firma, Dive Seychelles, Big Blue Divers
Photo: Bunn

3

Isla Mujeres, Mexico

When: May - September; the annual Whale Shark Festival typically takes place in mid-June
Skill: Beginner to experienced. SCUBA not permitted; snorkels only
Do it: Enrique’s Unique Dives, Searious Diving, Ceviche Tours
Photo: kozyndan

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4

Puerto Ayora, Galapagos, Ecuador

When: May - October; best month is July
Skill: Depends on the dive but strong currents make this region unsuitable for beginners
Do it: Aqua-Firma, Academy Bay Diving, Galextur, Scuba Galapagos
Photo: tobze

5

Belize Barrier Reef, Belize

When: March - June
Skill: Beginner to experienced
Do it: Splash Dive Center, Hamanasi Adventure and Dive Resort, Seahorse Dive Shop
Photo: Martin Spragg Photography

6

Ningaloo Reef, Australia

When: April - July
Skill: Beginner to experienced
Do it: Three Islands Whale Shark Dive, Ningaloo Dreaming, Ningaloo Blue Dive
Photo: Zac Wolf

7

Tofo, Mozambique

When: November - April
Skill: Beginner to experienced
Do it: SCUBA Mozambique, Diversity SCUBA
Photo: Whale Shark Conservation, Mozambique

8

Ari and Baa Atolls, Maldives

When: May - December on the western side; December - April on the eastern side
Skill: Beginner to experienced; no SCUBA required
Do it: Maldives Dive Travel
Photo: Rory Moore

9

Donsol Bay, Philippines

When: February - April
Skill: Beginner to experienced. SCUBA not permitted in the bay; snorkels only
Do it: Donsol EcoTour
Photo: Darren A.

10

Richelieu Rock, Thailand

When: Feb - May
Skill: Intermediate to experienced
Do it: Blue Guru Diving, Sunrise Divers, Sharkey Scuba
Photo: Marcel Waldis Underwater Photography

11

Utila Bay, Honduras

When: Year round, but Utila Dive Lodge and the Whale Shark and Oceanic Center partner each year to offer "Whale Shark Weeks," during which divers can participate in whale shark research, photo ID, DNA sampling, and tagging (pictured).
Skill: Beginner to experienced
Do it: Utila Dive Lodge, Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center
Photo: Vladimir Levantovsky - Effervescent Photography

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