Interested in swimming with whale sharks on your visit to Utila? Read along for all you need to know…
Whale or shark?
Whale sharks are the largest carnivorous fish and often referred to as gentle giants of the sea.
When to go?
Anyone who comes to Utila dreams of being lucky enough to go swimming with whale sharks whether it be while diving or snorkelling. Utila boasts the ability to see whale sharks year round however the best time to spot these gentle giants is in April and May.
Is it common to see them?
The day I arrived in Utila, it had been over a week since there had been swimming with whale sharks. There had been no sightings. While I was optimistic, I braced myself for the realistic possibility that it would be unlikely that I would be diving with the whale sharks. It wasn’t until I did my first dive that I was told that it would be unlikely that I would even dive with the whale sharks given they preferred deeper waters to feed rather than theme shallower reefs we’d been diving.
Things started to shift on my third day, as there had been more sightings of whale sharks. That afternoon a bunch of people returned after chartering a boat with amazing photos of incredibly large spotted whale shark contrasting with the deep blue sea. I was so jealous! Why wasn’t I on that boat?!
How to see them?
My mission for the following day was to see whale sharks. I walked dive shop to dive shop asking if they were going out to see whale sharks today. All responded no, boats were either full already or there had been no sightings today therefore they wouldn’t be going out. After our fourth dive shop we returned to our own shop (Underwater Vision) where I asked the captain whether there were any whale sharks out there. He looked at me with a smile and said “ssshhh I just got a call from my friend, they are out there”.
What to expect?
I found a way to get my name on the next dive boat going out from our dive shop and then a group of us begged with the dive master to let us on. She said there was room for us on the boat but not enough equipment. She pulled up a kids mask and said these are too small, I told her I’d take it and make it work. Between the 5 of us extra snorkellers we had kids masks, googles with no snorkel and ripped flippers. We didn’t care, we were optimistic we’d be seeing whale sharks today.
We cruised out into the deep sea. We’d look over at our captain every now and them who would be on his phone or fixed on the horizon looking for birds. Birds on the surface of the water and flying above are attracted to the small fish or plankton which are being brought to the surface by tuna which are chasing them. Whale sharks are also eating the plankton, so seeing birds in the distance is a good sign that there will be whale sharks in the area.
Out at sea
Once the birds were spotted we were told to get our snorkels and fins on and the sit at he back of the boat huddled up as close as possible to get ready to quickly slip into the water not making any splashes. Then the captain and dive master watched for the dorsel fins of the whale sharks and told us to “Go, GO GOOOO”. We had a false start, once we got into the water we couldn’t see the sharks but on our second try I got a quick glimpse of the whale shark before it swam deep into the ocean going out of sight. I was one of only two people who saw this whale shark.
On our next jump it was incredible. We followed a 25 foot whale shark feeding on the plankton, coming to the surface for air and then swimming in amongst the plankton and tuna.
We went for a third and final time and got extremely close to this whale shark. He had a little passenger swimming underneath him, he was smaller but swam around for a while before disappearing into the deep blue.
We were all incredibly excited. We got to see whale sharks on Utila, how lucky were we?! We had the biggest smiles on our faces. As we left to get back to diving, we saw another school of tuna jumping over the surface of the water. This time from the bow of the boat, we looked down on the dorsal fins of the whale sharks moving around in the water, they looked huge! We were the told the second shark we saw was much larger than these two. Then a whale shark came up to the surface right next to our boat. I don’t think we could have planned for a better day than that.
Tips for seeing whale sharks
- Talk to boat captains. If whale sharks have been spotted they will know.
- See if there is space to join a diving boat already going out to sea. If there are whale sharks in the water, the boat most definitely would try to find them. Once the whale sharks are spotted and you enter the water, a 300 lempira or $15 fee is then paid to the captain. Remember the purpose of the trip out to sea is to do two dives (whale sharks are secondary), therefore once you see the sharks you will stay in the boat for at least another 2-3 hours while the dive group dives. But you’ll have your snorkel to explore the reefs.
- Another great option is to charter your own boat and captain. If you have the numbers see if a dive company has a spare boat which could take out a group. This way the soul focus of the trip is spotting whale sharks.
- If you are having difficulties finding a boat, you could always go with the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Centre, their focus is finding these creatures however they will charge you $60 whether you see them of not.
How to show respect when swimming with whale sharks
They are a number of principles you should consider when swimming with whale sharks, including:
- Don’t make contact – don’t touch or closely follow
- Respect their space – don’t go within three metres of the whale sharks allowing them the space to move freely
- Refrain from using flash photography