Whale shark encounters rank near the top of any diving bucket list. With a head like the hood of a Ford, dizzying dots and tiny eyes incongruous with its sheer mass, this gentle animal is the largest fish in the oceans. The irony for divers, of course, is that you’re most likely to find whale sharks near the water’s surface with a snorkel clenched between your molars instead of a regulator. But it doesn’t make the experience any less sensational. If you're looking to scratch whale sharks off your own bucket list, each of the following destinations rank among the best spots to come face-to-face with these docile beauties.
1. Holbox, Mexico and Isla Contoy, Mexico
Local fishermen in Holbox, an island off the Yucatán Peninsula, paid no attention to the whale sharks that frequented their waters every summer, since they didn’t consider the animals a food source. But when tourists who’d been swimming with the creatures in Africa started spreading the word that whale sharks were to be found in Holbox, the whale sharks became one of the town's prime attractions. Recently, however, the sharks have been gathering off nearby Isla Contoy.
When to Go: Mid-July through the end of August for the best encounters.
2. Gladden Spit, Belize
The encounters here aren't as reliable as they once were, but the spawning of cubera snappers draws the whale sharks to Gladden Spit, near Placencia, Belize (about 100 miles south of Belize City), and three days either side of the full moon gives you the best chance at seeing the mammoth fish. Boats have a 90-minute window in which to catch the whale sharks, while divers and snorkelers are required to maintain a 10-foot distance. Flash photography isn’t permitted to protect the animals, but don't worry, diving with the mammoth creatures is a mind-blowing encounter worth every bit of stringent-rule-following.
When to Go: Plan your visit between April and May, when the snapper spawning lures the whale sharks to Gladden Spit.
3. Honda Bay, Palawan, Philippines
Everyone already knows about Donsol to the north, but for a different kind of whale shark encounter head to Palawan’s Puerto Princesa. Dive boats scout for whale sharks between dives or on custom trips to see the animals and then hustle you into the water with a snorkel and mask to take in the spectacle. You can go through a dive shop to “schedule” an encounter, and local guides — often fishermen — also take visitors to sea in traditional outrigger bangkas to spot whale sharks.
When to Go: The calmest sea conditions occur April through November.
4. Cabo San Sebastian, Mozambique
Home to one of the greatest concentrations of whale sharks in Africa and pristine coral reefs unpressured by mass tourism, Mozambique is one those swoon-worthy, off-the-beaten-path destinations that wins you serious bragging rights among your buddies. Most encounters with the whale sharks here happen when the animals are feeding on plankton and krill near the surface. Cabo San Sebastian's reefs (66 to 131 feet deep) are where they’re often seen, with most animals around 30 feet long.
When to Go: November through February offers the best conditions.
5. Utila, Honduras
It can be hit-or-miss here, but impromptu snorkel sessions between dives are when nearly all whale shark encounters occur in Utila — one of the few places in the world where the animals can be spotted year-round. The deeper waters off the north side of the island are where the animals are most often seen, and guides look for the cues of water boiling with jumping tuna and flocking seabirds.
When to Go: Year-round.