Snorkeller swimming with whale shark.

Have you ever thought about snorkelling in the ocean with a fish that is bigger than a school bus? no? Well, you should! because swimming with whale sharks is one of the most amazing experiences you will have in the open waters of Exmouth, Australia.

These gentle giants frequent the Ningaloo Reef between March and August, with peak season seeing up to 600 of them. This is one of the only places in the world where you will see whale sharks gather together. 

If you are planning a Western Australia road trip, you need to add this to your itinerary!

Everything you need to know about swimming with whale sharks   

 What is a whale shark?    

A whale shark isn’t actually a whale; it is a filter-feeding shark. These gentle giants are the largest fish in the ocean, with an average size of 12 metres long.

The name whale shark comes from the fact that they are as big as whales and filter feed. Whale sharks are the tortoises of the ocean, reaching ages of 150 and swimming leisurely at 3mph.

They travel long distances to different feeding grounds, and that is what makes Exmouth so special: these creatures come back to the same feeding grounds. 

Another great quality about the whale shark is that it typically swims near the surface of the ocean, making it the perfect fish to snorkel with. 

Each whale shark has its own unique pattern of spots and stripes, like our human fingerprints. 

Sadly, only 10% of these fish will make it to adulthood.        

Whale shark in the Ningaloo Reef.

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When is whale shark season in Exmouth, WA? 

The whale shark migration to the Ningaloo reef in Exmouth starts in March and goes through to August. However, some years you can see the season go until September/October. Although most tour companies will stop operating from the middle to the end of August, as it is less likely to see them. 

Some companies will offer shoulder-season tours.

When is the best time to see whale sharks in Exmouth? 

The whale shark tour companies in Exmouth will start running from the middle of March to the end of August. I visited and swam with them in June 2023, and I was fortunate enough to see four different whale sharks. We knew this because of their different markings.

Two snorkellers under water.

Is it safe to swim with whale sharks? 

Like all activities with wild animals, there is always a certain amount of danger; however, they don’t call them gentle giants for no reason.

Whale sharks are very safe to swim with and are unphased by humans. They are friendly creatures who are happy to have some company while they are swimming along.

To minimise the risk of anything bad happening, make sure you are truthful about your swimming capabilities and listen to the safety briefings the tour guides tell you. 

This is a really magical experience, and while I was on my tour, I felt very safe despite being in the middle of the ocean. 

Whale shark swimming in the ocean.

Where do you swim with whale sharks in Exmouth?

You will find whale sharks in the depths of the Ningaloo Reef. 

This world heritage site is 160 miles (260km). According to Wiki, this is Australia’s largest fringing coral reef and the only large coral reef positioned close to a landmass. 

The Ningaloo Reef is best known for its whale sharks, but it is also the migration path for dolphins, dugongs, manta rays, and humpback whales.

How do the tour companies know where the whale sharks are? 

Although the skippers of the boats will have a rough idea of where the whale sharks will be, they can’t read the creatures’ minds, and the ocean is huge! 

The tour companies partner with spotter planes to gauge where the whale sharks are swimming. They then take the coordinates given from the plane to position themselves in the path of these gentle giants.   

The plane and boat are in constant communication with each other to make sure they give their guests the best chance of seeing a whale shark. 

Boat in the ocean.

The Best Whale Shark Tour Companies 

Exmouth Dive and Whale Sharks Ningaloo

📍 Book it here / ⏳ Duration: 8 hours  / 💰 Price: $499    

Exmouth Dive and Whale Sharks Ningaloo is the tour operator I booked with, and I cannot sing their praises enough. The team was great and really knowledgeable.  

We had 7 swims throughout the day, 2 snorkelling on a reef, 1 with a manta ray, and 4 with whale sharks. 

The crew is informative and helpful and tells you how to get the best experience from each encounter. 

Emma, one of the snorkelling spotters, was unbelievable. I have pure gratitude for her! She went above and beyond to enhance my experience. 

I am not a strong swimmer and have had a bad experience with snorkelling, which has given me anxiety. I was super apprehensive about the whole experience. But Emma made sure I was able to see the whale shark and swim alongside it. 

Breakfast and lunch are provided, along with a celebratory beverage, when you have finished your snorkel. 

We were also lucky enough to see dolphins, donongs, a turtle, and a pelican! Nick, the skipper, gave us a good amount of time admiring all the animals before sailing us all home. 

The snorkelling trip is not cheap; the price is $499 (£257), which includes photos and video. But you will need to provide a USB stick for them, or you can purchase a whale shark one for $25 (£13).

I do appreciate it when photos are included, because you can be more present in the moment.

Whale shark in the ocean.

Ningaloo Discovery

📍Book it here / ⏳Duration: 9 hours / 💰Price: Catamaran $585, Powerboat $485 

Ningaloo Discovery is an award winning tour company that is eco-certified, meaning you can swim next to whale sharks, manta rays, and turtles knowing you are doing it responsibly and sustainably. 

They offer two types of boats for you to choose from: a catamaran or a powerboat. The catamaran is a better boat choice if you get seasick.

The Ningaloo Discovery team also has SUPs and kayaks you can use in the afternoon if the waters are calm enough.

Ningaloo Discovery has extensive knowledge and a passion for whale sharks; they are a great company to adventure with.

Ningaloo Reef from the boat

Three Islands Whale Shark Dive

📍 Book it here / ⏳ Duration: 9 hours / 💰 Price: $475

Another award-winning company is the Three Islands Whale Shark Dive.

This incredible business has partnered with Carbon Neutral and has planted over 5000 trees in WA since joining the programme.

While the spotter plane is roaming for whale sharks, you will be taken to a snorkel spot in the Ningaloo Reef, which is home to 500 species of fish and 250 species of coral. 

There will also be a chance to see turtles and manta rays.

Three islands aim to give you as much time in the water as they can, with multiple swims with the whale sharks throughout the day.

Two manta rays in the ocean.

Should I book in advance? 

To avoid disappointment, I highly recommend booking in advance. We booked our trip a month prior and had limited options as these tours are popular.

There are 11 whale shark tour companies, each carrying up to 20 passengers.

This is one of the best activities you can do on the west coast of Australia. Do not risk missing out. 

What’s included on a swimming with whale sharks tour? 

Each tour company will slightly differ, but usually this is what’s included on a snorkelling tour with the whale sharks: 

  • hotel pickup and drop-off
  • snorkel equipment and wetsuits 
  • Flotation devices, if needed 
  • Morning tea and lunch
  • Celebratory drink
  • Photo package

When booking your tour, I highly recommend booking a tour that has access to a spotter plane. This will increase your chances of seeing and swimming with the whale sharks. 

Boy watching water from the boat.

How big are the groups on a whale shark tour? 

The whale shark tour companies will take out a maximum of 20 passengers per boat. However, they will divide you into groups of 10 for each snorkel. This is to make sure we don’t overwhelm the whale shark.

 Is it guaranteed that you’ll be able to swim with whale sharks?

As the whale sharks are swimming in the wild, no tour company can 100% guarantee that you will get the opportunity to swim with a whale shark. However, that being said, there is a high possibility you will get to swim with them, especially if the boat is in communication with a spotter plane.  

Each tour company has its own policy in the unlikely event that you don’t see a whale shark. Most of the companies will offer you a seat on the next available tour or a 3 year voucher. Some will offer a refund. 

We got to swim with four during our time on the water.

What should you pack for a whale shark tour?

The whale shark tour companies in Exmouth provide a lot on their tours,including food and beverages, snorkel equipment, wetsuits, and sunscreen. But here are some other essentials I recommend taking:

  • Reef safe sunscreen
  • A towel
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat 
  • Seasickness medication if you are prone to getting ill 

Most tour providers include photos, so I recommend leaving the GoPro at home and just being in the moment.  

Do you need to be a strong swimmer to participate in a whale shark excursion?

While it is advantageous to be a strong swimmer, it is not a requirement. The whale shark snorkelling tours are long, and you do need some level of fitness as you can be doing up to several swims.

Each boat will provide floatation devices for those who feel they need extra support in the water. The guides on the boats are there to help; do not be afraid to tell them you are nervous.

One of our guides in the water, called Emma, helped me so much. She made sure I had the opportunity to swim next to the whale shark. 

Girl snorkelling along the Ningaloo Reef.

What to expect on a whale shark tour?

Each whale shark snorkel experience will slightly differ, but this was the layout of the day we had with Exmouth Dive and whale shark Ningaloo: 

We got picked up from our campground at 7am and were transported by minibus to the Ningaloo Reef boat ramp.

On the bus, we learned some history about Exmouth and filled out our waiver form. 

When arriving at the boat ramp, we took a small powerboat to a bigger vessel.

We then got snorkels and wetsuits and headed to our introductory snorkel spot. This was where we could get our sea legs back and test the waters with our equipment. 

Shawl of fish swimming along the coral reef of Ningaloo.

Back on board, and there was morning tea and snacks prepared for us. Then we had a spontaneous swim with a manta ray. 

Afterwards, we were shown the procedure for how to safely and ethically swim with the whale sharks. We were split up into two groups of ten and briefed on the distance we needed to be from the whale shark. They also explained not to swim in front, underneath, or on top of this majestic creature. 

This is to give the gentle giant its space while still appreciating its beauty. 

When you are in the water, you form a line and let the whale shark swim past you, as they are surface level creatures. Then when the whale shark has made its way past you, then you can swim alongside it.

When you can no longer see the whale shark, then you are told to stop swimming. The boat will then circle back and collect you.   

We managed to get four whale shark swims, with a break in the middle for lunch.

We then had one more chance to swim along the Ningaloo Reef and admire all the tropical fish. The crew then came out with celebratory drinks as we headed back to Exmouth. 

On the way back, there was so much marine life that our skipper, Nick, stopped the boat so we could watch. We saw a pelican, dolphins, a turtle, and a couple of dugongs, which are endangered and a rare sight to see.

The final part of the adventure is going back to get your photos the next day.

Whale shark USB stick.

How much money does it cost to swim with whale sharks in Exmouth? 

Swimming with whale sharks isn’t a cheap excursion; however, it is a once in a lifetime bucket list opportunity, so it is 100% worth the money. A whale shark tour will cost between $400 and $600.

Is swimming with whale sharks worth it?

Absolutely. Hands down, swimming with whale sharks is worth the money. It is unlike any snorkel trip you have experienced. 

If you are planning a Western Australia road trip, this needs to be included in your itinerary. There are loads of free campsites along the coast of WA and lots of free/affordable excursions, which will allow you to budget for this incredible activity.

Final thoughts

And that concludes everything you need to know about swimming with whale sharks. I hope this post has inspired you to book this bucket list experience and hyped you up for your future Western Australia road trip.

As Always, Happy Exploring!

Snorkeller making the Peace sign and another one waving.

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