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Swimming with whale sharks

Swimming with whale sharks is an exciting and rewarding experience. These huge yet gentle giants visit Ningaloo Marine Park, off the north-west coast of Western Australia, between March and July each year. Their seasonal visits have led to the development of an increasingly popular, ecotourism industry.

Whale shark
Whale shark - Photo © Tourism WA

The Department of Parks and Wildlife is responsible for protecting and managing whale sharks in Western Australian waters.

Visitors wanting to swim with whale sharks in Ningaloo Marine Park have increased in number from just 1,000 in 1993 to over 17,000 in 2011.

The department has therefore introduced a licensing system to manage commercial operations within Ningaloo Marine Park and reduce disturbance to whale sharks.

  • Only operators licensed by the department are permitted to conduct commercial tours with whale sharks.
  • Two codes of conduct have also been developed in conjunction with tour operators, applying to people swimming with whale sharks, and vessels (private and commercial) operating in the vicinity of a whale shark.

Code of conduct

To ensure you have a safe, enjoyable experience, and to prevent the animals from being harmed or disturbed,
please follow the code of conduct when interacting with whale sharks.

Exclusive contact zone

Contact Zone
  • An exclusive contact zone of 250 metres radius applies around any whale shark.
  • Only one vessel at a time may operate within the zone for a maximum of 90 minutes and at a speed of eight knots or less.
  • The first vessel within that zone is considered to be ‘in contact’.
    A second vessel to arrive must keep a distance of 250 metres from the shark.
    Any other vessels must be 400 metres from the shark.

Vessel operators in the contact zone:

  • must not approach closer than 30 metres to a shark
  • should approach from ahead of the shark’s direction of travel when dropping swimmers into the water
  • must display both whale shark (commercial vessels only) and dive flags when swimmers are in the water.

Commercial tour operators operate under similar requirements to other vessels but specific licence conditions also apply to their operation.

Swimmers in the contact zone must not:

  • attempt to touch or ride on a whale shark
  • restrict the normal movement or behaviour of the shark
  • approach closer than three metres from the head or body and four metres from the tail
  • use flash photography or cameras on extension poles
  • use motorised propulsion aids
  • exceed more than 10 people in the water at any one time
whale shark zone 2014

A Closed Season Notice published under the Wildlife Conservation Act sets out rules for the protection of whale sharks, which must be followed by both commercial and private vessels when they are within the "exclusive contact zone".

 

Reducing disturbance

Whale sharks can be disturbed by uncontrolled snorkelling and vessel activities, and may display avoidance behaviours such as banking, diving, eye rolling and changing speed or direction in response to swimmers and boats.

Generally, the best way to enjoy a whale shark experience is to participate in a tour with experienced and trained whale shark tour operators, who are able to locate the sharks and correctly apply the code of conduct. This will give you a greater chance to:

  • view the whale shark clearly and for longer
  • minimise disturbance to the whale shark
  • see whale sharks behaving normally in their natural environment - the essence of the ecotour experience.