Big Animals – Whale Sharks, Mexico, Philippines
Few things sound better to an underwater photographer’s ear than a shout of “whale shark!” The ocean’s biggest fish (growing up to 40 feet long) is occasionally seen in many of our favorite tropical dive destinations around the world, but to get the best whale shark encounters, several locations have congregating whale shark populations during certain seasons. There’s no need to worry about getting too close to the whale shark as they only eat plankton. Those awesome mouth-wide-open shots are not in an effort to eat a photographer—rather to get as much plankton into their bellies as possible.
ISLA MUJERES, MEXICO
The whale sharks are usually found about 10 miles offshore and only snorkeling is allowed. They can move fast so be ready to swim and freedive. Strobes are not allowed, but they would likely only slow a swimmer down, and with all the plankton in the water, would only cause backscatter. Also keep an eye out for mantas, schools of mobula rays, and the occasional mola mola.
When to Dive
Late May through early September is the best time, with the largest congregations in July and August.
You should invest some time before the trip to practice your freediving skills and improve aerobic conditioning. If you can dive down to 30 feet and hold your breath for even 10 seconds, it will dramatically increase your compositional opportunities.
One of the best opportunities to capture whale sharks is when they are in “botella” position. A botella is when the shark opens its mouth and turns vertical in the water column. This will slow down the shark enough for you to compose; otherwise, they are surprisingly fast. Also, it tends to be a more unique image than the hoards of horizontal shots.
This one is easier said than done: Just take a moment to stop and think. This might sound obvious, but the experience can be overwhelming. Being in the water with dozens of bus-sized whale sharks can make you forget your name, much less how to take a good picture. Remember also that there’s no need to spend the whole time chasing after sharks and not focusing on good photographic practices—there are literally hundreds of whale sharks around.—Matt Weiss
This sleepy fishing village only recently appeared on the whale shark radar. The fisherman used to fear the huge whale sharks that showed up commonly in groups of 20 or more, but now they take people out to see them.
When to Dive
November through June is the best time, with March to April having the highest concentrations.
Human connection is the story here—the connection between the local community and the whale sharks. But don't spend your time trying to get natural history images of whales sharks on reefs with people. Instead focus on capturing that interaction between local fishermen and the whale sharks.
Get that perfect split shot. Oslob offers ideal conditions for capturing that epic split shot in stable conditions. You have a massive and stationary underwater subject with relevant above-water supporting subjects in close proximity. Use a high f-stop with high ISO to capture enough detail below and above water.
Be part of the solution. The tourism ethic is still developing in Oslob. Instead of rushing into the fray, set the example for positive and respectful interaction with the whale sharks. Understand that this tourism industry is still relatively new, but essential to the livelihoods of this coastal community, and objectively contribute to fostering improved tourism practices.—Shawn Heinrichs
Other popular whale shark photography sites include Utila, Honduras, where whale sharks can be seen year-round but in large numbers in March, April, August, and September. Go with the Utila Aggressor. The Maldives see whale sharks in the western islands between May and December, and in the eastern islands from December to April. Go with Aggressor Fleet. Tofo, Mozambique has whale sharks between October and March and also visit Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef from March to July.