All About Whale Sharks - Don Silcock
Don Silcock is an Australian underwater photographer and photojournalist based in Bali. Don has dived extensively across the Indo-Pacific region – particularly in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and over the last five years he has concentrated on “big animal” encounters around the world. Starting with the humpback whales of Tonga and Florida’s Crystal River manatees and then the sperm whales of the Azores, sharks of the Bahamas, Mexican crocodiles and giant mantas and the famous Sardine Run.
One of his favorite trips was the Afuera aggregation of whale sharks in Mexico’s Yucatan. Don has also photographed whale sharks in Mozambique and PNG so we thought we would get his insight on these wonderful creatures.
Why whale sharks?
Well… they are the biggest fish in the ocean! They are also very much an enigma because so much is not known about them. As recently as just 10 years ago they were thought to be very much solitary creatures that roamed the oceans with no clear pattern as to where and why, but recent research indicates that they can actually be quite social animals in the right circumstances. Currently it would appear that whale sharks aggregate together when there is an abundance of food, such as the coral spawning at Ningaloo in Western Australia or the massive gathering in the Yucatan to the north of Isla Mujeres.
Similarly it was thought until quite recently that large pregnant females migrate to the Galapagos to give birth, but some new research indicates that may not be the case. So the reality is that nobody really knows for sure and there may well be other huge aggregations occurring that are just not known about.
What is your most memorable whale shark experience?
Without a doubt that would be my trip to Isla Mujeres in Mexico for the annual Afuera whale shark aggregation. Prior to that trip my experience with whale sharks had been a very random one… I had been in the water with them at Tofo in Southern Mozambique where most afternoons you can do a “safari” to look for them and then get it the water to snorkel and try to photograph them. Unless you are really lucky and get one that is vertical in the water, “bottle feeding” on a patch of plankton, these encounters are typically brief and fleeting… You can read more about that on this link: https://indopacificimages.com/southern-africa/diving-mozambique-tofo-whale-sharks/
Similarly in PNG where my encounters have been underwater on scuba, the encounters have also been fleeting. But at the Afuera there are literally hundreds of whale sharks feeding on the abundance of food available there and so you can have encounter after encounter: https://indopacificimages.com/americas/the-whale-sharks-of-isla-mujeres/
Is There a Difference Between Encountering a Whale Shark and Other Large Ocean Creatures?
Encounters with whale sharks are quite different from most other large underwater animals because of the fundamental nature of the animal… Large sharks such as Great Whites, Tigers or Hammerheads are predators whose role in the ocean is to take care of the dead, the dumb and the dying – which they do by killing and eating them! They are always very aware of their surroundings and act “shark-like” in the water and you counter that behavior by exhibiting confidence in much the same way you would with a dangerous dog.
Whale encounters are somewhat similar to those with whale sharks in that they are often brief and fleeting – kind of a “swim by whaling…” But because whales are mammals and are very social animals generally, they tend to be much more sentient and there is always a chance that they will get curious and come to check you out.
Whale sharks are much less so and because they are so big and have no natural predators they seem to just cruise along almost oblivious to their surroundings.
Best Time to See Whale Sharks?
It all depends on the location. For example, at Tofo there is a known mechanism that ensures a constant supply of food – so the whale sharks are there all year round. Whereas at Ningaloo it is during the coral spawning in March/April and at the Afuera in Mexico it is July and August.
Don’s Handy Hints
The best advice I can offer is simply “just do it” because I am sure you will love it! Being in the water with large animals like whale sharks is life-changing and you see the world from a completely different perspective