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The coastal town of Exmouth in Western Australia is home to more than just stunning beaches and crystal-clear waters – it’s also a top spot for swimming with the world’s largest fish, the whale shark.
Exmouth is a gateway to the Ningaloo reef, which is a UNESCO world heritage site and has one of the world’s largest aggregations of whale sharks in the entire world.
There are up to 600 whale sharks in Exmouth at the peak of whale shark season, making it one of the best places in the world to see these gentle giants up close.
There are many eco-friendly whale shark tours available in Exmouth that respect the whale sharks’ natural habitat and migration patterns, so you can be sure you’re swimming with these creatures in a sustainable way.
Of course, swimming with whale sharks isn’t exactly something you do every day (unless you’re one really lucky person), so here are 15 things you need to know before swimming with whale sharks in Exmouth. We cover everything in this blog from the best tours to what to bring – let’s dig in!
1. About Whale Sharks
Although they are called ‘sharks’, whale sharks are actually fish – in fact, they are the world’s largest fish!
They are filter feeders, which means that they can’t bite or chew. These gentle giants eat small fish, shrimp, and plankton. They come to the Ningaloo reef due to the abundance of food there, and their movement patterns are thought to be tied to the spawning of coral and plankton.
Less than 10% of whale sharks survive to adulthood, but the ones that do can live for up to 150 years!
Whale sharks have flat heads, wide mouths, and gray-brown backs which are covered in white spots and pale stripes. They’re also very slow swimmers, moving at a pace of around 5 kilometers (3 miles) per hour. This means that you can easily swim alongside them.
On average, whale sharks measure between 5.5 – 10 meters (18 – 33 feet) in length. However, the largest recorded whale shark was an impressive 18 meters (60 feet) long! And in terms of weight, they’re around 18 metric tonnes (41,000 lbs), but can reach up to 20 tonnes. These are some pretty heavy fish.
Sadly, whale sharks are endangered due to overfishing, bycatch (when they are caught in fishing nets intended for other fish), and being hit by boats. The population has halved over the past 75 years and now it’s estimated that there are between 200,000-240,000 whale sharks left in the world.
Fortunately, whale shark tours in Exmouth tend to be sustainably run so that they don’t harm or affect the creatures in any way. It’s important to do your research to make sure you’re swimming with a reputable company. With some tours, a portion of the fee goes towards whale shark research and conservation.
2. When is the Best Time to see Whale Sharks in Exmouth?
The best time to see whale sharks in Exmouth is between mid-March to the end of August, which is when they migrate to the waters around the Ningaloo Reef.
3. When is Whale Shark Season in Exmouth?
Exmouth whale shark tours run between 15 March and 31 August every year. Sometimes, tours continue into September if the whale sharks stick around longer than expected.
Timings do fluctuate slightly from year to year. Often, tour guarantees only last until 1 August. To ensure that you see whale sharks, the best time to swim with them is between April and July, as this is the peak of whale shark season in Exmouth.
Related Read: Another place you can swim with whale sharks is in Mexico. Learn all about swimming with whale sharks in Cancun!
4. Where do you go to swim with whale sharks in Exmouth?
Exmouth whale shark tours take you out on a boat to the Ningaloo reef. You need to go out pretty far to find whale sharks, as they swim in deep waters. This means you need a boat and a tour to swim with these gentle giants.
Most whale shark tours will also take you snorkeling in shallower waters so that you can enjoy the vibrant coral of the Ningaloo Reef, too.
5. What are the best Whale Shark Tours in Exmouth?
Deluxe WhaleShark Swim Tour on the Ningaloo Reef from Exmouth
We opted for this whale shark tour and it was an incredible experience. It’s a full-day tour, so you’ll have hours to enjoy cruising on the water and swimming with the whale sharks. All of the staff are super friendly, well-trained, and professional, so they make you feel safe and comfortable throughout.
The day starts with a snorkel lesson to ensure that everyone feels confident in the water. As well as swimming with whale sharks, you’ll get to enjoy drift reef snorkeling, where you can see an array of tropical fish and colorful coral.
There is a maximum group size of 18, and there are observation spots on the upper and lower decks of the boat for those who can’t or don’t want to swim, but still want to see whale sharks from the deck.
There’s a videographer on each boat who will take professional footage of your group swimming with the whale sharks, which you get to keep at the end of the tour – this will give you huge bragging rights when you get home! This however will come at an additional cost of $60 AUD.
The tour includes hotel pickup and drop-off, as well as lunch (which is fantastic), and water, coffee, or tea so everything is taken care of for you. You’ll also get a celebratory beer or glass of sparkling wine to enjoy at the end of the tour.
This tour also guarantees that you will see whale sharks. If you don’t, they will put you on the next available tour for free, or if that doesn’t fit with your travel plans, they will give you a full voucher that is valid for the next 3 years.
However, it is pretty unlikely that you won’t see a whale shark as the tour company has spotter planes that help them to find the whale sharks each day. Some tours only use the planes for 2 hours, but this tour uses them for the whole day to ensure that you see as many whale sharks as possible.
The deluxe tour costs $480 AUD. It’s not the cheapest experience available, but if you have room in your budget, it’s definitely worth it. A portion of your fee also goes towards whale shark research, which helps to protect these amazing creatures.
To me, this is the best whale shark tour in Exmouth and the reason we chose to do it! Book the exact whale shark tour we did online here!
3 Island Shark Dive
This full-day tour with the experienced 3 Islands crew takes out 1-2 groups each day, with a maximum group size of 10 people per swim. This means that things don’t get too crowded when you spot a whale shark, but you also won’t need to wait too long to get in the water.
You’ll have multiple swims with the whale sharks, as well as time to snorkel around the Ningaloo reef and spot other amazing creatures such as turtles and manta rays.
As with the above tour, everything is included: morning tea, lunch, snacks, soft drinks, and a glass of champagne to end the day. You’ll also be with a professional underwater photographer who will take photos of your experience, but not videos. Prescription snorkel masks are also available upon request if you need them.
If you’re not a confident swimmer, support such as buoyancy aids and noodles are available at no extra cost. The guides are super friendly and supportive, and will make sure that everyone feels safe at all times.
The tour costs $430 AUD per person, so it’s the cheapest of the three tours. It’s also the only one that has a reduced rate for children at $370 AUD for participants aged 3-17, so it’s a more cost-effective choice for families.
There’s a no-sight guarantee, which allows you to choose between a free repeat tour the next available day, a $100 AUD refund per person, or a voucher which you can use in the next 2 years.
Since it is the most affordable option, this tour often fully books. You can secure your spot online in advance here!
Ningaloo Discovery Whale Shark Swim on a Powerboat
You’ll begin this particular tour by snorkeling around the Ningaloo reef, where you’ll get to practice getting on and off of the boat, and ensure that all of your gear fits properly before heading on to swim with whale sharks.
Again, this tour includes all snorkel gear, lunch, refreshments, and pickup from any accommodation in Exmouth. For an extra fee, you can even be picked up straight from the airport if you’re flying into Exmonth early in the morning.
There are also stand-up paddleboards and kayaks available for use in the afternoon if the waters are calm enough, which is a nice bonus.
The tour costs $455 AUD, but Ningaloo Discovery doesn’t offer refunds or vouchers if you don’t see any whale sharks. This is unlikely since they also use spotter planes, but it is something to bear in mind when booking. At the end of the tour, you also get a whale shark swimmer certificate which gives you discounts on other tours and activities offered by the company.
6. What does it cost to swim with whale sharks?
It costs between $400 AUD – $550 AUD to swim with whale sharks in Exmouth. It’s certainly not the cheapest thing to do in Exmouth, but it is absolutely incredible and an unmissable experience when you’re so close to the Ningaloo Reef. You’ll come away having experienced some of the best marine life that Australia has to offer.
7. Is it safe to swim with Whale Sharks?
Yes, it’s very safe to swim with whale sharks. These gentle giants pose no threat to humans and are actually very friendly and curious, so don’t be surprised if one comes up to check you out!
Of course, as with any swimming activity, there is always a small risk of accident or injury, so it’s important that you have a basic swimming ability and that you follow the tour operator’s safety instructions at all times. If you don’t want to go into the water, most tours will allow you to stay on board throughout as an observer.
All of the tours above include safety briefings before you begin your adventure and well-trained staff who know what to do in case of emergency. It’s natural to be nervous if you have never done anything like this before, but there’s really no need to worry.
8. What is included on most Whale Shark tours in Exmouth?
Most Exmouth whale shark tours include snorkel gear, a wetsuit, lunch, and refreshments. The best tours have spotter planes to help locate the whale sharks, as well as professional underwater photographers to take photos of your experience, which you get to keep at the end.
Hotel pickup and drop-off is also usually included in the price of the tour, and many – but not all – tours include a guarantee that you will see whale sharks. Some tour companies offer vouchers or a repeat experience if you don’t see any whale sharks, while others will give you a full refund. Be sure to double-check this before you book.
9. How far in advance should you book a Whale Shark tour in Exmouth?
You should usually book your whale shark tour a few weeks in advance to be safe, as whale shark season in Exmouth is pretty popular and you don’t want to miss out on the best tours. In general, the further ahead you book, the better. Waiting until a few days beforehand to book is risky, because your preferred tour may well be sold out.
When you book with Viator, you can change the date of your booking as long as you do so more than 24 hours before your tour begins, so you can secure your spot ahead of time and still have plenty of flexibility if your travel plans change. This is what we always do to make sure we don’t miss out on things!
10. Is it guaranteed that you’ll see whale sharks?
Many Exmouth whale shark tours include a guarantee that you’ll see whale sharks during the season. They use spotter planes to find whale sharks so that your boat captain knows exactly where to take you throughout the day.
The deluxe tour that we did has a guarantee from 15 March – 1 August. The company offers a repeat experience any time during whale shark season for the next 3 years. If you miss the tour because you get sick or for other personal reasons, you’ll also be offered a free standby seat for the next week.
The 3 Island Shark Dive tour also offers a repeat experience in the next week, a voucher for the next 2 years, or an $100 AUD refund if you don’t spot any whale sharks.
Related Read: Crocodiles are another really good animal you can see in Australia. Read about going on a Jumping Croc Cruise in the Adelaide River near Darwin.
11. What should you bring on a tour to swim with whale sharks?
It pretty much goes without saying that you’ll need to bring a bathing suit and towel on a whale shark tour in Exmouth, since you’ll be in and out of the ocean all the time.
A hat and sunglasses are a must for when you’re on board, as the Australian sun is pretty strong! Reef-friendly sunscreen is also essential, and you should make sure that it offers broad screen protection with an SPF of 30 or above. Make sure to choose a waterproof brand, and to reapply regularly, especially after towel-drying.
A dry bag to keep your valuables in is a good idea, as is a pair of flip flops for when you’re on the boat. Your tour operator will provide you with a wetsuit, but if you have your own, you can always bring it along instead.
You can also bring your own snorkeling gear if you prefer not to use the gear provided by the tour company, but it’s not essential. Most companies will provide you with a mask and snorkel tube. If you need a prescription snorkel mask, you may need to bring your own, although this tour does include them.
You should also bring a camera if you have one, and if you’ve got an underwater device like a GoPro, then that’s even better. However, most tour companies will take professional photos for you and the tour we chose even took videos. But of course, if you have your own camera, you can always take your own shots too – the more, the better!
If you tend to get seasick, then bring some seasickness medication with you as sometimes the ride out to the whale sharks can be a bit choppy. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Tours usually include water and refreshments, but just remember to hydrate regularly throughout the day.
If you’re traveling with teenagers on a tour that has discounted rates for under 18s, then bring a form of ID with you as they may need to prove their age.
Finally, bring some dry clothing and a warm jacket with you. The tours start early in the morning and once you get moving, the air can feel a bit cold. You’ll also be glad of some dry clothes when you head back to shore at the end of the day.
12. Will you get seasick on whale shark tours in Exmouth?
A lot of people do get seasick on whale shark tours in Exmouth, as you’re on a boat for much of the day. It’s best to take motion sickness tablets 30-60 minutes before heading out on the water.
Dramamine is effective but not widely available in Australia, but popular local brands like Kwells or Travacalm work well, too. There is a pharmacy in Exmouth where you should be able to pick up some tablets, just ask the pharmacist.
13. How long do Whale Shark tours in Exmouth typically last?
Exmouth whale shark tours usually last the whole day – between 8-9 hours. This gives you plenty of opportunities to swim with whale sharks and snorkel around the Ningaloo reef. Full-day tours usually include lunch on board and refreshments throughout.
Tours start around 7 am and finish around 4 pm, but your tour company will confirm an exact pickup time with you after booking so you’ll know when to be outside your hotel. It’s a full-day adventure, so make sure you get plenty of rest the night before.
14. Can kids/families swim with whale sharks?
Yes, Exmouth whale shark tours are generally a family-friendly activity, although age requirements do vary by.
The deluxe tour is open to all participants above the age of six, while the 3 Islands tour welcomes children aged 3 and above, with a reduced rate for under 18s. On this tour, infants are allowed on board but they must sit on an adult’s lap at all times, so it’s not necessarily the most practical activity for very young children.
The Ningaloo Discovery tour also allows children aged 3 and over, but clearly states that they must have a basic swimming ability to enter the water.
Basically, if you have children who are over the age of 6 and can swim well, then you can definitely enjoy a whale shark tour as a family.
Related Read: Another place in Australia that families love is the beautiful Rottnest Island!
15. Do you need to be a strong swimmer on Whale Shark tours in Exmouth?
No, you can still enjoy a whale shark tour without a strong swimming ability.
Many tours have swimming aids like buoyancy devices and noodles to help those who aren’t super confident in the water. If you can’t swim, most tours allow you to be an observer and enjoy watching the whale sharks from the boat without getting in the water.
If you do want to get in the water, you will need a basic swimming ability as you will be snorkeling for extended periods, but you definitely don’t need to be Michael Phelps.
With that said, those with a strong swimming ability will get to see more of the whale sharks as they don’t spend all their time right at the surface and it helps to be able to dive down a bit. So, practice holding that breath!
16. Is swimming with whale sharks in Exmouth worth it?
Whale shark tours are one of Exmouth’s biggest draws, and with good reason – it’s an amazing experience, and there are few other places in the world where you’ll find whale sharks in such high numbers.
If you’re in Exmouth during whale shark season, swimming with these beautiful, gentle creatures is an absolute must. It’s an amazing experience that allows you to get right up close to one of nature’s most majestic creatures and experience the incredible beauty and diversity of the Ningaloo reef.
Related Read: While in Western Australia, be sure to check out the best things to do in Perth, the captial city.
Thanks for reading!
Hopefully you feel ready to book that whale shark tour in Exmouth now. Honestly, you won’t regret it, swimming with the whale sharks in Exmouth is guaranteed to be a memorable experience.
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