The Ocean's Gentle Giants
With an average length of around 32 feet/10 meters, whale sharks are the largest fish on Earth. Swimming alongside one for the first time (and indeed, every time afterwards) is a humbling experience, and one that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Despite their large size, whale sharks feed on plankton and present no threat to humans. They are impossibly beautiful, their dark blue skin scattered with a constellation of bright white spots. Unfortunately, they are also endangered, with populations worldwide devastated by overfishing, accidental by-catch and fatal vessel strikes. To encounter a whale shark in its natural environment is therefore a true privilege, and in this article, we look at the best places in Africa for doing just that.
NB: When booking your whale shark encounter, make sure to choose an ethical operator with a background in conservation and strict guidelines for shark-friendly interactions. Whale sharks are easily disturbed by our presence and should never be touched, chased or otherwise harassed.
Tofo Beach, Mozambique
Mozambique’s Tofo Beach is renowned as the whale shark capital of Africa, and for good reason. A colorful fishing and diving village located on the secluded shores of the country’s beautiful Inhambane Province, Tofo is home to a resident population of whale sharks, making year-round encounters possible. However, the best time to visit Tofo is between October and March, when plankton blooms inspire huge aggregations of whale sharks numbering up to 50 individuals. Tofo is home to several dive centers (including Tofo Scuba and Peri-Peri Divers), all of which offer dedicated whale shark snorkeling trips. The abundance of food also attracts another bucket-list species, the manta ray; while those that visit out of season (June to October) can expect to witness East Africa’s annual humpback whale migration.
Gulf of Tadjoura, Djibouti
Bordered by Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, the tiny East African nation of Djibouti is one of the continent’s lesser-known tourism destinations. However, between October and March, it is also one of Africa’s premier whale shark spots – thanks to prolific plankton blooms in the Gulf of Tadjoura. At this time, nomadic whale sharks arrive to take advantage of the seasonal bounty, and with water temperatures averaging a balmy 86ºF/30ºC, there’s no limit to the amount of time you can spend in the water. Five Star PADI Dive Center Dolphin Services offers whale shark snorkeling tours, which can be combined with a number of other excursions. For scuba divers, trips to La Faille (the chasm between the African and Somali tectonic plates) is a highlight; while terrestrial activities include visits to super-saline Lake Assal, the lowest point in Africa.
Mafia Island, Tanzania
Situated halfway between the border with Kenya in the north and Mozambique in the south, Mafia Island is a hotspot for whale shark research. Every year between September and March, the island hosts long-lasting whale shark aggregations, which see groups of sharks feeding on large upwellings of plankton. Most of the sharks are sexually immature males measuring 26 feet/8 meters or less, and can be encountered via half-day tours with local operator Kitu Kiblu. For those that want to get involved with whale shark conservation, Kitu Kiblu also offers an internship program that allows members of the public to take part in an ongoing whale shark photo identification project. Those that visit at the beginning of the season are also likely to spot humpback whales and hatching sea turtles.
Nosy Be, Madagascar
Perched just off the northwest coast of Madagascar, Nosy Be island is one of the country’s most popular destinations. It is best known for its spectacular diving, paradise beaches and upscale resorts; but between September and December, it’s also a whale shark’s paradise. In season, sightings are almost guaranteed with local operators like Baleines Rand'eau offering a 95% success rate. Nevertheless, little is currently known about Nosy Be’s whale shark population. The Madagascar Whale Shark Project aims to change that. So far, studies suggest that the number of whale sharks visiting Madagascan waters is increasing every year – in sharp contrast to decreasing sightings at other hotspots. Whale shark season also overlaps with the best time for spotting manta rays, humpback whales and the rare Omura's whale.
Sodwana Bay, South Africa
Located near the Mozambique border on South Africa's east coast, the tiny diving town of Sodwana Bay is not especially known for its whale shark sightings like the other destinations on this list. However, divers who travel there during the southern hemisphere summer (November to January) have a relatively good chance of spotting one either underwater or on their way to and from the dive sites. These warmer months are a great time for a Sodwana diving trip in any case, with other migrant celebrities including manta rays and ragged-tooth sharks. The latter gather in large numbers to mate on Quarter Mile reef. If you're not a certified diver, Sodwana Bay is an easy and affordable place to learn through trusted operators like Adventure Mania or Da Blu Juice. Alternatively, sign up for an ocean safari or dolphin snorkeling trip and with luck, you might see a whale shark from the surface.