Those passionate about adventure travel and animal encounters often keep the ASEAN countries on top of their bucket list. While some areas in the world are known for the high density of shark attacks, these Asian nations are places where tourists can observe gentle, non-predatory shark species up close and live the experience of a lifetime.
On this page, holidaymakers and nature lovers will find useful information and advice for a positive shark encounter in the ASEAN area, including:
- Where to swim with sharks in Asia
- How to prepare for a shark encounter
- Ethical considerations regarding swimming with sharks
Where is the best place to see whale sharks in Asia?
Whale sharks are among the best species for tourism activities. Although they are massive animals (some sharks grow to become 40-feet long and 20-tons heavy), they are completely innocuous as they are not hunters. They feed on krill and plankton by simply opening their enormous mouth that works as a filter.
Those who choose Asia as their next holiday destination are in luck: some of the best locations in the world for whale shark sighting are in the ASEAN countries. Find a list below.
Triton Bay, a protected area in Indonesia
Triton Bay is a truly unique place, ideal for those who do not enjoy crowds and wish to observe the sharks undisturbed in their natural habitat. The bay is part of the Kaimana Marine Protected Area, a remote region in the south of Indonesia.
Local fishermen and whale sharks have been coexisting in harmony for years, and the animals feed off the leftovers of the ‘bagan’, traditional fishing platforms. The area also features dramatic karst cliffs, isolated pinnacles, and islands with deserted beaches.
Sightings are not guaranteed because humans do not interfere with the animal’s natural behavior. However, it is easier to see the sharks between October and March and especially during the new moon.
Koh Tao, perfect Thai beaches
This area in Thailand is famous for its white-sand beaches and incredible sunsets. It is often referred to as the ideal place to learn how to dive thanks to the shallow and warm waters.
Whale sharks visit Koh Tao year round but there is a higher density between March-May and October-December. The best locations for whale shark sightings are:
- Chumphon Pinnacles
- Sail Rock
- South West Pinnacle
- Hin Wong Pinnacle
- Shark Island
Tubbataha, a diver’s paradise in the Philippines
The Philippines are perhaps the most renowned place in the ASEAN region for swimming with whale sharks. Very popular locations such as Oslob and Donsol see thousands of tourists flock to the beach every day to take pictures with the beautiful animals.
However, a more authentic experience can be enjoyed in the isolated Tubbataha marine park, an area of more than 100,000 hectares that is perhaps one of the world’s best diving destinations.
Please note that diving in Tubbataha is only allowed between March and June.
What to Know Before Swimming with Sharks
Travelers should know that whale sharks and other non-predatory species are not dangerous for humans and will not attack swimmers. However, animals of this size can still pose a risk should they move too swiftly. That is why humans should always keep a safe distance from the sharks, and especially from their head and tail.
Usually, special permits are not required of travelers in order to go see the sharks. However, some of the natural parks and protected areas only allow a limited number of visitors each year so it is advisable to contact the local authorities in advance to check.
Those who decide to dive rather than swim will need to have their diving license with them as they travel.
Foreign visitors should also always carry their relevant ASEAN visa as they travel and explore.
Is It Ethical to Swim with Whale Sharks in Asia?
Swimming with whale sharks has become a very popular activity among tourists in the ASEAN area. Although it can be done in complete safety for both visitors and the animals, some practices have sparked debate.
Tourism can be good for whale sharks
Tourism activity has effectively saved these animals from hunters in several locations. The beach towns that now live off shark encounters used to be fishing towns where people hunted whale sharks for their meat and fins. The arrival of visitors who wish to swim with and observe the sharks has put a halt to hunting and poaching.
More funds to the area also mean more resources for conservation initiatives and programs and the reserves and parks can do more for the animals and their habitat.
Practices that put the sharks at risk
Some areas like Oslob in the Philippines, however, have seen very intense activity. Every day, tour operators bring thousands of tourists out on boats to see the sharks. Locals feed the animals to keep them closer to shore and the surface, disrupting their natural behavior and migration.
Moreover, some guides encourage swimmers to touch the sharks for pictures. This is very dangerous for these normally shy animals that can inadvertently bump into the boats and injure themselves.
Ultimately, observing and swimming with sharks at a distance is not an unethical practice in itself. However, it is important that holidaymakers do their research and find areas where it is possible to live the experience and at the same time respect nature.