Travel

For the Best Adrenaline Rush of Your Life, Swim with Whale Sharks

You can see these gentle giants all over the world.

Ken Kiefer 2/Image Source/Getty Images
Ken Kiefer 2/Image Source/Getty Images
Ken Kiefer 2/Image Source/Getty Images

“NOW!” commanded my guide as he dove beneath the surface, kicking like mad. “Go, go, go, go, GO!”

When the moment arrived to jump into the icy Sea of Cortés, there was no time to contemplate that the biggest fish in the ocean was about to come into view. I followed his lead, slipping off the side of the boat as gently as possible despite the adrenaline coursing through my veins.

It was February, and I’d traveled to La Paz in Baja California Sur to swim alongside whale sharks-which can grow up to 40 feet long-as they filter fed in the shallow waters off El Mogote Peninsula. Each year, they come to gorge on a moveable feast of plankton, fish roe, and other ocean flotsam that have collected here via strong winter winds from the North. (With a diet like that, rest assured you have zero chance of being gobbled up; though technically sharks, they are very whale-like, meaning they aren’t interested in eating you.)

Photo courtesy of Juan Camilo Mora
Photo courtesy of Juan Camilo Mora
Photo courtesy of Juan Camilo Mora

When the 20-foot-long juvenile whale shark came cruising into view at a steady clip, I realized I’d have to kick my hardest to keep up. It’s one thing to absorb whale shark facts from the comfort of a boat-and another thing entirely to find yourself finning in the creature’s realm as it levitates up from the seafloor like a UFO, moving its tail slowly but surely from side to side like a Jurassic creature on a mission.

For a while, the shark’s enormous head-the width of a piano keyboard, and covered in white flecks like a constellation-and mine were side by side. But I was soon outpaced. Huffing through my snorkel, I stopped kicking, letting the entire length of the shark pass me by. For a moment, we were like time travelers on conveyor belts flowing in opposite directions through the recesses of space; floating away into the open sea, its body resembled a marine Milky Way.

With a last look, I pulled myself up the boat ladder, breathless-just in time for the captain to start the engine and get us into position to do it all over again.

If you fancy yourself a swim with these gentle giants-an experience as exhilarating as it is otherworldly-there are plenty of places where you can take the plunge, too. From Mexico to Australia, here are some of the best places around the world to dive with whale sharks.

 Stuart Westmorland/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images
Stuart Westmorland/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images
Stuart Westmorland/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico 

The season to swim with whale sharks right off the coast of La Paz in the Sea of CortĂ©s runs from October until the end of April. The whale shark tours here are considered among the most ethical in the world from a conservation standpoint: Activity is heavily regulated by Mexico’s environmental authorities, with only 14 boats allowed to run tours each day. Arrive at the beginning of the season for the warmest waters. During the winter months, water temperatures dip into the 60s-but that’s also when there’s the most plankton, and the sharks gather in the greatest numbers.

Operators: You’ll find whale shark tours touted all along the Malecon promenade. Two long-standing La Paz scuba diving and whale shark tour operators with great reputations are RED Travel Mexico (a 3-5 hour trip starts at $500 for up to 4 travellers) and The Cortez Club (rates start at $110 for a four-hour trip).

 Riccardo Mantero/Moment Open/Getty Images
Riccardo Mantero/Moment Open/Getty Images
Riccardo Mantero/Moment Open/Getty Images

Isla Mujeres, Mexico 

Just as whale shark season is winding down in La Paz, it’s kicking into gear on the other side of Mexico, where mid-May marks the start of whale shark season about 1.5 hours off the shores of Isla Mujeres. While you can spot the behemoths here through September, the peak season for swimming alongside them in large numbers is during July and August, when the Gulf of Mexico is warmest and the sharks feast on plankton near the surface.

Operators: Mexico Divers (rates starting at $150) runs regular trips from Isla Mujeres during whale shark season.

Diana Wilson/Shutterstock
Diana Wilson/Shutterstock
Diana Wilson/Shutterstock

Gladden Spit, Belize

Hit Belize’s Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve from March through June if you’ve got whale sharks on the brain. That’s when they gather to feast on the spawn of the various fish, including snapper and mutton, that aggregate here to do their thing around the full moon.

Operators: The Placencia Resort offers packages during the whale shark migration that include accommodation, meals, and scuba diving or snorkelling with whale sharks starting at $1,798 per person for five nights.

Visit Ningaloo
Visit Ningaloo
Visit Ningaloo

Ningaloo Reef, Australia 

An annual coral spawning event is the dinner bell that brings whale sharks en masse to Ningaloo, a World Heritage-listed marine park off the coast of Western Australia near Exmouth (about a two-hour flight north from Perth). The period between late March and late July offers the best chances of getting in the water with them, but tours are usually offered through September since the sharks tend to linger.

Operators: Ningaloo Whale Shark Swim employs its own spotter plane to find the whale sharks and offers a Whale Shark Swim Guarantee to get you back in the water another day in case you get skunked on your first try. Rates start at $430.

 Robbert Koene/Getty Images
Robbert Koene/Getty Images
Robbert Koene/Getty Images

Tofo Beach, Mozambique 

The African hotspot for whale shark encounters, Mozambique’s Tofo Beach is home to a resident population of these colossal fishies, so it’s possible to snorkel with them here year-round. October to March, when plankton is most abundant, brings the greatest aggregations of whale sharks; they can regularly be seen rolling some 50 creatures deep.

Operators: Liquid Dive Adventures runs two-hour boat trips to snorkel with the whale sharks-and you may see giant manta rays and dolphins, too. Prices start at about $60.

Wildestanimal/Moment/Getty Images
Wildestanimal/Moment/Getty Images
Wildestanimal/Moment/Getty Images

Cenderawasih Bay National Marine Park, Indonesia 

Only accessible by liveaboard diving boats (think small, multi-day cruises for divers, without the questionable evening entertainment), remote Cenderawasih Bay is a unique spot to dive. Here, in the Indonesian province of Papua, whale sharks congregate for leftovers under floating fishing platforms manned by the locals.

Operators: Many liveaboards make this a stop on Coral Triangle itineraries that also visit Raja Ampat, one of the most famous places to dive. Check out the luxury phinisi boats operated by Dive Damai (starting at about $775/night for a single cabin).

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Terry Ward is a freelance travel writer in Tampa, Florida, who has lived in France, New Zealand, and Australia and gone scuba diving all over the world. Follow her on Instagram and find more of her work on terry-ward.com 

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome
to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree
instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s â€”lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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