When we started planning our trip to Derawan Island in Indonesia, our guides asked us if we wanted to try to find some whale sharks (whaaaaa?! no way!). Even with plans to go look for them, we tried to manage our expectations so that we wouldn’t be disappointed. We’ve been on a handful of snorkeling trips where we didn’t see anything. We’ve never seen sharks and it was extremely lucky if we spotted a sea turtle! We are after all trying to find them in a HUGE ocean.
Our local guides told us that we need to be flexible. Sometimes they appear and sometimes they don’t. The next morning, we got up before sunrise at 5 am and headed out into the ocean. We were one of the first groups to arrive at one of the floating fishing islands to see if they’ve seen any activity. As time passed, more groups and boats started to join. After an hour, there was word that they were spotted nearby.
You could feel the excitement in the air as everyone got ready to hop in the water. I had no idea what to expect. I was terrified. But once I got in, I was blown away to see 3 of these gentle giants swimming around. For the next hour and a half, we observed, swam with, and photographed these amazing creatures. Jacob was the only one who had the balls to free dive next to them, so he got some epic shots. I was just trying to avoid getting sucked into their mouths.
At one point, we started getting stung and saw more and more jellyfish surface. There was a bigger jellyfish making it’s way up, which our guide informed us was a dangerous species, so I decided that it was time to get back on the boat! No thank you!
I even saw my favorite kind, the neon jellyfish that illuminates light right next to me. In that moment, I panicked and tried pushing it away, and the extra force of the water shattered the jellyfish! I’m still sad thinking about it. I completely forgot that neon jellyfish don’t sting. It has a short lifespan, and if it even touches a net, it shatters and dies. So beautiful and so fragile.
We couldn’t stop talking about them throughout the trip, and decided on the last day to go on a morning excursion to try looking for them again. The second time we found 2 more, and we were pretty much the only ones in the water with them.
This was the most successful snorkeling trip we’ve ever had, and I’m not sure that we’ll ever experience one quite like this. We freakin’ swam with wild whale sharks!!
TIPS FOR SWIMMING WITH WHALE SHARKS AT DERAWAN ISLAND
- Our guides told us whale sharks typically appear for 10 days, then leave for the next 20. Their appearance revolves around the new moon. We went 2 and 4 days after the new moon.
- Not likely to happen, but make sure your hands are not near the whale shark’s mouth when they are feeding. They are not interested in humans as food, but they suck in a lot of water when they feed. If your arm gets stuck, you’ll drown since they descend after.
- Bring your own snorkeling gear if you want to make sure they fit best and are comfortable. You’re spending a lot of time in the water in Derawan. See the list of what we brought below.
- There can be a lot of jellyfish in the area once the whale sharks are around, so just be aware of your surroundings. You can also use this anti-jellyfish sting lotion.
- Don’t forget your coral safe sunblock.
WHAT TO PACK FOR YOUR WHALE SHARK EXCURSION:
- Masks (Hers & His) – Be sure to try on several to see what fits your face best!
- Snorkel – If it’s going in my mouth, I just like to have my own.
- Fins – These shorter fins are awesome for travel!
- Booties – We recommend fins that require booties, they’re easier to slip on and off and your feet and protected them in between.
- Snorkeling Bag to carry your gear
- Rash Guard – This was the best way to protect our skin from the sun.
- Swim Suit
UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS:
- Our DSLR setup: Canon 5D Mark III with a 35mm Lens, this step-down ring adapter, and Ewa-Marine Underwater Housing. I would bring a wider lens if you know it will be crowded so that people are not in front of your shot.
- Nikon CoolPix AW130 got all of the best wide shots of us with the whale sharks.
- GoPro was used mainly for video.
- Drysac Bag to keep our cameras and other gear dry.
- You can check out our full underwater photo gear guide and tips for better underwater photos.
Would you go on this whale shark excursion? Why or why not?