female in blue wetsuit snorkeling beside a whale shark

So you want to swim with a whale shark. But you don't know which company offers the best Exmouth whale shark tour and swim.   

The Ningaloo Reef, located in the northwest of Western Australia, is one of the few places in the world with easy access to whale sharks. There are now 11 companies offering a swim with whale sharks on Ningaloo Reef. Two in Coral Bay and nine in Exmouth. Which is surprising considering it’s a tiny town.   

With so many options, how do you choose the best Exmouth whale shark tour? Well, I did all the research for myself in May 2021. And now I pass it to you in the blog below.
  

Do whale sharks eat humans? 

Let's get this out of the way first. Is it a shark or a whale and does it attack humans?  

white spotted whale shark swimming close to surface

The second whale shark we swam with

They look like a shark, especially its fins and tail. And technically they are a shark because their skeleton is made of cartilage, not bone. But they have whale-like qualities. Firstly, they grow as large as whales. And secondly, they filter feed, just like Humpback Whales. Hence the name given as Whale Shark.  

So no, filter feeders do not attack humans. They only feed on plankton and small fish. But if you go too close, it will surely protect itself with its tail or rollover, as all wild animals would do.  

What time of year is the whale shark season in Exmouth? 

The whale shark season in Exmouth typically runs from end of March to end of August. Sometimes you can still see them in September. However, you must remember that these animals are in the wild and therefore will come and go as they please.   

I got a quick run down from our skipper, who has been working with Ocean Eco Adventure tours for four seasons. You’ll see most abundance and activity when the reef is just spawning. She said that May is usually the epic month. But this year (2021), April had the most activity. As mentioned before, you can’t control mother nature or animals.  

The skipper then added that June/July the whale shark numbers start to dwindle. You will still see them but more boats will share a whale shark for a swim. It may mean that you will have less swims with it than otherwise.  

From end of July into August, some days they only see one whale shark for the day. Which will mean all the boat tour companies will have to ‘share’ a swim with it. They will do their upmost to ensure that everyone gets at least one swim with a whale shark.  

How long do you swim with a whale shark? 

DPaW (Department of Parks and Wildlife) is responsible for whale shark management in WA (Western Australia). The tour operators licence states that there is a maximum of 20 passengers per boat. And swimmers should not spend more than 60 minutes in total in the water with the shark. But you don’t do that in one swim. In fact, the number of swims can range from 1 to 6 swims. It all depends upon the whale sharks.  

Firstly, it depends upon how long it takes to find a whale shark. It could be 5 minutes, or 5 hours. They are in the wild and therefore you can’t command them to appear!  

Once you find a shark, you have to hope that they don’t decide to dive down looking for more food. Again, it could take them 5 minutes or 5 hours to resurface. Which means the boat begins searching again for another whale shark swimming along the surface.  

And lastly, if you have four boats sharing a whale shark, that’s 8 groups of 10 swimmers waiting in queue for their turn to swim with the shark. My friends who booked with Ningaloo Discovery on different days had different experiences. Ivan got 3 swims and Mel got 6 swims.  

How it works?

exmouth whale shark tour with a group of snorkellers wading in the water and the boat in the background

Wading in the water in a line waiting for the whale shark to swim past us.

We jump into the water in groups of 10 and wait in a line. The instructor lets us know when the whale shark is approaching and we put our heads in the water. They swim quite close to the surface as it glides past us. Once the fins pass us, then we can swim along-side it. On one occasion, I followed some other swimmers by swimming around the shark's tail and following along the other side. Then we had to stop to allow the next ahead of us waiting in a line for their turn.  

The swim usually lasts for about 10 minutes. Usually until you can’t keep up anymore or if you have to stop to allow the next group in line have their turn. Then you jump back into your boat. You are then transported 50m ahead of the whale shark so you can jump back into the water in time for it to swim by. It’s quite strange how the whale sharks seem to be swimming in a straight line.  

Sometimes you may need to go looking for another whale shark if it dove down or it's looking a bit stressed with all the attention.  

Which whale shark tour is best? 

 
In this table, I’ve collated all the info of every tour company into the table below. By cutting down your reading and research time,  you can make your decision much quicker.  

The table lists the main aspects of the whale shark tours that you need to consider and check value for money. Please note, that all the details are taken from each company's website. Any blank boxes mean it is either not offered or nothing was written on their website.

You can swipe the table left and right to view all the columns, on all device types.

COMPANY

PRICE

PHOTO'S INCLUDED

FOOD

DRINKS

REEF SNORKELLING

OWN SPOTTER PLANE

MARINE BIOLOGIST ONBOARD

NO SIGHTING POLICY

* conditions apply

OTHER INCLUSIONS

$425

All meals including gourmet lunch with Exmouth prawns Cater for dietary needs

Tea, barista Coffee, soft drinks, water

Cell

Shared

1 free repeat tour on next available day. 

Or voucher valid for 3 seasons.

Underwater scooters

SUP's

2 hot fresh water showers

$410

Morning tea, buffet lunch, afternoon tea.

Cater to dietary needs

Refreshments.  

Celebratory drink - champagne/beer

Morning. Plus afternoon if time permits.

Shared

Cell

1 free repeat tour next available day.

Or voucher valid for 2 years.

Or partial refund.

Cell

$449

Breakfast, morning tea, gourmet buffet lunch (with Exmouth prawns), afternoon tea, snacks.

Cater to dietary needs

Herbal tea, coffee, water. Celebratory drink - champagne/beer.

Morning. Plus afternoon if time permits.

Microlight aircraft.

1 free repeat tour next available. 

Or voucher valid for 3 years.

2 showers

$430

Can purchase pro hi-rez quality photos for $50.

Morning tea (cakes & biscuits), lunch (Gourmet rolls, sandwiches and salads), afternoon tea (fruit and biscuits).

Cater to dietary needs.

Tea, coffee, water, cordial. 

Celebratory drink - champagne.

Morning and afternoon.

Spotter plane.

Cell

1 free repeat tour next available.

Or voucher valid for 2 years.

Or partial refund ($140) Good swim guarantee - If ddnt swim with a shark for at least 2 minutes, can go again for free on standby.

Opportunity to dive on the reef instead of snorkelling for $75 (or $195 for Try Dives).

Can hire underwater camera or go-pro mask.

Free snorkel gear hire during your stay in Exmouth.

$445

Morning tea, buffet lunch, afternoon tea.

Cater to dietary needs

Refreshments.

Celebratory drink - champagne.

Morning and afternoon.

Shared

Cell

1 free repeat tour next available. 

Or voucher valid for 2 years.

Or partial refund.

Choose between boat or catamaran.

SUP's and kayaks available.

$425

Offer videos for $60.

Morning tea, buffet lunch (cold meat, bread, salad, fruits).

Tea, coffee

Celebratory drink - champagne

Morning

Shared

Cell

1 free repeat tour on next available day.

Cell

$575

Morning tea, snacks, canapes.

Celebratory drink - champagne

Morning and afternoon

Shared

1 free repeat tour on next available day.

Or voucher valid for 2 years.

Only take a max of 10 people. Boast they offer more time in the water.

$425

Fresh lunch (after whale swim).

Cater for dietary needs

Cell

Morning and afternoon

Shared

Cell

1 free repeat tour on next available day. 

Or partial refund.

Cell

$425 - deluxe

$399 - regular

deluxe - free photos & videos

regular - 1 photo only

Morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea.

Celebratory drink - champagne/beer

Cell

Shared

Cell

1 free repeat tour on next available day.

Or voucher valid for 3 years.

Good whaleshark swim guarantee - if missed a reasonably good swim, you get 1 standby repeat tour valid for 3 years. Excludes Regular tour.

Cell

 Note:  all tours include use of snorkel gear, masks and wet suits. 

Notable differences: 

  • Only Live Ningaloo takes a maximum of 10 people. All the rest have a maximum of 20 passengers. However, as explained earlier, you will swim with the whale sharks in groups of 10. So, with a smaller group on board, you may get more swims. Note, you do pay more. 
  • All the tours include photos in the price. So, make sure you swim in front of the photographer at least once. However, Ningaloo Blue Dive goes one further and includes video footage as well (for an extra $60), or Exmouth Dive and Whale Sharks includes free video.
  • Ocean Eco Adventures are the only company to include breakfast as well as morning tea. Whereas, the other companies start with morning tea. 
  • Most tours offer a complimentary celebratory glass of champagne on the way back to the pier. However, Ocean Eco AdventuresThree Islands and Exmouth Dive and Whalesharks offer a choice of champagne OR beer.
  • Only two companies have their own spotter plane – Ocean Eco Adventures and Ningaloo Whale Sharks. For the rest, up to four boats share one spotter plane. 
  • Only 3 companies have on board marine biologists. Useful for those who want to know more about the marine life on Ningaloo Reef.
  • Only Ningaloo Whale Shark and Swim offer diving instead of snorkelling on the reef stops. Diving not permitted with whale sharks though.
  • All companies offer a No Sighting Policy. But only two companies additionally offer a Good Swim Guarantee. More details further down the page.

I chose Ocean Eco Adventures, as they had their own spotter plane – a microlight plane. It has installed a wider radar system compared to the other spotter plans. As it can scan a wider area, it can find sharks away from the other boats. And I wanted to be on a boat that wouldn’t be sharing a shark swim.  

Which company gets the most swims? 

 
Well, that depends! Each day is different. Let me tell you about my day. 

Our tour began with a snorkel on the Ningaloo Reef. A good way to check your snorkel gear is working well. Plus, the spotter plane starts flying above looking for whale sharks. 

exmouth whale shark tour begins with a snorkel on the reef to view schools of fish on the reef

Snorkelling on the outer reef.

After the snorkel, we sailed north first to a spot where the whale sharks were the day before. But nothing this time. However, in the distance, I could see 4 boats hovering around in one area and 3 boats in another area. Each group shares one spotter plane, so they share the whale shark too. 

After 20 minutes, we were ‘still in jail’ . That's the skippers code for ‘haven't found a whale shark yet!'. One of the other boats in the group of 4 offered to let us squeeze in for one swim. We cruised over and jumped in. It felt like we were swimming for about 5 minutes before we had to stop. We had to allow the next group of 10 ahead of us waiting in a line for their turn. 

group of snorkellers sitting on steps on back of boat ready to slide in

First group of 10 snorkellers getting ready to slide into the water.

In the meantime, our microlight pilot spotted a whale shark down south. So, we headed out at full speed for 20 minutes. When we were about 500m away when the whale shark decided to dive down. It seems there is more food spawning off the coral in deeper regions. Thankfully our pilot found another one, but a fishing boat got to it first. Finally, we hit bingo. The pilot found another two in the shallow waters.  

It was so close to the reef, in 5m of water, so no chances of diving down and the water was much clearer. We had this whale shark all to ourselves, and were thrilled to get 5 swims in 45 minutes.  No other boats hovering around. 

female snorkeller in blue wet suit swimming beside a whale shark

This is about my fifth swim with the whale shark. Feeling a little tired now!

On the same day, my friend Ivan went with Ningaloo Discovery. He got 3 swims with 3 different sharks. This was with 4 boats sharing the spotter plane.   

Three days later, my friend Mel also joined Ningaloo Discovery. She got 6 swims with one shark.  So as you can see, each boat has different experiences on each day.

We also compared the food we were given and it seems that I did get a better selection - on Ocean Eco Adventures.

The unwritten code between tour operators 

Experiencing a total of 6 swims felt like we got the most swims in one day. And I do think having our own spotter plane may have helped in that. But I do want to let you know about the unwritten code between the tour operators.  

All the tour companies do help each other as the main aim is to ensure ALL tourists benefit and see a whale shark. Just like in my experience, one boat offered to allow us to squeeze in for one swim only when we still hadn't seen a shark. But when we headed off south, we told another boat they could follow to do a swim after us. Unfortunately, that shark dived down as we arrived and the other boat weren't prepared to travel further south. Thankfully we did.  

No sighting policy 

All whale shark swim tour companies offer the No Sighting Policy during peak times only. This means that if you don’t see a whale shark on your tour, you can re-book once only on the next available day free of charge. If it doesn't fit into your schedule, most companies offer a voucher that is valid for 2 or 3 years.

Only two companies will offer a partial refund, ranging from $100-$140. The rest don't offer a refund at all if you’re unable to rebook for a later date. Therefore, it might be a good idea to book your whale shark swim tour towards the beginning of your holiday. Then you have extra days for a repeat tour if required.  

A couple of the companies offer in addition a 'good swim guarantee'. This means you did see a whale shark but the crew genuinely believe you didn't get a very good look or swim with it. So they will offer you to join the next available tour for free on standby.

Be sure to read all the guarantee conditions on the website. Each company has slightly different rules and peak time dates.

Exmouth vs Coral Bay 

Coral Bay is a smaller coastal village located 155km south of Exmouth. There are two companies that offers whale shark tours, Coral Bay Eco Tours and Ningaloo Reef Dive and Snorkel. They offer the same prices as the Exmouth tour companies but photos/videos are an extra cost. Note that the whale sharks tend to visit this area earlier in the season, from March to June.   

However, Coral Bay is more known for their manta ray swim tours. This is what I will be doing next time I visit this region.  

So which is the best Exmouth whale shark tour? 

All nine Exmouth companies like help each other to ensure that it’s the tourist who wins in the end. It's not about which boat got the most swims for their passengers. The tour companies want you to have an awesome experience swimming with a whale shark. Plus, they don’t want to lose their 10-year licence at renewal time, so customer satisfaction is high on their agenda.  

This is backed by all the reviews I read for each company. No one had a bad word for any of the companies. So, you choose how to make your decision by using the info in the table above. You can base it  

  • on the price,  
  • who has a dedicated spotter plane,  
  • Prefer to have a video rather than photos 
  • who serves the most food or  
  • who offers a free beer (if you don’t like champagne).  

So in conclusion, it doesn't matter which Exmouth whale shark tour company you go with. Just make sure to book one! You won’t regret it. 

Disclaimer:  all photos taken by Ocean Eco Adventures.

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About the author

Lisa is a travel gypsy by heart, having already been to over 70 countries and still counting. Founder of Travel Groove, to share travel tips, tricks and knowledge with other travellers.

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