Whale sharks are the largest living fish species, and swimming alongside these magnificent creatures is one of the ultimate bucket-list experiences. Although they resemble the whales from which their common name is derived, they are not whales but sharks. They belong to the group called Chondryichtyes, which includes sharks, rays, and skates. The enormous whale shark can grow up to 12 metres in length and weigh up to 20 metric tonnes, which is about the size of a small bus, but on average they grow to between 5.5 and 10 metres.
Whale sharks' heads are flattened and have a blunt snout above the mouth, with short whisker-like sensory organs protruding from their nostrils. Their backs and sides are greyish brown with white spots and pale stripes, while their bellies are white. Each whale shark has its own unique pattern of spots, much like human fingerprints. These creatures have been tracked travelling for thousands of kilometres, and can live more than 100 years but don’t become sexually mature until 25+ years. The females produce eggs but, unlike most fish, the young hatch inside of the mother instead of in the water; she then gives birth to about 300 live young.
Found throughout the world's oceans in temperate and tropical waters, the whale shark is most commonly seen within a global band around the equator between 30° to 40° latitude. Unscheduled sightings have occurred on two of SeaTrek’s recent Raja Ampat cruises in Kaimana, on West Papua’s southern coast, and on both occasions, guests on board had the privilege of swimming and snorkelling with these gentle giants. SeaTrek’s ‘Whale Sharks & Dragons’ cruise in March 2017, visits Botubarani near Gorontalo in North Sulewesi, where whale shark sightings also occur.