Whale sharks are easily one of the most recognizable fish in the ocean. Not only are they the largest species of shark in the ocean measuring up to sixty feet in length, but they are covered in giant white polka dots and only eat plankton and tiny fish! What more could you ask for, a giant shark you can swim with that is completely adorable with it’s spots and is also completely harmless. Now, the only thing is where to find them. Whale sharks inhabit just about every tropical and temperate ocean on the planet, but they tend to be live quite nomadic lives and can travel large distances making them somewhat difficult to find. They can of course turn up at any point during a snorkel, but a lot of times this is a quick pass by lasting just a few seconds to a couple minutes at most. However, there are a handful of places where whale sharks do congregate, and we as snorkelers have as close to a guarantee as you can get in the natural world for being able to snorkel with them for an extended period of time. As I said there are a few of these places where whale sharks hang out in larger groups, but one place that offers solid chances of snorkeling with several whale sharks at a time but also fantastic reefs is in Triton Bay, just south of Raja Ampat.

whale shark swimming

Whale sharks are dispersed all over Indonesia, but the reason they congregate here in this large bay is because for years and years local fishermen have been fishing in a way that has ultimately evolved into a symbiotic relationship between the fishermen and the large sharks. Silversides are a type of very small fish, very much like an anchovy, and are fished throughout the island nation using a bagan, or a large bamboo platform with giant nets that are raised and lowered from the bagan. At night the fishermen on the bagans lower the nets beneath the platform and then use a set of very bright lights to lure in large shoals of these tiny fish. Just before the sun rises the fishermen bring in the nets along with the fish. What they found over the years was that whale sharks were routinely following the nets up to the surface, and even sucking on the nets as these small fish are part of the whale sharks diet. Because these fishing platforms attract the small fish, the whale sharks are then attracted to the smell of small fish and come to suck on the nets and hoover up the left over scraps. The local fishermen appreciate the whale sharks presence as it they typically though of as a good omen for their catch. Along with that, now that this relationship has been discovered, tourism has brought an influx of money to the local communities, as well as well as conservation efforts to reinforce protection for the large sharks.

close up of whale shark and snorkeler

For us snorkelers, this is an excellent and very unique opportunity to get in the water and swim with one or more of these whale sharks at at a time as they suck up the the tiny fish that have managed to escape the net. As I said earlier whale shark encounters are normally quite fleeting, so to be able to locate them, but also float next to one or more for extended periods of time is a very unique experience. Not only that, but being able to witness this relationship between the local fishermen and the sharks, where both are benefitting is the icing on the cake.

Even though we’re snorkeling and can just stick our head out of the water when we need to communicate with each other, for most things it’s just quicker and easier to use simple hand signals. We use these hand signals to not only communicate things like “hey are you ok?” or the “current is going this way,” but also to identify what fish we are looking at. This quick fun video covers everything from the lion fish hand signal to emergency hand signals on the surface.

At the moment there are two distinct species of manta ray, the larger oceanic manta ray (manta birostris) and the slightly smaller reef manta (manta alfredi).  To keep things simple I’m going to just refer to them as mantas as they are found in the same areas with a few exceptions. Mantas inhabit just about any temperate, tropical, and sub tropical water world wide, with the exception of the Mediterranean. This gives us lots of options for being able to find them, however, to narrow things down I’m going to just list a few places around the world where mantas have a long standing reputation of turning up on a regular basis, and also just so happen to be snorkel venture destinations.

4. Indonesian Borneo—Sangalaki Island

A few miles off the coast of Kalimantan-Indonesian Borneo, is an idyllic island known as Sangalaki which tends to regularly host manta feeding and cleaning parties. While mantas do spend a fair amount of time roaming the open ocean, it’s easiest to find them by waiting next to their cleanings stations or by scanning the surface where mantas are known to feed. Cleaning stations are just giant coral heads that host colonies of different types of small fish, most commonly referred to as cleaner fish, who love to pick off the parasites of mantas. There are a few of these cleaning stations just off the white sand beaches of Sangalaki makiing this a very predictable place to encounter individuals and larger groups of mantas. Along with that, the ocean currents bring healthy amounts of plankton up to the surface around the island where you’re likely to find the mantas hoovering up the plankton with their giant mouths.

3. Palau

Snorkelers with manta in Komodo
Palau is another excellent place to find mantas, with one site known as German Channel as being the go to place. This channel was actually created by the Germans in WWII as a more direct route from the lagoon to the Pacific Ocean. Mantas can’t help themselves when it comes to narrow passage ways for a number or reasons. These bottlenecks in the ocean not only condense all the plankton into one area where the mantas just have face into the current with an open mouthes and let the plankton dense water flow through, but these geographic features also increase the current. Mantas are in incredibly dense animal and if they were to stop flapping they would quite literally sink. When a manta is cleaning they need to be as calm as possible for the cleaner fish to approach and do their work. So, in order to remain as motionless as possible without sinking they will approach a cleaning station while facing into the current and soar just above it using the current and their wings the same way eagles use the wind to keep them gliding. German Channel not only acts as a popular all you can eat buffet but also as a communal bath house for the mantas.

2. Raja Ampat

many mantas feeding on the surface
Raja Ampat is one of the world’s first manta sanctuaries and also happens to be one of the few places in the world where you can see both oceanic mantas and reef mantas together in one site. While there are specific cleaning stations scattered all over the area with more being discovered all the time and channels where mantas congregate to feed, they can be seen just about anywhere. This is one of the beautiful things about Raja, you just never know when they are going to turn up, and sometimes you’ll find yourself suddenly surrounded by fifteen or more of these gentle ocean giants as they go about their feeding ballet.

1. Komodo

Manta rays congregating in Komodo National Park
Komodo is one of my personal favorite places to snorkel with mantas as it just seems to always deliver in a big way. Komodo is like Raja in that you never know when one is going to casually pass you by as you cruise over the reefs, but it just seems to happen so much more frequently. That’s for the sites which aren’t really known as ‘manta sites.’ For the sites where mantas are known to congregate regularly, aka manta sites, the number of mantas can be quite astounding. Back when drones were still allowed in the park I was able to capture over seventy mantas on the surface in one photo. There are dozens and dozens of cleaning stations all over the park and multiple areas where the feeding behavior is predicable.  So, if they aren’t cleaning or feeding in one area we can move to the next where they are likely to be. Also, because there are so many mantas within the Komodo Natioanl Park you also regularly get the adrenaline pumping courting behavior which can involve up to forty mantas all competing for a single female. This type of behavior is not uncommon in the various manta sites around the world, but I’ve never witnessed it so frequently and with such an abundance of mantas as I have in Komodo.

This video should hopefully paint a better idea of what it’s like to come on tour with us.


Key Points:
  • Destinations and snorkel operators
  • Arrival and where to meet
  • Group travel
  • Tour organization and daily schedule
  • Safety
  • Group dynamics

What should you expect from one of our guide led group snorkel safaris? Well, we have a ton of different locations all across the world—from Indonesia to the South Pacific, all the way to Cuba and Mexico. On some of these tours we will be based out of amazing resorts, while on other tours we will be cruising the coastline via luxurious liveaboards, and on a select few will be doing both. Regardless of the different styles of accommodation, the trips will for the most part run the same with a few obvious logistical differences between the different tours. The basic idea behind these tours though is for our Snorkel Venture guide or guides to escort our snorkeling guests to the worlds best locations for day after day of epic snorkeling while staying in the areas best resorts or yachts who will look after our every need—from the meals to the time spent snorkeling.

snorkeler swimming through overhang in reef

The First Day

The first day we all meet up can vary depending on the location. On some tours the whole group meets up at the resort or onboard the vessel. While on other tours we convene at the airport hotel we will all be staying at the night before jetting off to our ultimate snorkel destination. Prior to the tour you will have a detailed description of when and where to meet. Regardless of venue, before the trip gets underway you will have a chance to meet your tour leader or leaders along with the other guests over a nice meal where you will be given a thorough briefing on what the following days will look like.

Group Travel

Any time we are traveling together as a group, whether it be via plane, bus, or boat, all you need to do is follow the leader. They will assist with checking in for flights, lifting your heavy bags, and making sure no one gets left behind. Everything has been organized in advance for us so worrying about taxies between airports and harbors and hotels is something you don’t need to think about, leaving your only obligation to the details of your favorite podcast.

Snorkel, Eat, Sleep, Repeat

Guests laughing in the sunset

Once we’ve arrived at our destination and you’ve made yourself at home in your room or cabin we will be given an all encompassing briefing on how the following days and weeks will look. We will cover all the essential safety information, geography of the area, and of course what to expect in the water. Once this is all out of the way the routine of wake up-breakfast-snorkel-lunch-snorkel-snack-snorkel-sunset cocktails or night snorkel-dinner-sleep-repeat, begins It’s a hard life. Of course, if you don’t feel like joining all the organized snorkel sessions feel free to just relax a the resort’s beach, get a massage, drift over the house reef, or enjoy the view from the boat. There are usually kayaks or paddle boards around which is also a nice way to spend a couple hours.

Group Snorkeling

One of the most exciting things about these tours is no matter where we are, everything is catered to snorkelers. For the liveaboad tours we charter the entire boat, and this is also the case for most of our resort based tours as well. For those larger resorts like Wakatobi or Komodo Resort, there will most likely be other divers staying at the resort, but they will be doing their own thing. These larger resorts always make sure we have a boat or two for ourselves along with our own local guides who will remain with us for the duration of the tour.

Every time we go out for a snorkel, with the exception of self guided house reef snorkels, there will will always be a Snorkel Venture guide as well as the local guides in the water with you and of course surface support from either a dinghy or the main vessel. With regard to snorkeling the house reef, there will always be someone present on the pier, and if you would like the Snorkel Venture guide to snorkel with you all you have to do is ask and they will be happy to join you.

The sites we will be selecting for our snorkels will be based solely on our snorkeling needs.  At all the different destinations we know where the best shallow reefs are, when the currents (if there is any at all) are best suited for us, and in the case of any choppy water we will always look for the reefs with a bit more protection from the wind and waves.

Safety in and Out of the Water

Safety is something we’ve put a lot of thought into and of major importance to us. All of our Snorkel Venture guides are first-aid trained along with the guides from the resort or boat. Things like emergency oxygen, first aid kits, and life jackets are always pointed out at the beginning of the tour. Before jumping in the water we always do a head count, and once again back onboard. There are briefings about each site before we start our snorkels which will explain things like what way the current is going, which way we will be going (always with the current if there is any), hand signals, and what we hope to see on that particular snorkel.

Silhouette of snorkelers on the surface

In the water we like to keep a loose group formation with one guide in the front of the group clearly marked with an orange life ring or float, and one in the rear as well. There will then be a couple more guides mixed about the middle of the group.  We encourage people to spread out and snorkel at your own pace and style, but we do ask that you stay behind the lead guide and in front of the guide in the back. If you prefer to stay close to the guides they will go out of their way to point things out to you, and will of course hold your hand if you need it. We want to provide maximum safety and comfort at all times while still allowing those more confident in the water to explore at their leisure.

Straight up Fun 

happy guests at papua explorers eco resort

In short the trips are an absolute blast. Everyone turns up as strangers with a common passion, and finishes the tour as a group of friends