Discover Saleh Bay in Sumbawa, Indonesia’s top spot for snorkeling with whale sharks, easily accessible from Lombok.
Snorkeling with whale sharks is a dream for many adventurers, and Sumbawa, Indonesia, stands out as one of Asia’s best destinations for this unforgettable experience.
The tranquil waters of Saleh Bay are home to a unique group of 125 whale sharks that stay in one area throughout the year, offering year-round opportunities for snorkeling with these majestic creatures.
In this guide, I’ll detail everything about snorkeling with Sumbawa’s whale sharks, including conservation efforts, how to reach Saleh Bay from Lombok or Sumbawa, and a comprehensive account of my experience to help you plan your trip.
By Olly Gaspar, traveler, travel blogger & photographer for 5+ years with 600+ published travel guides. I visit every place I write about & share real tips from what I learn.
Where to Snorkel With Whale Sharks in Indonesia
In Indonesia, several locations offer the opportunity to snorkel with whale sharks, including Talisayan Derawan in East Kalimantan, Kaimana in West Papua (Triton Bay), and Cenderawasih Bay in Papua.
However, Sumbawa's Saleh Bay (Teluk Saleh) stands out as one of the best spots due to its clear waters and the unique year-round presence of a significant whale shark population.
Furthermore, Sumbawa's close proximity to the tourist hubs of Bali and Lombok makes it one of the most accessible destinations in Indonesia.
About the Whale Sharks of Sumbawa
Here are the main points you need to know about the Whale Sharks of Saleh Bay.
- Emerging Tourism: The whale shark tourism industry in this region is relatively new and still developing, this means fewer tourists but there is work to do regarding sustainability. We only had 6 travelers in the water.
- Booking Tours: The Sumbawa whale shark tours can be booked directly from Lombok as an overnight trip, or you can travel to Sumbawa to arrange the morning boat locally. Alternatively, whale shark encounters at Saleh Bay are included in the popular Lombok to Komodo boat trip.
- Feeding the Sharks: Yes, controversially, local fishermen feed the whale sharks shrimp at Saleh Bay. However, the topic is nuanced. Sumbawa was once known for fishing whale sharks but now sees local fishermen engaging in tourism and conservation efforts instead. What's better for the sharks? See my thoughts on the topic at the bottom of this post.
- Fishing Platforms: Whale sharks are attracted to large fishing "platforms" in the middle of Saleh Bay, where fishermen may stay for extended periods. Travelers snorkel with the whale sharks at these platforms. Reaching these platforms requires a 2-hour journey on a local boat, departing early at around 4 am.
- Finding Whale Sharks: Saleh Bay has several platforms, and locating whale sharks involves moving between them. It took us about an hour and visits to three different platforms before finding them.
- Swimming Guidelines: Once whale sharks are found, swimmers can spend an hour or more with them, maintaining a 4-meter distance and avoiding any physical contact.
- Jellyfish: Jellyfish appear after sunrise but are not dangerous.
How to Get to Saleh Bay
Travelers have various options to reach Saleh Bay, including organized tours, the boat trip between Lombok and Komodo, overland journeys with a ferry from Lombok, or flying directly into Sumbawa Besar.
All small snorkeling boat trips to the whale sharks depart from Labuan Jambu, a small fishing village in northern Sumbawa.
I chose to do this experience independently by riding a motorbike from Mataram in Lombok to Labuan Jambu and back over 2 days with my friends. However, in hindsight, this journey was very long by bike and I would suggest choosing another option unless you'd like to swim with whale sharks in Indonesia as cheaply as possible.
Booking a Whale Shark Tour from Lombok
Currently, only one tour provider is offering organized 2-day 1-night whale shark trips to Sumbawa from Lombok.
This overland AC-van tour begins with an early pick-up from your airport or hotel in Lombok, followed by a visit to Sukarara Weaving Village, before journeying from Kayangan Harbor to cross over to Sumbawa Island, where you will sleep at a hotel near Labuan Jambu.
The next day is an early morning snorkel with whale sharks in Saleh Bay, followed by a journey back to Lombok that evening.
Whale Sharks On the Lombok to Komodo Boat Trip
The best option, in my opinion, is to swim with the whale sharks in Saleh Bay on the epic 4-day 3-night Lombok to Komodo boat trip.
This is one of the best travel experiences I've had traveling in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, when I did this trip it didn't include it, but now it does. Usually, the itinerary will stop at Saleh Bay for a whale shark swim on day 2 of the trip.
This option works out to be much cheaper than booking an overnight whale shark trip from Lombok and features many more great stops on the journey, including nearby Moyo Island, Komodo Island, and Padar Island.
Flying to Sumbawa Besar
One semi-independent option is to fly to Sumbawa Besar (Sultan Muhammad Kaharuddin III Airport). There are flight routes available to this airport from Lombok International Airport with Wings Air daily or from Ngurah Rai International Airport (Denpasar Airport) in Bali.
From Sumbawa Besar, you can rent a motorbike, car, or hire a driver to take you to Labuan Jambu. Alternatively, there is a whale shark day trip that you can book that runs directly from Sumbawa Besar.
Independent Option: Motorbike from Lombok
To get to Jambu Village and embark on the whale shark boat in Saleh Bay independently from Lombok, you have quite the journey ahead of you.
The most common way is to rent a motorbike or car and take the public ferry from Kayangan Harbour in East Lombok to Poto Tano Harbor in Sumbawa. Then, you will need to ride across Sumbawa to Labuan Jambu.
Below is the breakdown.
- Ride to Kayangan Harbour (2.5 hours from Senggigi, 2 hours from Mataram or Kuta Lombok)
- Take the public slow boat to Poto Tano Harbour in Sumbawa. This departs every hour (24 hours) and costs 80,000 per person with a motorbike.
- Ride to Labuan Jambu (4-5 hours). There are hotels & homestays here that can arrange your whale shark boat for the following morning.
Travel tip: Renting a motorbike in Lombok costs approximately 150,000 IDR per day. Make sure that they are okay with you taking it across to Sumbawa. I recommend getting a decent bike (110 cc or above) as you will be traveling over 300 kilometers.
My Experience Snorkeling With the Whale Sharks at Saleh Bay
The whale shark snorkeling boats into Saleh Bay depart daily at roughly 4 am. Our tour guide woke us at our hotel (Alffiah Hotel) and walked us across the road to the water, where a medium-sized, local outrigger boat (jukung) was waiting for us.
The Boat Journey From Labuan Jambu
We boarded, took a seat on the deck and prepared for a long, 2-hour journey to the whale shark platforms in the middle of Saleh Bay. The boat had coffee, some bread and Nutella, and some very thin mattresses and blankets to keep us comfortable for the journey.
The boat journey was quite calm for us, although the engine was very loud. I have been told that the sea conditions can vary greatly, and sometimes trips are canceled if the sea is too rough.
Eventually, we arrived at the fishing platform, right before sunrise.
I was told that the whale sharks come to the fishing platforms at sunrise daily when the fishermen lift their nets. I also noticed that the fishermen were pumping up seawater and splashing it back into the sea.
This is a technique used to attract the sharks to the platform. After waiting 15 minutes, our guide told us that we would be moving to another platform since the sharks were not there.
This is something that I was not expecting, but there are several platforms, each attempting to attract the whale sharks (for monetary compensation). Luckily, our guide kept communicating with the fishermen from each platform, and it only took us an hour to find the sharks.
Snorkeling With the Whale Sharks
Once we arrived, we caught our first glimpse of the whale sharks swimming around the platform. We all jumped in the water and spent 2 hours swimming with the amazing creatures.
I couldn't help but notice that these tours were very primitive. There was no proper briefing or safety information provided. This is something that definitely needs to be improved.
Below are some photos that I took of the experience.
Return to Labuan Jambu Village
After the snorkeling experience, we boarded the small boat again and made the 2-hour journey back to Jambu Village.
Ethical Whale Shark Tourism in Indonesia
Ethical whale shark tourism in Indonesia is still in its infancy, a stage where commercial tourism hasn't fully taken root, especially in areas like Saleh Bay.
This developing state implies fewer tourists and a unique opportunity to experience these magnificent creatures up close. However, it also presents significant challenges, particularly around the ethics of feeding whale sharks.
Feeding the Whale Sharks
Some concerns have been raised that feeding disrupts the sharks' natural behaviors. The primary concern with feeding is the disruption of migratory patterns. The thought is, that if the sharks are getting fed daily in one location, they won't want to migrate to another, potentially upsetting breeding patterns.
However, what distinguishes Saleh Bay's whale sharks from other populations in Southeast Asia and beyond is their lack of international migration. These sharks naturally live and breed in Sumbawa and aren't known to migrate.
This stationary behavior mitigates one of the primary concerns associated with feeding. However, other feeding issues remain, including dependency on human food sources and excess exposure to sunlight at the surface, among others.
Hunting of Whale Sharks in Saleh Bay
Historically, the fishermen of Saleh Bay hunted these whale sharks, a practice driven by the necessity to support their families in a region marked by economic hardship. Transitioning from hunting to feeding whale sharks to attract them for tourists is a much more favorable outcome, even with the potential complications that can arise.
That said, according to Conservation International the whale shark population in Saleh Bay has now grown to about 125 documented individuals, suggesting that feeding, while controversial, is preferable to hunting in terms of conservation outcomes.
Luckily, there are also supportive bodies including the Conservation Group Konservasi Indonesia which are overseeing the development of this experience.
How to Have Ethical Whale Shark Experiences in Sumbawa
After swimming with Whale Sharks in Cebu (Philippines) and Thailand, I know the importance of striking a balance between ecological preservation and tourism. I don't want this experience to become as commercialized as in Oslob.
It is our duty as sustainable travelers to help foster sustainable tourism that both protects the whale sharks and supports the local community, with an understanding that our tourist dollar helps steer away from harmful practices like fishing.
Tips for An Enjoyable and Sustainable Whale Shark Experience
Below are some things that we can do to ensure we can enjoy swimming with whale sharks in Indonesia respectfully and sustainably.
- Choose Ethical Tour Operators: Support businesses that prioritize the well-being of whale sharks and the environment. Ask the right questions and look for operators committed to responsible wildlife interactions.
- Maintain a Safe Distance: Always keep a minimum distance of 4 meters from the whale sharks. This helps minimize stress on the animals and ensures their natural behaviors are not disrupted.
- Do Not Touch the Whale Sharks: Resist the urge to touch or ride the whale sharks. Physical contact can remove the protective mucous layer on their skin, making them vulnerable to infections and diseases.
- Use Eco-friendly Sunscreen: Choose reef-safe sunscreens that do not contain harmful chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate, which can damage marine ecosystems and harm marine life. Even better wear a long sleeve rash vest and hat instead of sunscreen when swimming.
- Avoid Flash Photography: Avoid using flash when taking photos. Bright flashes can startle and stress the whale sharks.
- Educate Yourself and Others: Learn about whale sharks and the importance of their conservation. Share your knowledge and experiences to promote awareness and encourage responsible practices among other travelers in Indonesia.
- Be Mindful of Your Impact: Recognize that your presence has an impact. Strive to leave no trace.
Finally, advocate for sustainable practices.
I've seen a worrying trait lately from "travelers" virtue signaling and condemning tour operators without actually speaking to them. This doesn't help anybody. Recognize that families from this community don't have the education or financial freedom you do to always understand or make the right ecological decisions.
You have an equal responsibility to help build this experience so that it benefits the sharks, travelers, and local communities alike. Your feedback is essential in setting expectations, from requesting briefings to suggesting the enforcement of interaction rules.
FAQ About the Saleh Bay Whale Sharks Experience
Where is the best place to swim with whale sharks in Indonesia?
The best place to swim with whale sharks in Indonesia is Saleh Bay on Sumbawa Island in West Nusa Tenggara. Known for its clear waters and the unique year-round presence of whale sharks, Saleh Bay offers visitors a rare opportunity to interact with these majestic creatures in their natural habitat.
Where can I see whale sharks in Sumbawa?
Saleh Bay, Sumbawa's largest bay, hosts whale sharks attracted to fishing platforms at sunrise when fishermen lift their nets. From Jambu Village, travelers can embark on a 2-hour boat journey at sunrise to swim and snorkel with these gentle giants.
Can you swim with whale sharks in Lombok?
Whale sharks rarely frequent the waters of Lombok. Instead, travelers in Lombok can take a tour to Saleh Bay in neighboring Sumbawa, where chances of swimming with sharks is nearly guaranteed.
What is the chance of seeing a whale shark in Saleh Bay?
Whale sharks are attracted to the large fishing platforms in Saleh Bay each morning at sunrise when the fishermen raise their nets. This happens daily and the chances of spotting them are almost 100%.
Is it safe to Swim with whale sharks?
Whale sharks are not predatory and only feed on plankton, krill, jellyfish, and larvae. Therefore, swimming with whale sharks is very safe for both humans and the animals as long as you keep a 4-meter distance from the animals and avoid touching them.
More Lombok Travel Blogs
I hope that this comprehensive guide to snorkeling with whale sharks in Saleh Bay, Sumbawa has been informative and helpful for your trip planning.
If you have any updates to this guide, or thoughts and ideas regarding sustainable whale shark tourism in Indonesia, please let me know in the comments below.
Otherwise, make sure to check out some of my other Lombok travel guides below for more inspiration and travel ideas!
- 4-Day Boat Trip to Komodo From Lombok - read about my favorite boat trip in Indonesia
- Lombok Travel Guide - My comprehensive guide of 25+ epic things to do in Lombok
- Lombok Waterfall Guide - Discover all the best waterfalls in Lombok
- Hiking Rinjani Crater - how to hike and camp on Mount Rinjani
- Gili Trawangan - Find things to do on Gili T
- Accommodation: Find out where to stay in Lombok and read my guide to where to stay on the Gili Islands.