Sharks are amazing. There’s probably no other animal on Earth with which we have a more complicated relationship. We both love them and fear them. As apex predators, they are the oceanic version of lions and tigers, bringing a balance to the ocean ecosystem, which in turn enriches our lives through healthy ocean waters and an abundance of seafood. And as pioneering filmmakers and ocean advocates have demonstrated in recent years, their reputation as monsters is misplaced and our fear of them overblown. In fact, snorkeling and diving with sharks can be quite safe, assuming proper precautions and responsible interactions are taken. With the popularity of Shark Week and the BBC Blue Planet film series, shark encounters are now exploding as a tourism market. So from 10 to 1, here are the most amazing places on Earth to see sharks up close and personal:
Yes your read that right. Scotland is my #10 spot in this list of amazing places to see sharks. But in Scotland’s case, it’s one shark in particular. Scotland’s chilly waters are a hotspot for the 2nd biggest fish in the world – the basking shark. A true behemoth, the basking shark is harmless to humans as like baleen whales and whale sharks it makes its living by scooping up plankton in its massive mouth. To see or swim with these ocean giants, head to Oban and join Basking Shark Scotland anytime between April and October. A one day shark tour will cost you around US $245.
9. Great Blue Hole, Belize
Belize’s Great Blue Hole is a natural wonder worth visiting in its own right, but add sharks to the mix and you have the recipe for a truly epic dive location. Named by Jacques Cousteau as one of the top 5 dive sites in the world, the “Hole” is a giant sinkhole formed in karst limestone over a period of hundreds of thousands of years. At 407 feet deep, the Hole is also awash with sharks. Most common among these are the Caribbean reef shark, but lucky divers may also spot hammerheads, bull sharks and blacktip sharks. Also keep a look out for nurse sharks in the coral reef shallows along the rim of the hole. Until recently, tour operators fed sharks here to allow divers a close-up encounter with the predators. Now prohibited, the sharks remain curious and attracted to divers and boats alike, making it almost guaranteed to dive or snorkel in the midst of dozens of circling reef sharks. A 3-dive excursion with Frenchie’s Diving based out of Caye Caulker will cost you US $350, or just $215 if you want to snorkel instead.
8. Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Isla Mujeres is best known as Cancun’s quieter, more laid back next door neighbor – a tiny Caribbean island where one can cruise around white sand beaches and artisan markets on a golf cart. But the island has another claim to fame. From June to September each year it’s one of the most reliable places in the world to see and swim with an abundance of whale sharks. The sharks congregate about 20-30 miles offshore at a location known locally as the “Afuera” (outside), where huge patches of fish eggs from spawning little tunny (fish) cloud the waters and provide a food source for the sharks. Eco Tours Adventure, a highly rated operator on TripAdvisor, offers excursions starting at US $179. And don’t forget your GoPro!
Photograph by @PaulNicklen // On a peaceful Mexico morning, a large, docile whale shark swims near the surface of crystal clear waters to feed on plankton and little tunny eggs that float just below. Nowhere else on earth can you enjoy such prolonged encounters with so many whale sharks. #FollowMe on @PaulNicklen to learn how scientists are able to track individual whale sharks. #InternationalWhaleSharkDay #WhaleShark #Ocean #Explore
7. Donsol Bay, Philippines
While Mexico may have the most whale sharks in one place, the Philippines likely has the biggest. The bus-sized plankton feeders can be found at a number of spots throughout the archipelago, but one of the most reliable for really big sharks is at Donsol Bay on Luzon Island. Visit from November to June (peak is Feb-April). Donsol EcoTour and Whale Shark Adventure and Tours both offer a variety of snorkel and dive-based tours. Green travelers are advised not to swim with whale sharks at the more popularly known Oslob site due to poor interaction policies and lack of sustainable guidelines.
6. Western Cape, South Africa
Have you ever seen the documentary series Air Jaws on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week? Massive great white sharks leap into the air, performing all kinds of aerial acrobatics in pursuit of tasty fur seal snacks. Well if you’ve seen it, this is where that crazy action goes down. If your goal is to get up close and personal with toothy great whites, two sites are worthy of your attention:
- False Bay. For your chance to see sharks leaping out of the water, this is your spot. The 64,000 Cape fur seals that make their home on Seal Island serve as one giant shark magnet. Pre-dawn morning trips give you the best chance of witnessing an aerial predation. But even if you don’t see the sharks above water, a cage dive will almost certainly deliver a close encounter with these beauties. Sharks are active from February to September, with July-August being peak season.
- Gaansbai. The sleepy little hamlet of Gaansbai feels more like coastal Ireland than it does Africa. It’s well known for its wines, its unique botanical diversity and its sharks. Two hours from Cape Town, it offers the advantage of year-round access to sharks. So if you arrive off season for False Bay, just head down coast for your sharks.
For both locations, book your tour with the legendary Chris Fallows at Apex Shark Expeditions.
5. Guadeloupe, Mexico
If the waters of South Africa are too cold, too murky or too far away for you, but your itch to cage dive with great whites won’t ease up, you’re in luck. There’s another option. An oceanic island off of Mexico’s sunny Baja California Peninsula is another hotspot for these magnificent animals. Visiting requires traveling by liveaboard dive vessel and the only times to go are from August to October. PADI Travel maintains a list of reputable liveaboards with four night trips starting at US $2480.
4. Oahu, Hawai’i
With Hawai’i’s reputation for big wave surfing and beautiful beaches, the Aloha State has long seen sharks as something to avoid, not seek out. One Ocean Diving has been working their fins off to change this paradigm, as well as our perception of these magnificent animals. For US $150, the team will take you out into the open ocean off of Oahu to free-dive (snorkel) with pelagic sharks including silky sharks, Galapagos sharks and massive resident tiger sharks.
View this post on Instagram
Amazing photo by Co-founder @juansharks of @oceanramsey with Baby Roxy and Moana, two tiger sharks in our field ID program @oneoceansharks This season has been amazing for tiger shark interactions so far, and witnessing these incredible animals first hand is truly a life changing experience. In this photo you can see the difference in coloration between the two sharks, as the stripes tend to be more distinct and fade as tiger sharks mature. Come out with us soon for a chance to see a tiger for yourself! #Repost @juansharks ・・・ This is @oceanramsey documenting behavior between #SharkID “Baby Roxy”, the smaller tiger shark, and “Moana”, the large female tiger shark. Tiger sharks are nomadic sharks, traveling huge distances sometimes even up to 60 miles in one day. This type of behavior leads them to be more of an anti-social animal, so when they encounter other sharks in the same area they usually don’t get along right away, they have to size each other up and establish their social hierarchy. For more info on shark behavior check out @oneoceanresearch @oneoceandiving @oneoceansharks and for Hawaiian cultural connection to sharks check out our @oneoceanhawaii #coexist #ApexPredatorNotMonster #savingjaws #savingjawsmovie #comingsoon #beautiful #sharks #tigershark #shark photo by #juanoliphant using @aquatech_imagingsolutions @cressi1946 @xcelwetsuits new #tigersharkprint #wetsuit #forwomen #wetsuitsforacause #sharkconservation
3. The Bahamas
Turquoise waters, white sand beaches and just a puddle jump from the east coast of the United States, the Bahamas are well known to be among the sharkiest waters in the Caribbean region. But with over 700 islands to choose from, where do you start? Well, the Bahamas has so many excellent shark dives on so many islands, I wrote a whole separate post on the topic.
But to get you started, head over to the Bahamian capital of Nassau on New Providence island for Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahama’s shark dive, the Caribbean region’s most famous shark encounter. The two-tank diving experience includes a dive on a ‘shark wall’ and up close interactions with Caribbean reef sharks in a feeding experience at ‘the Arena’. This feeding practice is considered controversial, but does succeed in offering an intimate experience with these animals, which if nothing else is helping to shift public attitudes. The two-tank dive costs $182 USD per person plus gear rental for any dive equipment you didn’t bring with you. For a considerably higher price, Stuart’s Cove also offers a more immersive shark feeder training program. You will not want to forget your GoPro for this!
2. Beqa Lagoon, Fiji
Fiji is not just paradise on Earth, it’s also home to the planet’s most exiting shark dive. Local Beqa divers – whose culture venerates sharks as ancestral guardians – lead a cage-free shark feeding excursion like no other. The typical dive immerses you in schools of big sharks, ranging from tawny nurse and silvertip to thick-bodied bull sharks and the occasional massive tiger shark. This is sure to be the dive experience from which you’ll see the most big sharks of the most species anywhere in the world. Two competing operators offer similar excursions: Beqa Adventure Divers and Aqua-Trek.
The #1 spot on my amazing places to dive with sharks list goes to the Galapagos Islands. Heralded as the sharkiest place on Earth, Galapagos delivers not only more opportunities to see sharks, but also rare spectacles seen nowhere else. Here scalloped hammerhead sharks congregate in massive schools of 300+, offering divers a performance of the natural world they’ll find in few other places. Sharks, including hammerheads, can be seen all year but to see the hammerhead schools you’ll need to take a liveaboard (boat) in June to the remote islands of Darwin and Wolf. The Galapagos Agressor III has 7 night cruises for US $6095. For a more budget-minded trip, smaller schools of hammerheads can be seen year-round at Gordon Rocks, just off the populated island of Santa Cruz. Scuba Iguana offers daily excursions from US $245 per person per day.
Bonus Location: Cocos Island, Costa Rica
Lesser known but similar to the Galapagos in terms of shark awesomeness, the isolated island of Cocos offers adventure opportunities for truly off the beaten path travelers. The best way to reach Cocos is by liveaboard, the best of which are from the Aggressor Fleet. 10 night excursions start at US $5099.
Get out there and enjoy all of these amazing places to see sharks!
Opening photo: Scalloped Hammerhead Shark (Sphyrna lewini) at Cocos Island, Costa Rica. Photo by Kris-Mikael Krister.