Despite the fact that that the world’s shark population is perilously shrinking, it is still possible to find places to dive with these magnificent creatures. And that may be just what they need most: seeing them at eye level cruising effortlessly against a strong current, always wary, always watchful, one learns to appreciate sharks for the miracles of evolution that they are, rather than as bloodthirsty killers. Appreciation on its own won’t save them from extinction (and us from global ecosystem issues and other very bad things), but if sharks are seen as tourist attractions rather than merely as soup ingredients or beach hazards, maybe the tide can turn in some of the places where they’re most threatened. So strap on a tank, check the seals on your camera housing and drop in to the middle of the food chain at one of these destinations.
Cocos Island, Costa Rica
Cocos Island, uninhabited save for a ranger station, rises 300 miles offshore from Costa Rica. It’s a primordial volcanic outcrop in the middle of the Pacific and was the inspiration for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. But while the island may be an interesting place to watch birds and swat bugs, it’s the deep waters surrounding it that draw divers. Cocos is the best place in the world to see hammerhead sharks, who school in the hundreds during the summer months. Drop down, cling to a rock outcrop, aim your camera up and watch the show. This is not easy diving. Strong currents, cold water and a remote location mean Cocos is not the place to go if you’re still the guy putting your wetsuit on backwards.
Tiputa Pass, Rangiroa (French Polynesia)
While diving in a strong current can be a challenge, it’s often the best way to see sharks. The flow of water brings with it smaller fish (a.k.a. prey) that feed on the nutrients drifting in these underwater rivers. The Tiputa Pass, a gap in the Rangiroa atoll in the South Pacific, lets water in and out of this massive lagoon twice a day and is a reliable place to swim with silvertip sharks. This is drift diving. Let the current take you in through the gap and you’ll pass disconcertingly through the hundreds of sharks that hang almost motionless in the ripping current. Don’t worry; these sharks aren’t interested in a six-foot long bony creature blowing bubbles like you.
Tiger Beach, Bahamas
Stuart Cove was a pioneer of shark diving. Based in the Bahamas since the 1960s, he was the guy who taught Sean Connery to dive for the filming of Thunderball and helped wrangle the sharks used in that movie. Since those days, Cove’s eponymous diving business has become the best known guide service for divers looking to get up close and personal with tiger sharks.
Thanks to a ban on long line fishing and extensive shark protection laws, the Bahamas’ clear waters are home to a wealth of shark species, from bulls to reefs to hammerheads. But if you want to dive with tiger sharks, the best place to go is Tiger Beach off of Grand Bahama. While it’s not exactly a natural encounter (the divemasters use bait to lure the sharks), you’re guaranteed to see the 16-foot predators in all their toothy glory. Just be sure to keep your hands in close.
Cage diving with great white sharks is on the bucket list of many an adventurous man. There aren’t many places where you can do it, and where you can — South Africa, Australia, San Francisco — it’s prohibitively expensive and usually done in choppy, cold water with limited visibility. But 150 miles off the west coast of Baja, Mexico, is the island of Guadalupe, whose surrounding waters are home to a population of the sharks’ favorite food: seals. Guadalupe is considered the world’s best spot for white shark diving thanks to its clear, relatively warm waters. Here you can see Whitey coming from 50 feet away, giving you time to check your f-stop and the latch on the cage door one more time. Given its remoteness, diving Guadalupe is typically a multi-day excursion; you’ll live aboard the dive boat between dives in the cage. While you’ll get plenty of face time with the sharks, this can also be a recipe for sea sickness. But it will be worth it when you’re back home showing off your up-close photos of that famous mouth.
Gladden Spit, Belize
After all the cage diving, schools of hammerheads and peeing in your wetsuit, you may be ready for a slightly gentler experience. Maybe it’s time to dive with the biggest shark in the sea. Yes, the whale shark, which can grow to 45 feet long, is a gentle giant, feeding only on plankton. Still, diving with them is a thrill. While most whale shark encounters come while snorkeling off of a boat, out on the Gladden Spit in Belize you can don a tank and dive beneath and alongside them. During the full moon days of May, June and July, hundreds of whale sharks pass by this remote strip of land ninety minutes from the mainland to feed on fish spawn. Diving the Spit can be challenging due to deep depths and strong currents, but the payoff is sightings of a school-bus-sized shark cruising overhead. Just be sure to take your eyes off the sharks long enough to keep an eye on your air supply and no-deco time.
A special thanks for imagery: Tiputa Pass, Rangiroa, credit SF Brit; Tiger Beach, Bahamas, credit Kevin Bryant; Guadalupe, Mexico, credit Scubaben; Gladden Spit, Belize, credit Marcel Ekkel.