The 13 Best Places to Swim With Sharks
Swimming with sharks is an activity that features regularly as a bucket list item, particularly for travellers seeking a pure adrenaline rush. These powerful, ferocious creatures have long exercised a hold over our imaginations as the ultimate underwater predators; ruthless killers with razor-sharp teeth. Getting up close to a school of sharks can be a terrifying experience.
However, the shark’s reputation for aggression is somewhat unfounded, and swimming with sharks is about much more than the pure adrenaline rush of doing something that feels so dangerous. These fish live within a delicately balanced marine eco-system, and are complex, intelligent and perfectly adapted to their surroundings. Watching them in their natural habitat is an awe-inspiring experience, and the ideal way to learn more about the beauty and fragility of life under the sea.
There are over 400 known species of shark, living in different habitats across the world, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Here’s our guide to the best (and most beautiful) places to seek them out.
1. Port Lincoln, Australia
The great white shark is one of the most iconic shark species of all, made famous by the 1975 film Jaws. The sheer size of this incredible fish is enough to instill fear in the bravest of divers, but factor in the rows of sharp teeth and the strength of its jaw and it’s easy to see why the great white has such a fearsome reputation.
However, divers in Port Lincoln are hoping to rehabilitate the great white shark, which is a protected species under threat from human-induced climate change and ocean pollution that is radically altering its natural habitat. In Port Lincoln, shark aficionados can get up close to these magnificent, terrifying creatures, albeit from the safety of an underwater cage. Although humans are not the preferred prey of the great white, they are the shark species that tallies up the highest number of unprovoked attacks on humans.
Marine conservationists say that the great white is not naturally aggressive to humans, but rather that human interference in the delicate marine eco-system is resulting in a higher number of shark attacks. This problem is exacerbated by the methods used by agencies that facilitate shark dives, often using bait known as ‘chum’ to attract these fearsome predators. This leads sharks to associate humans and boats with food, prompting aggressive behavior. In Port Lincoln, however, shark divers have found an alternative way to attract great whites to their observation cages. Sharks can sense prey from long distances, as they are particularly sensitive to vibrations in the water. Instead of bait, therefore, divers simply play heavy rock music in the water, which draws the sharks naturally.
This is a great place to learn more about these incredible fish, to understand the threats posed to their existence, and to come face-to-face with one of the most awe-inspiring beasts of the sea.
2. Oahu, Hawaii
Although many people choose to go shark diving in order to catch a glimpse of the famous great white, there are many other species of shark to choose from, all of which make for a thrilling underwater experience. Oahu, Hawaii is known for its underwater diversity, and it’s here that you’re likely to see the greatest range of shark species. Hawaii boasts over 40 different kinds of shark, and in the waters around Oahu you can find scalloped hammerhead sharks, white tipped reef sharks, tiger sharks, Galapagos sharks and sandbar sharks.
Oahu offers opportunities to see these fearsome creatures either from the safety of a cage, or as part of a group scuba dive. Cage-less diving in these waters is not for the faint of heart, but experienced guides are keen to demonstrate that despite all appearances, these sharks are not interested in attacking humans. Indeed, swimming freely through the water alongside these incredible animals is sure to be one of the most memorable experiences of your life.
3. Isla Guadalupe, Mexico
Outside Australia, this stunning corner of Mexico has to be one of the best places in the world to see the infamous great white shark. The crystal clear waters of this Mexican island offer ideal viewing conditions, and there are multiple opportunities for cave diving in different spots around the island, each providing a different window on to the underwater lives of sharks.
There is a particular concern here to ensure that marine tourism practices do not harm the natural eco-system, and the use of chum is prohibited. Instead, cages are dropped into the water at a depth of 30 feet, which is where great whites spend most of their time. Instead of attracting the sharks to the surface, visitors go directly to them, offering a chance to get close to one of the ocean’s most effective and breath-taking predators.
4. Cocos Island, Costa Rica
The hammerhead shark is probably one of the most distinctive creative under the sea, with its angular head and characteristic features. If you want to understand more about these animals, come to Cocos Island in Costa Rica, where you can swim alongside large groups of stern-looking hammerhead sharks. Cocos Island is a remote, tropical, eastern Pacific island, boasting a magnificent biodiversity and fantastic opportunities for diving. But it’s the roving schools of hammerhead sharks that are the real draw here.
It is not known why hammerhead sharks developed in the way that they did, although we now understand that their heads give them an advantage when it comes to manoeuvring and seeking out prey. They stick together in schools during the day, but prefer to hunt solo by night. Although daytime provides more opportunity to see large groups of hammerheads, this is also an ideal place to try a nighttime dive, when you can see these superior predators hunt down their prey.
5. Beqa Lagoon, Fiji
The great white shark has the most fearsome reputation of all shark species, and was made most famous in the iconic film, Jaws. However, few people know that the original inspiration for the film was a notorious shark attack involving a different predator. In the early 20th century, a series of shark attacks were recorded on the Jersey Shore, involving ferocious bull sharks. Bearing a significant resemblance to their better-known cousins, bull sharks are bright, white and full of teeth. They are also reported to be one of the more aggressive shark species, and have been known to attack surfers.
Despite the fear factor, bull sharks are a powerful draw for avid divers, and swimming alongside them provides a real thrill. The excellent diving conditions and conservation efforts at Beqa Lagon in Fiji attracts thousands of professional divers and shark aficionados throughout the year. Although bull sharks are certainly the main attraction, you’ll also find Sicklefin lemon sharks, reef sharks and silvertip sharks in abundance in these rich and profuse waters.
6. Gansbaai, South Africa
South Africa is one of the best shark diving locations in the world, known for its abundant waters filled with all kinds of marine life. Thrill-seekers come here to get up close to great whites from the safety of a sturdy cage, but it’s not the only reason to head to the southerly tip of Africa. In addition to great whites, you’re like to see copper sharks, known for their hook-shaped teeth and bronze colouring.
However, the delicate marine habitat at Gansbaai is also under threat from broader changes that have increased the orca population in the area. Orcas are occasionally known to hunt great whites, but in Gansbaai, the number of orca-related shark deaths increased significantly in 2017. Although the great white population is gradually returning to the shallower waters around Gansbaai, the balance of this important eco-system remains under threat.
7. Isla Mujeres, Mexico
The gentle giant of the sea is the whale shark, one of the few plankton-eating species of shark, and a truly awesome sight to behold. The whale shark is the biggest fish in the sea, and is particularly distinctive with its wide mouth, stretching to 4 and a half feet wide, and its covering of bright yellow spots. These colossal animals have elusive migratory patterns and can be difficult to spot. However, in July and August, many of them flock to the warm waters off the coast of Mexico in order to take advantage of the plentiful supply of plankton.
The sheer size of these immense creatures is matched only by their friendly and curious nature. Whale sharks will often approach divers, and have even been known to allow them to grab hold of a fin, pulling them through the water. Although this is not recommended (human contact can expose whale sharks to disease and infection, damaging their delicate membranes), swimming alongside these immense fish is an experience like no other.
8. The Great Barrier Reef, Australia
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s natural wonders, a delicate, precious eco-system that sustains a staggering multiplicity of marine life. This cathedral of coral supports many types of underwater creatures, but its abundant shark life consistently attracts divers. The principal draw here is the white tipped reef shark, long, slim, grey creatures that grow to around 8 feet long. However, you may also encounter leopard sharks, epaulette sharks, and tiger sharks.
Although some species found at the Great Barrier Reef have been known to be aggressive, such as the tiger shark, on the whole these sharks ignore humans unless they are provoked. This means that snorkelers and scuba divers have the opportunity to see and swim alongside sharks as they coast through the warm reef waters searching for food. In addition to observing all of the wonders that the reef has to offer, a shark sighting at the Great Barrier Reef is sure to be a highlight of any trip to Australia.
9. Oban, Scotland
The north of the United Kingdom is not known for its diving culture. The cold, rainy weather means that only the most committed shark hunters are prepared to don a wetsuit and plunge into the freezing Atlantic waters. However, head up to Oban in Scotland and it might just be worth the effort. This area is known for its abundance of basking sharks, the fish with one of the biggest mouths in the sea. Basking sharks have mouths that open thee feet wide, creating a petrifying chasm that is enough to scare even the most hardened of shark swimmers.
However, don’t be fooled by this imposing spectacle. Like their friendly cousin, the whale shark, basking sharks only eat plankton, and the teeth inside their colossal mouths are tiny. Between June and September the clear waters of the Inner Hebrides are filled with migrating basking sharks, making this an ideal location for swimming with these remarkable creatures. Even if the waters prove to be a little chilly, a dram of fine Scotch whisky will be waiting at the end of the dive to warm you up.
10. The Red Sea, Egypt
The Red Sea, off the coast of Egypt, is a mecca for diving aficionados. The rich marine life sustained by the reef here is a paradise for scuba divers and snorkelers, and offers a variety of extraordinary sights. Visitors also flock here to see a whole range of sharks, including the fierce snaggletooth shark, the oceanic whitetip shark, hammerhead sharks, zebra sharks and the grey reef shark. Although these populations have been in decline in the Red Sea in recent years, any diving trip here is likely to yield a shark sighting, and is a memorable, thrilling experience.
11. Bora Bora, French Polynesia
The island of Bora Bora, northwest of Tahiti, is a natural treasure, known for its soft, sand covered islets and tranquil turquoise waters. It’s no wonder that this idyllic location is also a paradise for sea creatures, and these rich waters attract all kinds of marine life. Bora Bora offers unparalleled diving experiences, allowing you to see turtles, stingrays and schools of thousands of multi-coloured fish, surging through the warm shallow waters. In particular, Bora Bora is also known as the home of hundreds of black tipped reef sharks, offering visitors the possibility of swimming alongside them without the need for cages, or even diving equipment. This is the ideal place to see these sharks in their natural habitat.
12. Bunaken, Indonesia
The reef that surrounds the tiny island of Bunaken, just off the coast of Sulawesi in Indonesia, is one of the most popular spots in the world for diving. This rich and profuse coral reef provides ample opportunity for scuba diving and observation of all kinds of marine life. June is the best time to see sharks and you will find plenty of reef sharks of varying sizes to keep you occupied. Sulawesi is also a popular location to see whale sharks, although these giants can be elusive. However, in the summer months, whale sharks flock to warmer waters around Sulawesi to feed on the reliable supply of plankton. Plan your trip at this time to maximise the possibility of seeing some of these remarkable creatures.
13. Morehead City, North Carolina, United States
North Carolina might not, at first glance, appear to be the most intuitive place to go swimming with sharks, especially when considered alongside the more tropical and exotic destinations on this list. However, Morehead City offers a shark swimming experience with a twist. This region is known for its abundance of underwater wrecks, which provide a fascinating opportunity to explore relics of the past alongside fearsome beasts of the sea. This area also attracts a large number of sand tiger sharks, scary looking fish that can grow up to 10 feet long. These atmospheric dives will bring you up close to some impressive looking sharks while you drift in and out of colossal, sunken relics of the past.
While swimming with sharks may appear to be an activity destined only for thrill seekers and daredevils, it doesn’t have to be a feat of bravery. Swimming with sharks is a fantastic way to get closer to nature and learn more about the diversity and abundance of life under the sea. Once you’ve seen these incredible creatures in their natural habitat, you’ll be ready to throw out the scary stereotypes and see these sharks for the fascinating, awe-inspiring beings they really are.
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