Aliwal Shoal, South Africa
Often overlooked by international visitors in favor of great-white territory further south, Aliwal Shoal is South Africa’s premier destination for encountering sharks. Just offshore from the small town of Umkomaas, 25 miles south of Durban on South Africa’s east coast, the shoal provides a stunning array of reef and wreck diving opportunities, as well as the shark diving that it’s famous for. There are several charters in Umkomaas, all of which offer baited and reef dive packages, giving divers the best chance of meeting the Shoal’s impressive array of shark species. Year-round, divers can expect to see between five and 50 oceanic blacktip sharks on baited dives, while reef dives reliably offer the opportunity to see bull sharks, whitetip reef sharks and the occasional great white or thresher.
Aliwal Shoal also has two distinct seasons, each of which brings unique visitors. December through June is the best time for spotting the tiger sharks that arrive with the warmer water, while June onwards sees the return of ragged-tooth sharks, or sand tigers, to the reef. The Shoal is one of only a few places in the world where it’s possible to dive with tiger sharks outside a cage, and a close encounter with these 15-foot beauties is sure to top any diver’s bucket list. During the warmer months, they’re a regular sight on baited dives, with as many as eight individuals present at once. With the arrival of colder water in June, ragged-tooth sharks arrive en masse to use the reef’s gullies and caverns as a mating ground. These fearsome looking sharks are both docile and incredibly photogenic, and can be seen in aggregations of over twenty individuals on certain dive sites.
When to go: Tiger shark season runs from December to June, ragged-tooth season from June onwards (the end of season changes each year).
Average Depth: 39 to 82 feet
Temperature: 68 to 78 Fahrenheit
Visibility: 16 to 98 feet
Guadalupe Island, Mexico
No shark encounter story would be complete without a nod to the apex of apex predators, the great white. There are still no charters that allow members of the public to dive freely with these supreme predators, but there is one place in the world that stands out for the quality of its cage diving. Australia and South Africa are the most obvious destinations, but tiny Guadalupe Island, 150 miles off the coast of Baja California, offers a far superior experience. The island, which can only be reached by live-aboard, and its isolation is the key to the quality of the diving here. Visibility can exceed 130 feet and is reliably at least 100 feet, making for a crystal-clear view of the sharks themselves and the opportunities for photography exhilarating.
Most operators offer a submersible cage, in addition to the conventional surface cage, allowing divers to be fully immersed in the blue and truly surrounded by sharks. The great whites of Guadalupe are exceptionally large — much larger than the juvenile sharks often seen in cage diving destinations elsewhere. They are attracted to the island in the latter half of the year by concentrations of yellow-fin tuna and warmer water, and sightings are almost guaranteed during this time. Water temperatures can be pretty chilly for long periods of time, at around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, but the majestic Guadalupe great whites are more than worth it.
When to go: August to October
Average Depth: surface, with the submersible cage suspended at around 32 to 50 feet
Temperature: 65 to 68 Fahrenheit
Visibility: 100 to 130 feet
Cocos Island, Costa Rica
The legendary Cocos Island has long held a rightful place at the top of many a diver’s bucket list. The island, isolated 342 miles off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, is a haven for an astounding variety of marine life, with sharks only the most obvious attraction. The pinnacles and seamounts that comprise the island’s underwater topography draw hundreds of schooling scalloped hammerheads; this is one of the very best places in the world to dive with this fascinating species. As if that weren’t enough, visitors can spot whale sharks, bigeye threshers, silky sharks, whitetips, silvertips and Galapagos sharks — manta rays are also a common sight at Cocos. Only live-aboards can access the area, and strong currents and deep dive sites mean that visitors should be confident divers; at least 25 hours underwater prior to visiting the island is recommended.
The impressive array of dive sites at Cocos offer particular highlights. At Manuelita Outside and Punta Maria, you’ll visit hammerhead cleaning stations, while the seamount at Bajo Alcyone is one of the best places to see whale sharks, schooling hammerheads and manta rays. Getting to the island takes 36 hours by boat — so bring a good book — but the effort seems a small price to pay to visit the place Jacques Cousteau called the “most beautiful island in the world.” Diving is possible year round, with two distinct seasons to choose from. Between December and May, dry weather means calmer seas and visibility of over 100 feet. The rainy season between June and December offers reduced visibility and rougher seas, but more life thanks to upwellings of nutrients, which attract increased numbers of hammerheads, mantas and whale sharks.
When to go: Year-round
Average Depth: 60 to 130 feet
Temperature: 75 to 86 Fahrenheit
Visibility: 50 to 100 feet
Cenderawasih Bay, West Papua, Indonesia
Many places in the world are famous for whale shark sightings, but the sharks themselves are often elusive and the sightings seasonal. Little-known Cenderawasih Bay on the northern coast of Papua in Indonesia offers aggregations of whale sharks year round, almost guaranteeing a sighting. To get there, you must travel to the village of Kwatisore, a three-hour boat ride from Nabire town. The whale sharks gather in the bay to feed from the floating platforms, or bagan, used by local fishermen to land their catch. There are just over 20 of these platforms offshore from Kwatisore, and in the evening the fishermen use floodlights to attract scores of tiny baitfish into nets suspended below the platforms. It is these nets that attract the whale sharks, which have learned to suck out the fish in the nets the following day.
Both juveniles and adult whale sharks can be seen in Cenderawasih Bay, with the average shark measuring around 32 to 40 feet. It is common for groups of up to 20 individuals to be seen at one time, and because the sharks are so intent on retrieving the fish from the nets, they can be seen at incredibly close range without causing them any distress. Cenderawasih Bay was, until recently, geologically isolated from the Pacific, perhaps explaining the incredible number of fish species found in its waters. As well as the whale shark phenomenon, the area has an astounding 955 species of fish, four species of turtle, dolphins, dugongs and a number of World War II wrecks, all combining to justify the long trip to this remote location and to earn it a reputation as Indonesia’s answer to the Galapagos.
When to go: Year-round, though surface conditions and visibility are best from April to November
Average Depth: Surface
Temperature: 78 to 82 Fahrenheit
Visibility: 50 feet
Beqa Lagoon, Fiji
Fiji’s Beqa Lagoon boasts one of the most shark-intense dives in the world, offering the chance to see up to eight species on one dive. The lagoon is most famous for its population of bull sharks, but is also home to tigers, lemon sharks, silvertips, grey reefs, white and blacktip reefs and nurse sharks. The first available dive at this site takes place on the edges of Beqa Lagoon, where the Shark Reef Marine Reserve was established to enable non-invasive observational research, focused on shark conservation efforts worldwide. The first half of the dive, on a ledge 100 feet deep, is dedicated to attracting bull sharks. Trained feeders attract the sharks, and divers can see these impressive predators close-up and in all their considerable glory. The latter part of this dive takes place in the shallows, where reef sharks are plentiful and used to a human presence, making them confident enough to become good subjects for photography.
Beqa Lagoon’s second dive takes place at around 53 feet, where feeders attract nurse and bull sharks. Often, lemons and silvertips will also join the group, and some may be lucky enough to see one of the area’s impressive tiger sharks. Only one operator, Beqa Adventure Divers, has permission to conduct shark dives within the lagoon, meaning that the sharks have become used to a particular and unchanging routine, which in turn enables divers to interact with them safely.
When to go: Year-round, although bull sharks are less prevalent during mating season in November and December.
Average Depth: 52 to 100 feet
Temperature: 75 to 82 Fahrenheit
Visibility: 50 to 100 feet
Northern Scotland is one of only a very few places in the world where you can spot the incredibly elusive basking shark. These gentle giants are the second largest of all the shark species, and although not as famous as fellow filter-feeder whale sharks, they are equally unforgettable. Basking Shark Scotland offers tours departing from Oban, spending between one and three days at sea in an effort to see these magnificent creatures in their natural environment. It is important to note that due to their incredibly shy nature, sightings are never guaranteed, but the sheer amount of time spent at sea on these extended tours increases your chances considerably. The waters around Oban are a haven for wildlife of all kinds, including dolphins, porpoises, sea otters, seals and eagles — you won’t be bored while you search for the stars of the show.
The water in Scotland reaches temperatures no higher than 57 degrees Fahrenheit, so plan accordingly. But we promise, the adrenaline of swimming alongside one of the largest fish on the planet should be enough to keep any shark lover happy, whatever the temperature. This is one of the most natural big shark encounters in the world — there are no cages, no baiting, and no feeding; just a frills-free encounter that allows you to interact with a basking shark with as little impact as possible. Reaching lengths of over 32 feet, these sharks hover between “vulnerable” and “endangered” on the IUCN Red List, and those who are lucky enough to dive with them must consider it a true privilege.
When to go: May to September
Average Depth: Surface
Temperature: 50 to 57 Fahrenheit
Visibility: 16 to 32 feet