Sharks are amazing. There are more than 500 species of shark throughout the world and the weird and wonderful ways they have managed to evolve over the last 450 million years are... a little ridiculous. It's strange to think that a 60cm puffadder shyshark (which curls adorably up into a circle around itself when scared, giving it the shyshark name) is related to the 14m whale shark. In turn, these are both related to a group of eight species of shark whose heads are built into a hammer shape (can you guess which sharks I'm talking about?) that act as a fancy in built hunting device by enhancing electrical signal detection skills... probably.
There are sharks in just about every location you can imagine. Even in England, we have known migratory basking shark and blue shark populations. But, where in the world are the best places to swim with sharks? I couldn't say for certain, but here's a list of my ten favourite countries where I've encountered our sweet, teethy friends.
1. French Polynesia is one of the sharkiest places in the world, and you can see them all year round. There are 118 islands throughout the country, but you can already dive with sharks the second you fly into the capital, Tahiti. Infact, when you surface from your dive, the airport is in sight.
Tiger Shark Dive Tahiti is a small company that runs out of the capital. They offer dives twice a day and, as you might guess from the name, tiger sharks are the stars of the show. On average, you seem the tigers on about every three to four dives, but even without this you're likely to encounter five other species on every single dive: the black, white and grey tip reef sharks, nurse sharks and lemon sharks. I repeated the same two dives every single day for about a month and I never once tired of it, it never once got repetitive.
My absolute favourite parts of these dives were when the tiger sharks arrived. You don't see the tiger shark at first. What you see is all the other sharks scattering because they've sensed there's a big girl coming through. It's an amazing visual representation of the respect these smaller sharks have for the tigers. Then, finally, you see the tiger shark for yourself and you simply freeze. Not because you're scared, but because a sense of calm washes over you and the only thing to do is watch and appreciate.
2. The Azores is actually an 'autonomous region of Portugal'. It is an archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and every summer, blue sharks migrate here from July to October. The best islands to dive from are Faial and Pico Island. I was with Norberto Diver on Faial Island and I cannot recommend enough. You can choose to scuba dive or snorkel with the blue sharks (and sometimes, Mako sharks appear too!) and I'd suggest snorkelling. The sharks can be intimidated by the scuba gear and it's a much more personal experience without the bubbles and darth vader backing vocals. The blues are so calm and sweet, and curious! You'll scare them off with any sudden movements, but if you're still and calm, they will be too!
It's also great as Norberto also offers scuba diving with mobula rays on Princess Alice Banks, which is a submerged seamount in the middle of nowhere. It's a pretty current-y dive, so you have to be an advanced diver to do this. You can also do whale watching and I think it's one of the best places in the world to do this. On my first ever whale watching trip with them, we saw SEVEN whale species! Humpback whales, fin whales, sei whales, sperm whales, rissos dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and A BLUE WHALE! Seriously, if you're thinking about going to the Azores, just stop reading this article right now and book your flights immediately.
3. The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are one you might not have heard of before. This isn't the Cocos Island in Costa Rica. This is a remote territory of Australia, 2750km north west of Perth. If you've heard of Christmas Island- go left. I spent two months here scuba diving with Dieter of Cocos Dive. I was doing research for my masters thesis at the time, which was comparing aerial and underwater methods of studying shark ecology. On one drone survey, I captured 43 sharks in one frame at a time. Enough said.
BUT NO, not enough said!!! It's an INCREDIBLE place, the people are the friendliest, the cafe there, Maxi's by the Sea is the yummiest place to have breakfast on the ocean and the bar is full of fun and I fell in love with the West Island life. The visibility on every dive was at least 25m, usually about double that and there wasn't a single dive we didn't see sharks on. It's one of the only places in the world where sharks have never been commercially fished so they're brave and friendly and they approach you and check you out and it makes my heart so happy remembering that place. There aren't just sharks, there are fish and turtles everywhere, there's a shipwreck shallow enough to snorkel, there's coral for DAYS and it's one of the most colourful underwater scenes I've ever seen. You can fly there direct from Perth, Australia and you SHOULD. Here's a little montage I made earlier, if you need video proof.
4. Ningaloo Reef is in Western Australia, about a 13 hour road trip up from Perth, or a direct flight to Learmonth Airport. Between mid March and early August, the whale sharks migrate through here and the tour companies send a legion of plane spotters into the sky to find our spotty friends. They're the biggest fish in the world and are surprisingly easy to spot from the air- it's like looking into a glass of tadpoles.
The whale sharks here are very well protected and the tours are monitored to make sure the sharks receive respect, and are treated as they should be- no touching, no freediving, and no behaviour that would stress the sharks out. Their safety is priority, and that's what I love about Ningaloo Reef. That, and you're also able to see manta rays, tiger sharks, leopard sharks, humpback whales, blue whales, orcas, turtles, bright corals everywhere... need I go on? 3 Islands Whale Shark Dive operate daily tours and I would go back in a heartbeat if I could.
5. The Maldives. I was going to refer to a specific location here, but there's simply no need. The sharks are everywhere in this country. The South Ari Atoll hosts whale sharks, the Male Atoll has leopard sharks, Rasdhoo Atoll has hammerhead sharks. To be honest, all the atolls seem to have a speciality, but it's not uncommon to see any of the sharks in any areas. Tiger sharks seem to pop up wherever they like without warning.
I was volunteering here, working with Marine Savers at the Four Seasons Kudaa Huraa so my experience here was fantastic, but I should warn you it isn't necessarily budget friendly. That said, every day is wild from start to finish and you'll spend your time surrounded by glassy calm water, dolphins in every direction, turtles and sharks as far as the eye can see and you're likely to love every second. If you're a student in marine biology- the internship is a great way to experience this part of the world, too.
6. Gansbaai, South Africa. There had to be a link to a great white shark cage diving outlet in this article, didn't there. I was with Marine Dynamics, as a research assistant via the Shark Conservancy. MD was the partner company because they put a lot of effort into research, and there's a marine biologist on every single tour.
If I'm honest, my experience here coincided with one of the worst red algae tides that South Africa has ever seen. The visibility was so low that the experience on the top of the boat was better, as underwater you simply couldn't be sure that you'd seen anything a lot of the time. I've heard great things about the Rodney Fox tours in Port Lincoln, Australia, where the visibility is supposedly a lot more reliable. If I go one day, I'll update you on how it compares!
7. Cocos Island, Costa Rica. Cocos Island has more sharks than they know what to do with. You name it: tigers, schools of hammerheads, silky sharks, galapagos sharks, white tip reef sharks and whale sharks make regular appearances on every liveaboard tour and the visibility has an irresistible navy blue quality like nowhere else. Being on a liveaboard boat gives you the opportunity to be completely immersed in the ocean with no real world to return to for a week, which is everything I've ever wanted in life. If you feel the same, you should do one of these trips.
The Undersea Hunter offers year round tours, as well as humpback whale trips in the Dominican Republic from January to April on their second boat. We'll talk about that another time, but it's one of the best trips I've ever done, even if there are no sharks in the Silver Bank.
8. Revillagigedo Islands, Mexico. To get here, you fly into Cabo San Lucas and board a big old liveaboard (I love them). I wouldn't recommend the boat I worked on personally, but Nautilus Liveaboards are an incredible dive operation and the 26- hour journey out to sea is beyond worth it. Trips are 9 or 11 days and even without the insane wildlife, the topography of the ocean floor here is unbelievable. It's literally a group of four volcanic islands stretching underwater, so the ocean floor is black and beautiful, and seamounts appear as if out of nowhere.
I never got the chance to ask the sharks if they also visit for the beaty of the underwater landscape, but I suspect they may actually be there for the strong currents that carry all sorts of thriving life. There's a new species of shark around every corner, and in the right season you can hear whales singing underwater during your dives. If you're super lucky, you might even see one- but even if you're not, the tigers, whale sharks, hammerheads, white tips, black tips, silkies, galapagos sharks and nurse sharks will most likely be enough to tickle your fancy.
9. Donsol and Southern Leyte are in the Philippines. While they aren't the most breathtaking unbelievable, guaranteed-sightings swimming with sharks in the world, I wanted to put these in as an option for anyone considering swimming with whale sharks in Oslob, Cebu. As a general rule, I am pro-feeding sharks for eco-tourism. When done properly and respectfully, the sharks will be attracted to a chumming site for tourists to marvel at, and fall in love with. I believe that people who see sharks are more inclined to protect the oceans, so if a little chumming brings them closer to be more loved, I'm ok with it. However, in Oslob, the whale sharks swim up to the boats, open their mouths, and wait for food to be poured in. Some arrive at 6am when the feeding begins, and leave at 1pm when it ends. It's not natural and it trains the sharks not to bother looking for other sources of food.
So, if you want to swim with whale sharks, Southern Leyte is only one island across from Cebu, it's much less crowded and if you don't believe me, here's an article about how great the tours organised by KASAKA are. The whale sharks aren't fed, so you can't guarantee you'll see them 100%. But you can feel good about yourself supporting a worthy cause.
10. The Bahamas. This is somewhere I haven't been, but it's painfully high on my to-do list. If it wasn't for the global pandemic I'd be swimming with this toothy boy right now, but that's okay. I'm happy the sharks are getting a rest from us bothering them all the time- but this is definitely the first place I'm going shark diving when I'm set free.
This shot is by Jas Roig of Sea the World bikinis (the best and most sustainable bikinis on Earth) with Bimini Undersea on the Hammerhead shark dive. It is shallow, and the white sand here brings an incredible contrast to the dive that I've not experienced before. You're also likely to see bull sharks and nurse sharks, and if you're interested in going there, I guess we're racing to see who gets there first.
There are so, so many places in the world you can find and swim with sharks, either on scuba or by snorkelling, or even freediving. I didn't even mention Egypt, Fiji, Byron Bay or the Solomon islands or... I'll stop before I double the word count just listing amazing countries. If you're scared of sharks, and thinking about conquering your fear (as soon as the world opens), I really can't recommend it enough. I've dived with over a thousand sharks and the feeling of amazement never wears off. It's magic and I desperately want you to share it with me. If you're an experienced shark diver and I missed somewhere out, let me know! I'm always on a quest for more denticled dive buddies and your recommendations will go a long way.
Okay, that's all from me for now. Enjoy this picture of a blue shark as a thank you for reading. I love you.
Written by Catherine Cushenan, shark ecologist,
who has worked with sharks for six years
in fifteen countries to date.