Best Places to Dive With Sharks — and How to Stay Safe
I was 40 or 50 feet below the surface of the Caribbean on Grand Cayman’s East End last November when the first shark showed up. Then another. And another. Altogether, five joined us on our dive. The photographers in the group were clicking away madly; the rest of us just watched, awestruck. The sharks ignored us — puny, soft beings who couldn’t survive in their world without steel tanks and air hoses.
Sharks are the iconic lords of the deep; even veteran divers are awed by their presence. Their torpedo-shaped bodies and jagged teeth send a clear message: I can take you.
Swimming With Sharks
Fortunately for divers, shark attacks are rare. Between 2006 and 2010, an average of 4.2 fatal shark attacks took place annually worldwide, according to Oceana, an ocean conservation organization. In fact, sharks are at more risk from humans than we are from them: A study published in the journal Marine Policy estimates that between 63 million and 273 million sharks are killed annually — for their fins, as bycatch (the unwanted fish and other marine creatures caught during commercial fishing for a different species) and simply because of the global growth in fishing.
In fact, many species of shark are now threatened. That’s bad news, because sharks are an ecologically important keystone predator; the oceans need them to maintain balance.
Sharks are vital to the maintenance of the ocean’s habitat and species. They manage populations of fish and other marine life by taking out those that are old, sick or slow. They also protect habitat — the mere presence of tiger sharks is enough to keep turtles from overgrazing beds of sea grass and destroying specific areas. When shark populations become too low, it affects not only commercially important fish such as tuna, but also shellfish and coral reefs.
One of the ways we can increase awareness about sharks is to go diving with them. The opportunity to see sharks in their world is educational and inspirational. It can also be an economic boon to the place you’re diving, which also benefits the sharks: When sharks draw divers (and don’t eat them), they become more appreciated for their economic value as a tourist attraction.
Where to Go
There are lots of places to dive with sharks, but these four areas are considered among the best.
Isla Mujeres, Mexico: Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are found in most temperate seas throughout the world, but they are known to gather off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula at Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox between May and September, sometimes in groups of more than 100. Also known as the basking shark, this species is both the largest fish and the largest shark in the world. As long as you are careful not to get smacked by the tail fin, whale sharks are typically harmless toward people. They feed primarily on plankton, opening their mouths wide and filtering the microscopic marine life through their gills as they swim. Snorkeling or swimming with them — diving isn’t permitted in protected areas — is a life-changing experience, says Scuba Schools International advanced open-water and specialty dive instructor Glenda Gabriel, who lives in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico. “We usually go every year to Isla Mujeres, a 20-minute ferry ride from Cancun, and then take a smaller boat out into the protected area, which is about an hour away in the open water,” she says. “They are not too shy and come close enough for a photo op.”
Hawaii: The first time I saw sharks — a pair of blacktip reef sharks — was on a dive off the coast of Maui. Your chances of seeing a shark on a dive anywhere in Hawaii are probably pretty good, but you can raise the odds by going on a cage dive. A cage dive involves getting into a steel cage while wearing scuba gear (or simply a snorkel and mask) and being lowered into the water where only the cage bars separate you from the jaws of the sharks. At North Shore Shark Adventures, based in Oahu, masks and snorkels are provided, and shark sightings are guaranteed or your money back. The water isn’t chummed; the sharks show up on their own. A warning: The water can be choppy. If you’re prone to seasickness, take medication well beforehand and book a tour early in the day, when waters are calmer.
Galapagos Islands: Among landlubbers, this famed island sanctuary is better known for bird life and tortoises, but divers and snorkelers go for the opportunity to be in the water with an incredible array of marine life, including scalloped hammerhead, Galapagos, and whale sharks, often hundreds at a time. You can stay on land and take day trips with an outfitter or go on a live-aboard dive boat that takes you to the best sites at different islands. A live-aboard — usually a yacht or catamaran — is a nice option because it allows you to visit multiple dive sites in an area and dive up to five times a day over the course of a week or more. Due to the moderate to strong currents, the Galapagos are generally considered a destination for experienced divers only, but some sites are suitable for beginners and snorkelers.
South Africa: It may seem hard to believe, but diving isn’t the only way to see sharks. At False Bay in Simon’s Town, South Africa, great white sharks breach — leap from the water as they hunt — with greater frequency than anywhere else in the world. Their prey is Cape fur seals, and fortunately for the tenderhearted among us, the sharks don’t always win. African Shark Eco-Charters, which is certified Fair Trade in Tourism, offers an Air Jaws tour with both surface viewing and cage diving. It’s not unusual for film crews from National Geographic, Discovery Channel and the BBC to be there gathering footage for Shark Week. Whether or not you go into the cage, it’s a heart-pounding experience. Shark-viewing season starts in May; peak times are June through August.
Diving with sharks may seem dangerous — we’ve all seen Jaws, after all — but if you take the proper precautions, it’s relatively safe. There are hundreds of species of sharks, and some are harmless to humans, says fisheries biologist David G. Delaney of Cramer Fish Sciences in Auburn, California. The best thing to do is to behave normally around them. Stay calm and keep your distance. It’s also a good idea not to excite a shark’s predatory instincts by swimming quickly away. Though sharks don’t normally attack people, fast movement can cause a shark to decide to investigate you.
Still concerned? “If you are deep in the water near the bottom and there is a large reef, rock or structure," Dr. Delaney says, "you can back up to it so you can keep your eyes on the shark and know nothing is probably coming in from behind you.” Be careful not to back into or touch the coral reef, though; not only can you be stung by some of its inhabitants, you can also injure the reef by touching or breaking it.
What about baited, or chummed, dives, when sharks are fed by guides? Chumming the water to draw sharks is a controversial practice. Though it may raise your chances of seeing a shark, it can also create aggressive sharks who seek out boats in search of food. As an experienced diver, I prefer happenstance shark encounters and will dive only with guides who don’t attract sharks by feeding them. If you choose to go on a baited dive, though, choose a dive company with a good reputation and reliable equipment. In addition, choose a company that financially supports marine and shark conservation and offers an educational component as part of its program. This makes it more likely that your time — and your money — will support the sharks you dive with.
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