Twenty years ago, you could flip through the pages of any dive magazine, and – surprisingly, by today’s standards – not find a single picture of a shark. Nor would you even find the word “shark” in any of the articles. Sharks were creatures divers didn’t want to see, and publishers and tour operators didn’t want to mention. Today, sharks are arguably the biggest draw in recreational scuba diving. Since sharks are naturally shy of humans, some dive operators use bait to attract them. Baiting sharks for viewing, while wildly popular with divers, is still controversial – and in some locations, banned. Where bait is used, it’s critical to follow the dive operator’s instructions to stay safe.
There are way too many organized shark dives to list in this short piece. So instead, we’ve put together this brief sampler of some of the world’s most exciting and accessible shark dives.
Gladden Spit & Silk Caye Marine Reserve, Belize
The only “bait” needed to attract whale sharks – the largest fish in the sea – on these blue water dives is divers’ bubbles, which mimic the appearance of clouds of fish spawn released by breeding snappers. The dive is about a two-hour boat ride from the town of Placencia. Boat captains use electronic fish finders to track down snapper schools, and whale sharks, which filter-feed on the snapper eggs, rise from the depths to investigate divers. Rangers only allow six dive boats at a time into the Reserve, and dive operators are assigned 90-minute morning and afternoon time slots, allowing for two dives with a maximum of 12 people per boat. Increase your chances of an encounter by booking spots on dive boats for at least two days.
- Time to Go: April through June, on full moon days, when cubera and mutton snapper spawn
- Dive Highlight: Watching this majestic 40-foot creature come up from the deep blue in open water.
- Etiquette and Safety Tips: This is a blue water dive, so be prepared for open water swells. Swim parallel to the whale shark, or it’ll turn its tail toward you to keep you at a distance. And don’t dive below 80 feet, you risk pushing the sharks deeper and out of view. It’s forbidden to use strobes to photograph whale sharks here and don’t even think about touching one, unless you’re willing to pay a $5,000 (U.S.) fine.
- Operators: The Inn at Robert’s Grove, Seahorse Dive Shop and numerous others.
- Price Tag: Guided two-tank trips range from $165 to $176 per person and include all dive equipment, park fees and lunch. (as of May 2009)
- Insider Tip: Lobby your dive operator to get the last available afternoon slots on at least one dive day, as sightings are more frequent when boat traffic decreases.
Tiputa Pass, Rangiroa, French Polynesia
With seven different dive sites in this area, you can consistently see schools of gray reef sharks on the outer reef slope, usually between 60 and 120 feet. The sharks are often enticed closer with a little bait, and then may follow the divers halfway into the pass. The tide-driven current sweeps the divers back into a lagoon.
- Time to Go: Year-round, but sharks are most plentiful here between July and November. November to March is prime time to see great hammerheads.
- Dive Highlight: Being swept through the pass in the company of gray and black tip reef sharks.
- Etiquette and Safety Tips: This is a drift dive, with currents that can be fairly swift, so you should have some experience and be comfortable in those conditions.
- Operators: Raie Manta Club, Blue Dolphins Dive Center
- Price Tag: The Kia Ora Hotel offers classic Tahitian overwater bungalows for $720 per night, with garden bungalows starting at $340. (as of May 2009)
- Insider Tip: On occasion, lemon, hammerhead and tiger sharks will join the reef sharks on this dive for a memorable encounter.
Thresher Sharks, Malapascua Island, Philippines
Malapascua Island is one of the few places in the world where thresher shark sighting are a regular occurrence. This tiny spit of land lies just off the northern tip of Cebu, with the famous Monad Shoal within easy reach. Here, you’ll descend to one of the many cleaning stations and wait for the timid threshers to appear—when they do, there’s nothing quite like it. Regular boat schedules and the designation of Monad Shoal as a marine park have also helped increase sightings since 2007 after a brief downturn for the previous few years.
- Time to Go: In general, July to October are the best months to catch a glimpse of threshers, but they do patrol the island year-round.
- Dive Highlight: Hovering in the blue as these typically skittish sharks come into view is breathtaking. On occasion, manta rays will appear at the same time as the threshers for an invigorating experience.
- Etiquette and Safety Tips: You should be at least an Advanced Open Water diver for this dive. There can be some current at the site, and you’ll need to be very still and comfortable in the water for the sharks to come around. Strobes will often scare them away, and you should never swim after them.
- Operators: Thresher Shark Divers, Bantique Cove Beach Resort and Deep Cove Dive Shop, Sea Explorers.
- Price Tag: You can expect to pay around $25 for a single dive with the threshers. Seven-day packages with accommodations and two dives per day can be arranged for around $600 per person. (as of May 2009)
- Insider Tip: Local dive operators report and uptick in thresher sightings, so there’s no time like the present.