The Best Locations for Scuba Diving with Big Animals
Nearly 5,000 Scuba Diving readers evaluated dive destinations, resorts, operators, liveaboards and more in our 2020 Readers Choice awards. Here we highlight the top vote-getters in the big animal category.
“Everything is bigger and better as you head north—the continental shelf is deeper, and there’s a bigger mix of big animals,” says Craig Stephen of Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, an operator specializing in Great Barrier Reef trips departing Cairns.
That bigger mix of big animals includes silver-tip and gray reef sharks, sea turtles and giant Pacific manta rays. To ensure even more encounters, the team aboard Spoilsport conducts weekly shark-feed dives.
Says Stephen, “It’s common that 60 gray reef sharks show up each time.” Beyond sharks, the Great Barrier Reef is also famous for the minke whales that migrate through every June and July. This whale is only 23 to 26 feet in size, but much more curious than other baleen species; pods of 10 have been known to swarm the boat for hours on end.
Spirit of Freedom, Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Spoilsport, Great Barrier Reef, Australia
2. GALAPAGOS ISLANDS
Our advice for those traveling to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador: Get your priorities straight before you go.
In other words, decide if your diving focus is whale sharks, mantas, schooling sharks, rays or even more unusual pelagic finds. Otherwise, you will find yourself underwater, conflicted about whether to enjoy the lazy gliding of a 2,200-pound oceanic sunfish or the school of dozens upon dozens of scalloped hammerheads. The good news: There is no wrong answer.
Galapagos Aggressor III
A great hammerhead shark patrols the sandy bottom off Bimini Island.
“The Bahamas are one of the most shark-populated destinations in the world,” says Kevin Purdy of All Star Liveaboards, operator of four Bahamas- based boats.
Not only do these islands have the numbers, but they also pack variety. The list of regulars at Bahamas dive sites includes Caribbean reef sharks and nurse sharks, yes, but also hammerheads, bulls, lemons and oceanic whitetips.
“It’s not uncommon to see hammerheads on wall dives in the Exumas—you just look down and see them cruising below,” says Purdy. Often the sharks simply show up; other times it’s the result of a feeding dive.
All Star’s boats conduct passive feeds near the 90- foot Austin Smith wreck, where up to a dozen reef sharks appear. “Plus, giant grouper come in as well, and they can be just as feisty and aggressive as the sharks, and that is always fun.” Feeding can bring a certain thrill, but it’s not at all a must to witness every species that calls the Bahamas home. Adds Purdy, “Really though, every dive in the Bahamas—no matter where you go—will have sharks.”
Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas, New Providence, Bahamas
UNEXSO, Grand Bahama, Bahamas
Sandals Royal Bahamian, New Providence, Bahamas
Aqua Cat, Bahamas
Blackbeard’s Cruises, Bahamas
Cat Ppalu, Bahamas
Every year, starting in late spring, whale sharks gather 22 miles off the coast of Placencia, Belize, at a marine protected area known as Gladden Spit. These 20- to 30-foot sharks are lured in near the full moons of April, May and June, when cubera, mutton and dog snapper spawn, releasing milky clouds of eggs that the sharks feast on.
For divers, this means nearly guaranteed encounters—and a bonus. Other destinations worldwide also have like-clockwork whale shark sightings, but in Belize it is permitted to scuba dive with the animals.
Local operator Splash Dive Center runs day trips of no more than 12 guests to the site, where dives are conducted to 60 feet to allow for maximum bottom time with these magnificent fish.
In other Belize hotspots such as Ambergris Caye, Turneffe Atoll and Lighthouse Reef, nurse sharks, Caribbean reef sharks, spotted eagle rays and turtles thrill divers as they cruise through the reef.
Ramon’s Village Divers, Ambergris Caye, Belize Belize Diving Services, Caye Caulker, Belize
Ramon’s Village Resort, Ambergris Caye, Belize Turneffe Island Resort, Belize
Belize Aggressor IV
Belize Aggressor III
5. Mexico (Pacific)
Only three places in the world deliver regular encounters with great white sharks: Australia, South Africa and Mexico’s Guadalupe Island. Not only is Mexico the closest destination for North Americans, it also delivers clear water, making for better photo ops and enjoyable cage dives.
“The visibility is typically 125 feet or greater—and we know this because we see the sharks coming up from beyond the anchor,” says Mike Lever, owner of the Nautilus Explorer liveaboard, which offers trips to Guadalupe July through November. July and August see the action of young males jockeying for dominance in the group, whereas October and November bring the biggest females. On any dive, guests typically see two to three sharks, with the record standing at nine in one dive.
Plus, the Nautilus dive staff are experts in identifying who’s who and filling guests in on the stories of the animals they’ve seen before. Says Lever, “What’s spectacular is the sheer number of animals. We’ve identified 205 different individuals in the bay we go to.”
And Guadalupe is just one of Mexico’s big-animal havens. The Revillagigedo Islands are an oasis for whale sharks, humpback whales, dolphins, mantas and more.
Nautilus Dive Tech, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Manta Scuba Diving, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Rocio Del Mar, Baja, Mexico
A manta glides through the waters of North Ari Atoll in the Maldives.
The marine megafauna claim to fame for this Indian Ocean island nation is undoubtedly manta rays—but that doesn’t mean they’re the only big-ticket in town. Divers also regularly encounter whale sharks, eagle rays, reef sharks and dolphins in these parts.
“The last time we saw dolphins, they were showing off for my camera so much that it just took my breath away,” says Mohamed “Modex” Ali, dive leader on the Four Seasons Explorer liveaboard.
Dolphins, sharks and rays ply the waters year-round. Mantas, too, can be seen year-round, but June through November sees the biggest numbers. Then, from December through March, the currents flow from east to west, typically causing bigger currents, which attract sharks in much larger numbers.
Maldives Aggressor II
Four Seasons Explorer, Maldives
Sharks, sharks, more sharks—and crocodiles. Cuba’s big-animal offering surpasses many divers’ expectations thanks to the 850-square-mile archipelago that is the Gardens of the Queen, a protected marine reserve found about 60 miles off the southern coast of Cuba’s main island.
There, schools of silky sharks, several dozen at a time, crowd the waters alongside divers from M/V Oceans for Youth, operated by Aggressor Adventures and one of the few vessels permitted to sail this stretch. These healthy, virtually untouched reefs also support legions of Caribbean reef sharks and goliath grouper.
But the pièce de résistance is in-the-wild encounters with 5-foot crocodiles— happening only in a handful of places on the planet, including Cuba.
Oceans for Youth, Cuba
8. North Carolina
No chum is necessary for divers off North Carolina’s Outer Banks to come mask to snout with sometimes as many as 30 sand tiger sharks at wrecks such as the Aeolus, Caribsea, Papoose and the USCGC Spar.
The Papoose sees shark crowds in spring; in late summer months, they move to the Caribsea. Throughout the whole summer, odds are good that a drop-in at the Spar will bring shark success.
“The Aeolus and Spar are so close together that if there are sharks on one, there will be sharks on the other,” says Chris Mason, divemaster with Olympus Dive Center. “They are usually there all the time in the summer.”
For consistent encounters with large numbers of sharks, North Carolina netted the top Readers Choice honor in the U.S. and Canada.
Tom and Therisa Stack
A goliath grouper off the coast of Florida.
Loggerhead turtles and goliath grouper dominate the big-animal sightings off Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Loggerheads stay local thanks to the area’s beaches, which serve as nesting sites. Likewise, goliath grouper prefer the Florida coast as one of the species’ aggregation sites lies off the city of Jupiter—which also explains why divers won’t see these 4- to 8-foot fish during the aggregation season August through September.
But otherwise, they’re as common to Florida’s Atlantic coast as gators are inland. So much so that most wrecks in the area have a resident goliath grouper.
Says Treavor Bellandi of Sea Experience dive shop, “On the Tracy and Hog Heaven wrecks, we almost always see goliath grouper.”
Rainbow Reef, Key Largo, Florida Keys
Horizon Divers, Key Largo, Florida Keys
Ocean Divers, Key Largo, Florida Keys Dive Key West, Key West, Florida Keys
Sea Experience, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
10. Costa Rica
Imagebroker/Alamy Stock Photo
Whitetip reef sharks can be found all around Cocos Island.
When you study navigation maps of Cocos Island, Costa Rica, you see that this isolated landmass falls away to waters 400 and 500 feet deep less than 2 nautical miles from shore. Deep-water counter-currents power past. These conditions once caused the locale to be the stuff of pirate lore. Allegedly Cocos served as a booty hideaway several hundred years ago. But it's not just swashbucklers that favor this island. So, too, do sharks— seeing swirling schools of hammerheads by the hundreds is the dream encounter here.
Add in whitetip sharks, mantas and whale sharks, and it’s easy to see why advanced divers, like the pirates, treasure this legendary outpost.
Okeanos Aggressor II, Cocos