Some of the best underwater animal encounters — especially with whales — can only happen when you're freediving or snorkeling. So ditch your scuba tank and check out these amazing big-animal encounters with humpbacks, belugas, whale sharks, killer whales and more!
MORE ANIMAL ENCOUNTERS
HUMPBACK WHALES | TONGA
“Getting to Vava’u is a bit of an ordeal,” underwater photographer Brandon Cole says of the remote Tongan island group, “but the humpbacks are so worth it.” From late June to November, the whales make this tropical stop on their way north from Antarctic feeding grounds. Most of the whales are mellow mothers with young calves. But you might find yourself in the water with feistier males too. “For hot drops into the chaos of a testosterone-charged ‘heat run’ — with multiple males chasing a female — I switch my camera [from manual metering] to shutter-priority metering,” says Cole.
Dive Conditions: 77°F water temperature, 80 feet average visibility Dive Now: Tongan Expeditions
SPERM WHALES | SRI LANKA
A mask, flippers and snorkel are all you’re permitted to use when encountering sperm whales off Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. One of Earth’s deepest-diving animals, capable of plunging more than a mile to feed on giant squid, local operators find them when they surface to breathe.
Dive Conditions: 80°F water temperature, 30-80 feet average visibility Dive Now: Sri Lanka Aggressor Liveaboard
WHALE SHARKS | TOFO, MOZAMBIQUE
There’s no better surprise for visitors on a dive than whale sharks, which often disappear into the blue as quickly as they appear. It’s practically a religious experience: With a tendency to eclipse the sun when they cruise overhead, the bus-size spotted beauties can stop divers in their tracks and leave them open-mouthed with amazement. To all but guarantee encounters with the largest fish in the sea, head to Africa’s Tofo Beach, a tiny travelers’ and scuba diving mecca roughly 250 miles north of Mozambique’s bustling capital, Maputo. From October to March, a nonstop supply train of plankton from the Indian Ocean attracts the filter-feeding sharks, which sometimes roll up to 50 animals deep. But encountering whale sharks are a quality over quantity experience — seeing just one is enough to make your day. Operators offer snorkel-only encounters.
Dive Conditions: 80°F water temperature, 80 feet average visibility Dive Now: Tofo Scuba Mozambique
BELUGA WHALES | SVALBARD, NORWAY
Nothing can prepare you for an encounter with these whales that are as white as snow. Liveaboard trips in Svalbard — an archipelago in the Norwegian Arctic — cruise the coastal fjords and even enter the pack ice to look for belugas. They tend to hug the coast in numbers anywhere from five up to several hundred, says Sven Gust of Northern Explorers, who runs trips here under the midnight sun, in June and July. Entering with snorkel gear and seeing how the animals react is standard protocol. Dive Conditions: 37°F-42°F water temperature, 20 feet average visibility Dive Now: Northern Explorers
BASKING SHARKS | UNITED KINGDOM
When most people think about snorkeling, they daydream about warm, tropical waters and coral reefs that are packed with colorful fish. Heading to England to snorkel in the north Atlantic Ocean might seem counterintuitive. But it’s worth beelining it to the chilly waters off Cornwall from May to July to swim alongside basking sharks, the second-largest fish in the ocean. There is perhaps no more prehistoric-looking fish than these wide-mouthed, slow-moving behemoths that can grow up to 40 feet long. The long, sunny days of summer bring plankton to the surface, which in turn lures the basking sharks. While they are spotted elsewhere along the U.K. coastline, they arrive here first. Cornwall’s waters are also markedly clearer than elsewhere, and since all the action is at the surface, you won’t even miss your tank. If you want to photograph one, “the trick is to spot the fin above the surface, swim into position, float on the surface, and wait,” says underwater photographer Alex Mustard.
Dive Conditions: 60°F water temperature, 40 feet average visibility Dive Now: Atlantic Diving
ATLANTIC SAILFISH | ISLA MUJERES, MEXICO
Every year from January to March, shoals of sardines attract huge numbers of sailfish for one of the Caribbean’s greatest feeding frenzies. Keeping up with the fish as they use their bills, sails and color flashes to herd sardines will test even the fittest diver. But the rewards are worth it. “To be in the water with the ocean’s fastest fish is as exciting as it gets,” says Swedish underwater photographer Magnus Lundgren. “They are the Ferraris of the sea. You realize how controlled and deliberate their hunt for the sardines is.”
Dive Conditions: 79°F water temperature, 65-100 feet average visibility Dive Now: Pro Dive Mexico
FUR SEALS | NEW SOUTH WALES, AUSTRALIA
Clearer waters make the antipodal winter months (May to October) prime time to dive or snorkel with thriving colonies of Australian fur seals that frequent the waters around Jervis Bay, south of Sydney in southeastern Australia. “They’re playful and curious and come right up to your face, then veer off and do somersaults,” says Bill Mountford, owner of Dive Jervis Bay. And the fur seals’ habitats here — including a cave on the side of a cliff — are spectacularly scenic, with beautiful sponge gardens and soft corals, and frequent appearances by gray nurse sharks too.
Dive Conditions: 63°F water temperature, 30-50 feet average visibility Dive Now: Dive Jervis Bay
ORCAS | NORTHERN NORWAY
There are operators who will take you scuba diving with orcas in Andenes and Senja in northern Norway. But snorkel-only encounters are the best way to appreciate these dolphins as they enter Andfjord from December to early February to feast on massive schools of herring. (Bubble-blowing divers scare the herring away, and when they leave, so do the orcas.) Feeding situations are the most thrilling, with several orcas herding herring in shallow water. Float above or free-dive down for a look as they slap the fish with their tails to stun them, sending scales flying everywhere. As if orcas weren’t enough of a thrill, there are usually humpbacks feeding in the area, and sometimes even fin whales too.
Dive Conditions: 41°F water temperature, 20 feet average visibility Dive Now: Lofoten Opplevelser