A trio of tiger sharks cruises just below the surface off Oahu, Hawaii, USA
This past summer, I embarked on journies to two of the most sought-after tiger shark diving destinations: Tiger Beach in the Bahamas and North Oahu in Hawaii. Both locales offered outstanding photographic opportunities and a truly distinct experience, each with its own unique charm.
Tiger Beach, Bahamas
Let's start with a day at Tiger Beach in the Bahamas. Tiger Beach has long been perhaps the most famous place in the world to dive with these charistmatic predators. The adventure kicks off in West End, where you board a boat at one of the marinas for a two-plus-hour voyage to the legendary dive site. During the trip, there is ample time to prepare your scuba gear; engage in a comprehensive dive briefing, emphasizing safety procedures; and to ensure your camera equipment is set up and ready to go. Upon reaching your destination, you’re greeted by swarms of Caribbean reef sharks and lemon sharks as soon as the anchor drops. The crew descends with a chum box, inviting you to join once the action begins. The tiger sharks typically make an appearance fairly quickly, though on rare occasions, it may take up to an hour for them to make their customary close passes.
Divers observe a tiger shark over the sandy flats at Tiger Beach, Bahamas
One of Tiger Beach’s most recognizable sharks, “Buttface,” passes overhead
The dive itself is highly structured, yet exhilarating. Divers form a line, shoulder to shoulder, on the sandy seabed (usually between depths of 20 to 35 feet) and wait for the show to begin. A safety diver and a feeder work together to maintain the sharks’ interest while ensuring everyone’s safety. The bait box serves as the epicenter of the action, where operators feed these apex predators, concentrating the shark activity and resulting in numerous opportunities to witness tigers up close and on top of one another. During my most recent trip, we regularly had more than five tigers in view simultaneously, with passes occurring at a rapid rate. As your first tank gets low, you’ll ascend to the boat using the anchor line, exchange your cylinder for a fresh one, and repeat the process. Land-based operators typically allow for two to three hours of continuous diving with up to two tanks, enabling you to spend extended periods underwater with these magnificent creatures.
A pair of tiger sharks swims over a reef at Tiger Beach—a photo opportunity you will not be afforded in Hawaii
When it’s time to conclude the dive, the feeder signals with an “X” made with their arms, indicating it’s time to return to the boat. After everyone is safely back aboard, the boat begins the journey back to shore, making it home in time for dinner (around 5:30PM). The boat I was on even had a spacious indoor salon, offering the perfect opportunity to crack open my housing and review images before we reached the dock! This long commute makes for a very long day out, but I believe it is worth the trade-off compared to a liveaboard for the extended single dive times, comfort of a land-based resort, and flexibility to do the trip as just a long weekend instead a full week.
It’s always tiger time at Tiger Beach!
North Oahu, Hawaii
By contrast, Hawaii provides a more naturalistic and serene tiger shark diving experience. Your day starts early as you board a smaller boat (we were on a 6-pack) for a brief 15-minute ride out to the buoyed area. Upon arrival, you might spot your first tiger shark even before the engines are turned off. If sharks aren’t immediately around, the experienced crew steps in, employing passive attraction techniques such as splashing and flashers, honed over a decade of operation. Once the first sharks make an appearance, you don fins, masks, and snorkels, and venture into the deep water.
This is a freediving-only encounter: These sharks aren’t being fed to become socialized with the bubbles and noise that scuba divers create, and the water you’re in is hundreds, if not thousands of feet deep, so this is the best option. With no fixed area of interest, tiger sharks make generally slow, investigative passes from all directions. It’s not uncommon for large, mature sharks exceeding 13 feet in length to approach within inches of you, though a safety diver is always nearby to calmly guide away any shark that ventures too close. However, as with any shark dive, it is crucial to remain vigilant, keep your head on a swivel, and watch for any sharks approaching from behind.
Two big tiger sharks in the blue in the early morning light
Typically, these tours last about two hours from dock to dock. However, we opted to charter a boat for a full day, which offered more than five hours in the water with the tigers, something not readily available anywhere else. Given the freediving nature of this adventure, the only reason to return to the boat was for water, snacks, or a much-needed rest. While traditional morning tours bring you back by 9AM, we were still back in time for lunch, making this an excellent choice for maximizing your interaction with the sharks and your days on the island. However, it’s worth noting that without the use of a chum box or feeding the sharks, there’s a higher risk of not encountering any tigers when compared to Tiger Beach. The action is also much more seasonal, with tigers consistently showing up beginning in August and tapering off around late October or early November. I was happy to be here in September during the peak of the season, when we managed to have no problem getting over 10 individuals in a day—this was the operator’s best day all year though.
The business end of a tiger shark with an injured jaw
Shark diving always requires you to have your head on a swivel as you’re dealing with multiple large apex predators. They may not be vicious man-eaters, but they need to be treated with a healthy respect all the same.
Freediving requires a level of fitness. The best way to get these interactions is to dive before the shark is right on you, and let it choose to close the space. I regularly found this meant dives of at least 30–40 seconds, generally shallow, but shallow water blackouts are possible and dangerous. Watch for signs of overexertion and take breaks out of the water as needed.
In The Bahamas, operators leverage a PVC pipe for divers to redirect sharks coming too close. This type of method wouldn’t work in Hawaii. You’ll need to use your hands if there isn’t a safety diver nearby.
Without feeding or baiting for sharks, Hawaii is not the place to get bite shots. Hawaii exists over deep, deep water. This can be great for dealing with backscatter, but the pure indigo shade of blue can lead to darker/moodier images overall. I found myself pushing my ISO a bit higher, especially at the start of each day.
Tiger Beach has the capacity to be ruined by a “space cadet,” as one diver constantly moving or jumping around can create a snowglobe of backscatter.
Tiger Beach is easier for iterative shooting progressions; with your static position, your shooting conditions are more consistent. If you don’t get a shot on the first pass, you can adjust your settings and try again.
Sunbursts are easier to get in Hawaii due to the proximity to the surface and the low angle of the sun.
With freediving, consider streamlining your strobe setup. I personally switch out the 8-inch plus 12-inch arm segments I normally use and just move to a single 8-inch segment on each side.
Fisheye lenses are built for places like Tiger Beach. However, while fisheyes can produce spectacular images in Hawaii, a traditional wide-angle zoom like a 16–35mm or the Nauticam WACP allows for framing slightly-further-away sharks and might be a safer bet.
A perfect portrait of a big Hawaiian tiger shark with a little pilotfish buddy
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