Sharks first appeared around 420 million years ago and have since diversified into over 500 species that inhabit every ocean on our planet. Many of them play a crucial ecological role in maintaining the balance and structure of marine habitats and food webs. Unfortunately, due to unsustainable fishing practices and a demand for shark fin soup, many populations have declined dramatically and some species are in danger of being lost forever.
Their negative reputation has not helped their cause, but the good news is that shark tourism and underwater photography can play a big part in changing the public’s perception of these animals and contributing to their conservation in the future. Thanks to that growing shark tourism industry, it is easier than ever before for underwater shooters to capture amazing images of the ocean’s most iconic shark species.
As an introduction to a new series focusing on shark ecotourism and photography, we have compiled a list of the world’s ultimate shark dives (in no particular order), and the different species you are likely to find in each location. Here, in Part I, we focus on the best action in the Americas and Europe, while in Part II we consider the most awesome encounters in Africa and Australasia.
1. The Galápagos Islands
The place that inspired Charles Darwin to develop his Theory of Evolution due to the abundance of endemic species he documented there, the Galápagos Islands are one of the world’s premium dive destinations and they offer thrilling shark diving unlike anywhere else. The best area for shark encounters is also the furthest away, and you will need to join a liveaboard trip to get to the most popular dive sites in the North, Darwin’s Arch and Wolf Island.
Like Cocos Island in Costa Rica, it is possible to encounter hundreds of scalloped hammerheads at these sites, and among the clouds of hammerheads swim plenty of other shark species. But what makes this site really special is seasonal but reliable sightings of some of the planet’s largest ever recorded whale sharks. Many of these giants are pregnant females and scientists believe they gather in the area to give birth between the months of June and December every year. Underwater photographers who visit at this time stand a great chance of encountering these bus-sized sharks, making the Galápagos the best place in the world to get photographs of huge whale sharks while on scuba.
The famous wall of hammerhead sharks at Darwin’s Arch, Galápagos
Unfortunately, for the less experienced, most sharks like to hang out where currents converge, so one must be comfortable diving in such conditions and be prepared to hold onto the rocks or hide among them if it gets too strong—which can happen at any time and without warning. However, this water movement is what brings the sharks closer, and if you dive Darwin’s Arch on a good day there is no doubt it is one of the best dives in the world.
One thing worth mentioning that surprises many first-time visitors is that underwater photography in the Galápagos is difficult and the visibility is below average compared to other tropical locations. There are no baited shark dives, so you are relying on the sharks coming close and conditions being perfect to get the best images. Consider bringing a midrange zoom as a fisheye lens may be too wide, and keep your fingers crossed you get to see it at its best—it will blow your mind!
Recommended operator: Master Liveaboards
Silky sharks gather at the back of the boat in Wolf Island, Galápagos
The diversity of diving and marine life in Mexico is mind-blowing, and it is one of the most popular destinations for underwater photographers looking for big animal encounters. Baja California continues to grow in popularity and Cabo San Lucas is an amazing place to join pelagic safaris and go looking for sharks and other ocean predators. Blue sharks are common, and shark diving aficionados agree it is the best place in the world to photograph the elusive mako shark.
It is also the departure point for trips to Guadalupe and the Revillagigedo Islands, two popular liveaboard destinations famous for shark encounters. Guadalupe is considered by many to be the best place in the world to photograph great white sharks due to its crystal clear blue water and large resident population of the world’s most famous fish, and in Socorro you will see sharks on every dive including hammerheads, silvertips, silky sharks, and Galápagos sharks in large numbers.
Baja California is one of the best places to photograph the shortfin mako shark
Take a trip to Mexico’s east coast and the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, and the diving is different but equally as exciting. Playa del Carmen, a notoriously busy tourist town, is at certain times of year one of the best places in the world to dive with bull sharks. The sharks normally arrive between November and March each year, and more than 40 companies in the area offer trips to swim with them. Some use bait and some don’t, but the sharks have become accustomed to divers and you will likely get close to them either way.
Another special experience is the annual gathering of large numbers of whale sharks in Isla Mujeres. Every year between May and September, these gentle giants congregate to feed on huge patches of fish eggs, and it is possible to join day trips or dedicated photography expeditions to snorkel with them. On a good day there can literally be hundreds of sharks in an area not much bigger than a few football fields.
The best thing about these trips is that you don’t even have to be a qualified diver to take part, as all the action happens at the surface while snorkeling.
Recommended operators: Phantom Divers and Solo Buceo in the Gulf of Mexico, and Pelagic Fleet in Baja California
A whale shark at the surface off Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Shark diving is a popular activity on both the East and West coast of the United States and as in Mexico, the encounters and activities vary from coast to coast.
In Jupiter, Florida, it is illegal to bait for sharks within state waters, so operators head outside of the three-mile restriction zone to the dive on the deep ledge where it is possible to see a variety of different species all in one day. The area is most famous for its resident lemon sharks and seasonal tiger shark visitors, but silky sharks, dusky sharks, bull sharks and great hammerheads are all regularly encountered, too. Every now and again, great whites even show up, and local divers have had some crazy unexpected encounters that they were fortunate enough to capture on film. The depth here is between 80 and 110 feet deep, and the current can sometimes be very strong. You will also be drifting in open water surrounded by big sharks so these dives are only recommended for experienced shark divers who are comfortable watching their own back.
A tiger shark approaches from the below in Jupiter, Florida
Further up the East Coast at Rhode Island, you can join day trips that head offshore looking for pelagic species such as blue sharks and makos. You will be out at sea for hours and may need to wait some time before the sharks show up. Anyone prone to seasickness or impatience should consider this before jumping aboard! Once the sharks have been attracted to the boat, they normally hang around, so you can quietly slide into the water on snorkel and get some excellent photo opportunities.
On the West Coast you can join similar charters out of San Diego in California. The protocol of the dives is the same as at Rhode Island, but the water is bluer and provides a different backdrop for the same species. Those willing to put in the hours at sea on these types of wildlife safaris will be rewarded with awesome shark encounters and excellent images.
Recommended operators: Calypso Dive Charters, Rhode Island Shark Diving, and SD Expeditions
Great hammerheads occasionally steal the show in Jupiter, Florida
4. The Bahamas
Known in the industry as the shark diving capital of the world, the Bahamas attracts photographers specifically to dive with tiger sharks, great hammerheads and other iconic shark species.
In Nassau and Grand Bahama, experienced dive operators have been conducting shark feeding dives with Caribbean reef sharks for many years, and these action-packed shows provide the perfect opportunity to photograph this specific species.
Bimini Island, home to a well-known shark research station, became another hotspot for shark tourism a few years ago when operators started to successfully attract great hammerheads to the area. It is the only place in the world where one can reliably encounter these sharks, and photographers regularly visit the island to capture images of this otherwise elusive and shy species. There are plenty of bull sharks in Bimini, too, so don’t be surprised if they arrive during a hammerhead dive and do their best to become the center of attention!
The Caribbean reef shark is the most common species seen at shark dives in the Bahamas
Head to Cat Island from March through June and you can encounter large numbers of oceanic whitetip sharks. This is one of the only reliable places in the world you can photograph these open ocean wanderers in near-perfect conditions.
The most famous shark dive of them all though is Tiger Beach, a small, shallow sand bank roughly 26 nautical miles from West End, Grand Bahama. It is easily the best place on Earth to encounter giant tiger sharks and lemon sharks in large numbers. In short, it’s a dive every underwater photographer should experience at least once in their lifetime.
The Bahamas in an amazing destination for wide-angle big animal photography because the tropical water is clear, the sun is always shining, and the dive sites are all shallow, providing plenty of natural light. Combine these perfect conditions with lots of iconic shark species in one location and the result is a productive photography trip you will never forget.
Recommended operators: Epic Diving, Neal Watson’s Bimini Scuba Center, UNEXSO, and Stuart Cove’s.
Photographers travel from far and wide to capture images of the iconic tiger shark
5. Costa Rica
Most of the world’s best dive sites are far away from civilization and human impact, and getting to Cocos Island may just be the most arduous journey of them all. It can take up to 36 hours to reach this small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but the reward for such a long trip is dive sites teeming with sharks, rays, dolphins, and other large marine life.
One of the last remaining locations in the world where it is still possible to observe a great abundance of several species of sharks, it is also the meeting point for the largest known gathering of scalloped hammerhead sharks on the planet. Photographers stand a great chance of capturing images of this amazing spectacle and are also likely to encounter other species such as whale sharks, silky sharks and tiger sharks.
Scalloped hammerheads are the stars of the show off Cocos Island, Costa Rica
One dive you must do while in Cocos, is a special nightdive where you can witness whitetip reef sharks patrolling the reef and hunting as a group. It is not often you get to witness natural predations and these sharks often work themselves up into a frenzy fighting over food.
As you are so isolated and far from any medical assistance, extra precautions should be taken while diving in Cocos, and that includes being aware of your dive depth and the sharks that often surround you. This is another destination for advanced divers only, but those who have visited hold it in the highest regard and often return time and time again.
Back on the mainland, the premium dive destination is Bat Island (Isla Murcielago), a marine protected area where it is possible to dive with bull sharks without using bait or attracting them in any way. Not many divers outside of South America know much about this location, but it is certainly worth a visit if you are in Costa Rica or are heading to Cocos Island and have time to spare.
Recommended operator: Undersea Hunter
At Cocos Island, whitetip reef sharks are common and can be seen hunting at night
6. The Azores
The Azores, a remote archipelago of nine islands off the coast of Portugal, is a well-known and popular destination among the whale watching community, but it is also a great place to find and photograph pelagic sharks.
The islands are in the migration pathway of some oceanic shark species that cruise the North Atlantic, such as the blue shark and the shortfin mako shark, and are one of the best places for shark shooters to visit during the European summer. I am often reluctant to recommend this location to others as it so unspoilt and quiet that I want it to remain that way forever, but it is the best place to swim with blue sharks in the world, and anyone wanting to photograph this particular species should have Pico Island at the top of their list.
Blue sharks come very close, making for awesome portraits, Pico Island, Azores
Like all pelagic shark dives, the action is offshore and it can sometimes take hours for the sharks to arrive. Most of the operators in the region use RIBs and there is often a lot of swell, so divers who suffer from sea sickness may not enjoy sitting in a small boat for a long time waiting for something to happen. All I can say to those people is when the sharks do eventually arrive, it is more than worth the wait.
The water is normally crystal clear, providing idyllic dark blue backgrounds and perfect conditions for photography, but what really sets the Azores apart from other destinations is that you are able to scuba dive with the blue sharks and not just snorkel, which allows you to be much more creative and productive and experiment with different techniques.
Occasionally, mako sharks and other marine life show up, too, but the blue sharks are the highlight and are worth the trip alone. More good news: These dives are suitable for any level of diver as long as you are comfortable diving and drifting in the open ocean where you cannot see the bottom…
Recommended operator: CW Azores
A group of divers admires a beautiful blue shark at the surface off Pico Island, Azores
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