Everything You Need to Know About All the Sharks You Can Swim With
Thankfully, there are no scuba outfitters reckless enough -- or who can afford the insurance -- to take you into great white-infested waters without a cage. Nonetheless, even from behind extra-thick steel bars your heart will pound out of your chest at first sight of the ocean’s apex predator. Chum will be used to attract the car-sized beasts and no scuba experience is necessary, as most operators offer snorkel and oxygen-tube options.
Best place to see them: Gansbaii, off South Africa, is known as “Shark Alley”, with a huge concentration of white’s that swarm the cold waters to chow down on abundant seals. Isla de Guadelupe, 150 miles off Mexico’s west coast is a warm-water option, known for crystal clear visibility.
Fear factor: High. No matter how thick those bars are, just the sight of a great white makes most people pee their wetsuit.
Danger factor: Very low. There are no known incidents of a great white damaging a dive cage enough to eat the people inside.
Hammerheads can grow to 20 feet long, they’re easily spooked, and they tend to swim in large schools. And, yet, divers still seek them out, without the safety of a cage. The truth is, the world’s funniest looking shark is a bit of a scaredy cat and rarely attacks. Top tips for leaving hammerhead-infested waters with the same number of limbs you dove in with: remain as calm as a Buddhist monk, avoid blowing scuba bubbles toward them, and try to stay in one spot as you observe them.
Best place to see them: Cocos Island off Costa Rica is famous for its hammerhead schools. Have your dive buddy snap a photo of you swimming among the giant swirl of hundreds of these unmistakable beasts, throw a yellow border around it, and you’ve got yourself a National Geographic cover shot.
Fear factor: Medium. Assuming you have plenty of dives under your belt, hammerhead encounters shouldn’t rattle you too much.
Danger factor: Medium. Because of their skittishness, hammerhead sharks are much more likely to bolt than bite.
Known as the garbage cans of the sea, tiger sharks will try to eat just about anything -- including you. With larger ones reaching 15 feet, they’re considered some of deadliest sharks in the world for their fearlessness. But they also often hang out in relatively shallow tropical water, making them a popular attraction for adventurous divers. If you do take the plunge, remain close to your dive partners so you look “big”, wear a dark one-color wetsuit, and do not show any fear, no matter how tempted you may be to scream your head off.
Best place to see them: The aptly-named Tiger Beach near Grand Bahama in the Bahamas is crawling with tiger sharks. Many of the resident sharks here even have girly names like Emma to make them seem friendlier. Though, that doesn’t really change the fact that Emma would probably like to gnaw off your arm.
Fear factor: High. But whatever you do, don’t show it.
Danger factor: High. Tiger sharks are responsible for more attacks on humans than any other species, other than great whites. They’re so dangerous; many people prefer a cage dive.
Whale sharks are the largest fish in the sea, often reaching the size of a school bus. But these are also the world’s original gentle giants -- they’re surprisingly social and feed almost exclusively on plankton, making them completely harmless to humans. They often travel alone and will slowly hover around you, giving the whole experience a sort of Free Willy feel.
Best place to see them: The best thing about whale sharks is that they love to hang out in paradise. Your best chance at spotting one are off islands like Koh Tao in Thailand (April-June is peak season), or Isla Mujeres, Mexico (July and August), where you could spot several in one dive.
Fear factor: Low. Many divers say their first encounter with a whale shark is exhilarating, but you almost immediately feel comfortable enough to get close and interact with the fish.
Danger factor: Low, unless you’re plankton. Whale sharks are like the snuffleupagus of the sea, almost cuddly, and in no way dangerous to people.
Of the 500 species of shark on the planet, only about 1% of them are responsible for all known attacks on humans. Reef shark species, like the white tip and sand tiger, look fearsome yet pose (almost) no threat at all. Most shallow-water reef sharks like these are simply too timid, too docile, or too uninterested in boney humans to bother, and are the perfect species to seek out for a beginner-friendly shark encounter.
Best place to see them: Sin City. Mandalay Bay Casino calls it Shark Reef -- we call it the greatest hangover cure in Las Vegas. This 1.3 million-gallon aquarium allows scuba-certified visitors to mingle with a half-dozen different species of exotic but non-threatening reef sharks.
Fear factor: Low to medium. But isn’t Vegas the place to take risks?
Danger factor: Extremely low. This is as safe as shark diving gets as the fish here are very well fed and the dive leader wraps you in chainmail before you enter the water.