The 15 Best Places in the World to Swim and Dive With Sharks

Diver with juvenile tiger shark in Honokohau Harbor, Hawaii

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From the itty-bitty dwarf lantern that fits in the palm of the human hand to the mammoth big-mouthed whale shark that spends nearly eight hours a day eating, more than 1,000 species of sharks and rays inhabit the world's five oceans. If you have long dreamed of coming face-to-face with Jaws (or any of the great white's relatives for that matter) in the wild, use this guide to the 15 best places on Earth to swim, snorkel, snuba, or scuba dive with the often misunderstood and sensationalized beasts to start charting a course to faraway lands including South Africa, Australia, French Polynesia, Colombia, and Micronesia. There are even a few prime spots right here in the United States.

Remember that though these apex predators date back 400 million years, outlived the dinosaurs, and starred as the gilled villains in many a Hollywood blockbuster, many of their kind are endangered due to climate change habitat destruction, overfishing, and hunting. As they are an integral part of maintaining the delicate balance of the global marine ecosystem, it's important to choose reputable outfitters and tour companies to adventure with. Many companies take measures to lower their carbon footprint, and some even have research and charitable arms that further our understanding of sharks and, ultimately, shark attacks. And never forget that wild animals can be unpredictable and dangerous, so stay frosty and chose companies with good safety records.

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South Africa

Oceanic black tip sharks off east coast of Umkomaas, South Africa

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Surrounded by both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, the shores, surf, and sea surrounding South Africa are some of the wildest underwater corners of the planet. At least a hundred species of sharks prowl its waters alongside thousands of types of fish, whales, seals, dolphins, and penguins, and as such, it became the godfather of recreational shark diving, especially when it comes to cage diving with great whites. It's also a pioneer in shark conservation as it was the first country to grant protection to the toothy giants. If seeing a GW is your goal, run, don't walk to Gansbaai and Shark Alley. It's nearly impossible to find a crew that doesn't chum to attract the monsters' attention, but not all practitioners are created equal. Pick a company like Marine Dynamics that attempts to mitigate its impact on the environment, uses purpose-built cages sans sharp edges, makes it educational, is fair-trade certified, and partakes in research and conservation efforts. Sharks are most plentiful and active in winter (April to September). Another event to put on your radar is the annual sardine run along the Wild Coast, a rugged stretch of SA's eastern seaboard. It's the oily buffet of choice for copper sharks, duskies, blacktips, whales, seabirds, and dolphins. They feast on large shoals as they swim toward their spawning grounds off the KwaZulu-Natal provinces.

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Isla Guadalupe, Mexico

Isla Guadalupe great white shark

Courtesy of Horizon Charters

Far off the Baja California coast lies a rugged volcanic island that is arguably one of the best places in the world to cage dive with great white sharks thanks to its remote location, excellent visibility, generally calm water conditions, and healthy seal population. As it takes about 24 hours to get to by boat from Ensenada and going ashore isn't possible as the island is part of a marine preserve, trips here are all liveaboard and several days long with companies like Incredible Adventures, Horizon Charters, and  Nautilus. Peak season typically starts in July when feisty males show up and wait for ladies to show up in August and September. October and November are nicknamed the time of the titans because that's when the greatest whites of them all—most female and many the size of a Jeep—stalk the area.

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Cage Dive in Port Lincoln, Australia

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Australia is a huge country surrounded by water teeming with life, and therefore one can have a wide variety of shark experiences in one trip. Between March and July, whale sharks migrate through the east Indian Ocean, specifically the Ningaloo Reef region in Western Australia. Ningaloo is the world's largest fringing reef. Hit the Great Barrier Reef to check loads of smaller sharks like blacktips and whitetips off your list. Dive year-round with harmless grey nurse sharks (also known as the labradors of the sea) in Byron Bay in New South Wales or at Wolf Rock in Rainbow Beach. Nurses also winter at 9 Mile Reef. Leopard sharks visit the year-round residents of the Gold Coast, the woebegone sharks, during the summer months. If that's a little too pedestrian for your taste, book a cage dive with great whites in Port Lincoln in South Australia through eco-friendly purveyors like Adventure Bay Charters or shark attack surveyor-turned-species advocate Rodney Fox.

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Malpelo Island, Columbia

Schooling Hammerhead Sharks at Malpelo Island, Columbia

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Another far-flung locale that lures shark lovers and convinces them to endure a liveaboard vacation is Malpelo Island, a mostly barren rock 310 miles off the Colombian coast. The reason to make the 30-plus-hour journey is that the UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest no-fishing zone in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean is the chosen hang for more than 200 hammerheads and 1,000 silky sharks. They like the spacious caves and very steep walls. The possibility of coming face to face with a short-nosed ragged-toothed shark, a rarely seen deepwater shark, is another draw as this is one of a few places in the world where sightings have been confirmed. The nutrient-rich habitat also lures billfish, giant grouper, tuna, whale sharks, and sour-faced batfish. Most liveaboard vessels headed here depart from the Port of Buenaventura, Columbia. Though sharks live here year-round, the wet season (June-December) provides calmer seas and warmer water temperatures. Silky sharks are most prevalent from May to July, whereas whale shark season is from July to September.

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Shark diving in Fiji

Markus Roth/Courtesy of Tourism Fiji

Say "bula" to an assortment of species that call the waters around this nation of archipelagos home. Two spots in particular promise both good snorkeling and diving with sharks. The Namena Marine Reserve, about forty minutes off the coast of Vanua Levu, is a biodiverse wonderland of soft corals, chimney formations, and dramatic vertical dropoffs where one can see grey reef, whitetip, and tiger sharks, and if you're really lucky, scalloped hammerheads. Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort in Savusavu has nearly daily excursions to Namena and offers certification courses for newbies. Beqa Lagoon, off the main island of Viti Levu, is another fin-tastic option where bull, lemon, blacktip, whitetip, and silvertip reefs, tawny nurse, and tiger sharks roam. You'll likely see at least a shark or two any time you head underwater in these spots, but numbers significantly increase from May to October. Visibility is also best during this timeframe.

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cage diving with Galapagos sharks in Oahu

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Yes, there are apex predators in this American paradise, too; about 40 different types, to be precise. Only about eight of them, including reef, Galapagos, sandbar, tiger, and scalloped hammerhead sharks, are seen near shore or at high-traffic dive sites with any regularity. On Oahu, the best option is to head to the North Shore, where several companies sell cage diving and freediving experiences. Most operate out of Haleiwa, including the highly educational two-hour swim offered by One Ocean Diving and conservationist Ocean Ramsey, who has 20 years of experience as a divemaster and wrote a book on shark language, social behaviors, and most importantly, how to save your life when things go south with a shark encounter. She relies on her extensive knowledge of local territories to find sharks instead of chumming or feeding. Mala Wharf, a hurricane-ravaged wharf on Maui, has created a thriving abode for fish and reef sharks who lurk on the sandy bottom and behind cement slabs. Snorkel or scuba here only when conditions are calm.

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Isla Holbox, Mexico

whale shark near Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Courtesy of Carey Dive Center

Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the sea—the average shark is 31 feet long and weighs nine tons—but don't let that scare you off. These graceful, gentle giants are filter feeders that can't bit or chew. They return annually from May to mid-September to hoover up the plankton-plentiful waters off the Riviera Maya coast. They spend hours feeding themselves on the surface (which is great news for non-scuba divers), paying little attention to the humans bobbing alongside them, trying to keep pace as they swim by. We can actually do more harm to the World Wildlife Fund-classified endangered species, so it's important to choose an ethical operator like V.I.P. Holbox Experience. Bonus, giant manta rays tend to pal around with the spotted colossal creatures. Tours also leave from the far more developed but easier to get to Isla Mujeres.

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Galapagos, Ecuador

Hammerheads of Darwin Island in the Galapagos Islands

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As on land, the Galapagos Islands' underwater animal kingdom is unrivaled and gives visitors a chance to swim alongside seals, marine iguanas, eagle rays, penguins, and sunfish. In fact, some species only live in these silent, protected waters. Interwoven cold and warm currents increase the number of animal types that feel at home here. Wolf and Darwin Islands are hot spots for whale sharks, which recent research suggests come to the region to give birth, and hammerheads, so make sure that any liveaboard program you ship out with stops at both. Galapagos Dive Adventure does and has the added selling point of employing four divemasters/underwater photographers (one for every four passengers), including "Blue Planet II's" whale shark expert Jonathan R. Green.

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La Jolla, California

Leopard sharks in La Jolla, CA

Courtesy of Everyday California

The shallow sandy flats off La Jolla's Southern California shores are a favorite spot for leopard sharks. The timid, tiny-toothed predators are always around, but the numbers grow significantly between March and October as they gather in mass for the breeding season. By late summer and early fall, there can be thousands. As they mean no harm to humans, it's a cool opportunity, especially for people who can't scuba dive or who might be afraid and need to start small. Everyday California offers combo kayak and snorkel tours or snorkel-only tours of the La Jolla Ecological Reserve. Bike & Kayak Tours will get you geared up, guide you to a good viewing spot, and let you keep the snorkel stuff after the tour if you want to keep swimming to potentially spy the bright orange state fish (garibaldi), sea lions, or dolphins. Always go on a sunny day with calm water for the best visibility.

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Sharks in Fakarava, Tahiti, at night

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Various spots around French Polynesia host an array of sharks throughout the year. The island of Fakarava (which means beautiful), in the Tuamotu Islands, and the ocean surrounding it earned UNESCO biosphere reserve status for its remarkable range of rare, endemic, and protected creatures. More than 700 grey reefs spend time here throughout the year, but the most impressive local phenomenon is the "wall of sharks" event. Occurring annually during the July full moon, hordes of greys stalk the narrow south passage (where the open sea meets a lagoon) to feed on the marbled grouper who have come from near and far to make babies. Nocturnal hunts mean night dives are particularly rewarding. You can also dive with tigers in Tikehau, Tahiti, and Moorea. March is a good time for hammerhead sharks in Rangiroa. TOPDIVE has operated dive centers in most of these sites since the '90s and offers convenient multi-island passes.

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The Bahamas

Diver with tiger and nurse sharks in Bimni, Bahamas

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Many types of sharks glide stealthily around this Caribbean archipelago on the reg, especially since the Bahamas Shark Sanctuary was established in 2011. Lemons, Caribbean reefs, and blacktips are sighted on almost 100 percent of scuba and snorkel outings, but frequently swimmers get to witness the smooth moves of tiger, bull, oceanic whitetip (most common on deep-water dives), and hammerheads. The white sandy seabeds and bright sunlit streaming through clear water improve photo quality but be aware that many companies engineer shark encounters here by hiring shark wranglers in chainmail suits, chumming the water, or feeding sharks by hand or on poles. If you have moral objections to that practice, do thorough research before booking a trip. Hot spots include Bimini, Exumas, Tiger Beach, Nassau, and The Runway. Sometimes you only have to step off the sand or dock to find pods of nurse sharks.

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Palau, Micronesia

Snorkeling in Palau

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Motoring around and diving amid the stunning limestone Rock Islands and sapphire waters of Palau, the first country to establish a shark sanctuary, leaves you feeling like you've walked into a screensaver or an old episode of "Survivor." The mushroom-shaped formations and the underwater habitats are protected from Mother Nature's fury by fringe reefs. Almost all tropical species of sharks are found in Palau, but gray reef sharks, blacktips, and whitetips are seen most often patrolling the zones where coral formations stop and open water begins. Sam's Tours will take interested parties to famous sites like the Blue Corner and Ulong Channel and might even teach them to use a reef hook to stay anchored in a current. Beyond sharks, plentiful mangrove forests, deep drop-offs, and seagrass beds are home to other exciting creatures like pelagic fish, fan corals, giant grouper, manta rays, nautilus, green turtles, and eels.

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Costa Rica

Silvertip in Cocos Island, Costa Rica

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Terrestrial Costa Rica is an ideal playground for adventure junkies and animal lovers. That reputation extends into the deep blue sea surrounding the country as well. Cocos Island, 342 miles off Puntarenas province, is the final member of the hammerhead triangle (with the Galapagos and Malpelo), so that species tends to steal the show around here. Still, you'll likely clock whitetips darting in and out of reefs as well as niganos, silvertips, white-tipped whalers, brown sharks, and a variety of pelagic requiem sharks. (Be sure to get the night-dive certification!] Experienced divers who can battle strong currents and intense thermoclines should check out the Bat Islands in the Gulf de Papagayo off the province of Guanacaste, where intimidating bull sharks gather. Scientists are still trying to unravel why the 20-footers congregate in this one spot in Costa Rica. Visibility is best between May and November when winds are a little less extreme. Give yourself some wiggle room when planning a dive here, as those pesky winds have a habit of rearing up and canceling transportation.

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Bonnethead shark in Florida Keys

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Flitting around the coasts of the Sunshine State can lead to a lot of species crossed off the life list at any time of the year. The Florida Keys attract smaller species close to land. You usually have to make the trip out to the deep, pelagic waters of the Gulf Stream to peep the bigger boys (bull, mako, tigers, and hammerheads). Keys Shark Diving offers surface viewing trips suitable for families as well as caged excursions for thrillseekers. Palm Beach benefits from the Gulf Stream current as well. Just a mile offshore, lots of wildlife, including blacktip and dusky sharks, floats around colorful plants and coral. Jupiter has become known for the annual winter migration of yellow-tinged lemon sharks who hide among the many wrecks and deep ledges that dot the town's shores. Spinner sharks converge on Boca Raton and Delray Beach by the hundreds during winter. Venice, Florida, nicknamed itself the Shark Tooth Capital of the World and even has a festival to celebrate.

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Klein Curaçao

Courtesy of Curaçao Tourist Board

With more than 60 dive sites, a national marine park, warm water, and what seems like an unlimited number of colorful species of coral and fish, Curaçao has long been considered a bucket-list destination for serious divers. One of those sites, Klein Curaçao, is a tiny uninhabited island just over six miles southeast of the Caribbean country which has an abundance of underwater caves that sharks enjoy hanging out in. Klein also promises turtles, sandy shores, and an abandoned but very photogenic lighthouse. Catamarans and fishing boats haul tourists there daily, and dive excursions run by companies like Ocean Encounters drop in when conditions are awesome. Additional sites frequented by sharks, especially nurses, include The Blue Room, Mushroom Forest, and Kathy's Paradise. The island's aquarium runs a meet-and-feed program in its natural lagoon that might be a good option for folks who desire an extra level of security. Tigers and nurses are separated from swimmers by plexiglass with slots for small fish.