There are many types of dive at the top of peoples’ bucket lists and diving with sharks is surely one of them. There is something incredibly life-affirming about spending time in the water with these apex predators and many divers long to experience shark diving at least once in their lifetime. There are shark trips suitable for both novice and experienced divers and what starts out as a one off event can soon become a lifetime pursuit as the diversity of sharks and dives available becomes apparent.
Whilst sharks have a misguided reputation in mainstream media as being ‘monsters of the deep’, they are actually reserved and cautious about approaching divers. The risk of harm from a shark encounter is incredibly low and can be minimised even further with sensible diving practices.
Here are our top ten considerations for safe and enjoyable diving with sharks:
Safety in numbers
Many species of shark are ambush predators and, when investigating novel objects, prefer not to be seen in order to maintain their own safety. If they are aware of being watched, it can deter them from coming too close unexpectedly. Diving in a group is a great way to ensure there are always pairs of eyes not only looking for sharks but also monitoring the sharks and divers behaviour.
It is best practice to avoid diving at dawn and dusk, as that is when many types of shark hunt. Likewise, avoid murky water at all times. If the shark cannot see a diver clearly and vice versa, there is an increased risk of the shark mistaking a diver for a food object or of the diver surprising the shark and causing it to react defensively.
Avoiding marine mammal colonies is especially important when diving with the hope of seeing larger shark species, such as great white sharks, that feed on those mammals. When a shark is hunting, there is a possibility it could mistake a diver for a seal or view that diver as competing for the shark’s food source. It is never sensible to be near any wild animal when it is feeding or hunting. Respect it is their territory and dive another location.
Responsible dive operator & buddy
Choosing a reputable and environmentally-focussed dive operator is a key consideration with shark diving. Many operators adhere to strict codes of best practice to ensure both the animals and divers are safe and that the divers enjoy their experience. It is also important to choose an operator and/or dive buddy you can rely upon to not mistreat or aggravate sharks present with inappropriate behaviour.
Before diving with sharks, get to know their behaviours. Sharks are intelligent animals that will display warning signals if they feel threatened by a diver’s presence. These subtle signs are a diver’s cue to move away from the shark and include mouth gaping, an arched back, the pectoral fins being dropped and overall exaggerated body movements.
Understanding the dive environment prior to entering the water is also important for maintaining safety and for finding sharks in the first place if diving with just a buddy. Discover the shark species habits such as where they are usually found, the topography, currents and depths prior to diving to maximise the opportunity for an enjoyable encounter.
Seeing a shark underwater for the first time is hugely exciting and often involves a rush of adrenaline, a mad dash for the camera, kicking of fins and alerting dive buddies whilst also trying to breathe and maintain the correct depth. Taking a moment to slow the breathing and check dive gauges is very important to prevent any unexpected depth alterations; be they rapidly ascending or plummeting in pursuit of the shark. Stay calm, breathe and enjoy the encounter.
It is best practice to choose dark and neutral colours for shark dives. Avoid shiny cameras and jewellery, as they can mimic the appearance of fish underwater and attract a shark’s attention. It is also suggested that cameras are held close to the body and consideration is given to using flash photography. The noise and light of flashes can attract sharks to take an investigatory bite on expensive equipment.
Whether diving as a buddy pair without a guide or diving with an operator, pay attention to safety procedures. Dive buddies should plan what to do in the event they see a shark and unexpectedly feel uncomfortable. Common sense is to descend to the reef floor (or equivalent) if possible until the shark has passed or to slowly retreat with eyes on the shark and exit the water. Always remember the ocean is the sharks’ environment and treat them with respect.
Whilst shark diving does require extra consideration for safety, the risk of an accident occurring is very low. There is a reason people return every year to shark diving hotspots and that is because, put simply, it is so much fun.
With that in mind, here are our top shark dives for novices:
These gentle plankton feeders can be found in the waters surrounding the UK during the summer months and provide a relaxed introduction to experiencing sharks underwater. No prior diving experience is required for basking shark trips. Try Basking Shark Scotland, Big Fish Expeditions and Charles Hood for day trips in Cornwall and Scotland.
Seven gill cow sharks
Cow sharks are a prehistoric predator of kelp forests and are fantastic to dive with. Their natural curiosity brings them in close to divers looking for a shark experience within sun-dappled kelp forests. With shallow dive depths on sandy bottoms, diving with cow sharks in Cape Town, South Africa is accessible for novice divers. Try Shark Explorers and Pisces Divers.
Blue sharks appeal to many novice divers, as their big round eyes, small size and bright blue colouring give the impression of these sharks being harmless. They are a great species to dive with as a novice diver but, like other sharks, they are predators and deserve the utmost respect. They are naturally curious and will investigate all novel objects. For a fun dive with blue and mako sharks in crystal clear water, try Shark Explorers in South Africa or Lateral Line Expeditions at Rhode Island, USA.
The largest species of shark, whale sharks, can be experienced in good numbers at Ningaloo Reef in western Australia and at Isles Mujeres in Mexico. No prior dive experience is required to spend time in the water with these giants, as snorkelling is used instead of scuba. There are a number of operators that offer these trips. Try Gregory Sweeney Photo Tours for expeditions to Mexico and Ningaloo Whale Sharks in Australia.
Great white sharks
This iconic species of shark is ideal for novice divers in South Africa. Dive operators conduct their dives at the surface, within a cage and either with a snorkel or scuba equipment. No dive experience is required to dive with these magnificent predators in Cape Town and Gansbaai and accompanying family members can observe the sharks from the boat if they prefer. Try Apex Predators, African Shark Eco Charters and Marine Dynamics.