Sharks, mantas, whales, whale sharks… the ocean is home to many large and somewhat mysterious creatures. Some gentle playful giants, and some misunderstood apex predators. So where do you go to dive with the ‘BIG STUFF’? Here’s our pick of the best experiences within easy reach of a dive resort or liveaboard itinerary.
These giant, graceful creatures are on many divers’ bucket list. In some places you can be lucky with encounters and others you are pretty much guaranteed to see several. In Indonesia, for almost guaranteed encounters, Bali’s Manta Point, Komodo’s Manta Alley and Raja Ampat’s Manta Sandy.
In Australia, in season you will see mantas on dives such as the Manta Bommie off the coast of Brisbane and Wolf Rock in southern Queensland, in Coral Bay on the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, and Lady Elliot Island on the Southern Great Barrier Reef, which both have resident populations, you are almost guaranteed an encounter. In Fiji, you can snorkel with mantas in the Northern Yasawa Islands between May and September but there are few other places in the South Pacific renowned for manta encounters, but in the North Pacific, Palau has almost guaranteed encounters.
Mexico’s remote Socorro Islands, only accessible (by liveaboard) between November and April, is one of very few places for an encounter with the enormous oceanic manta rays. Over in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives’ Hanifaru Bay has possibly the world’s largest resident population, with some lucky divers seeing hundreds on a single encounter.
Despite their popularity, we know very little about whale sharks. We don’t know where they breed, where they’re born, or how far they travel in search of food. We do know, like mantas, they are filter feeders, and are often encountered in places where mantas are also spotted. But not always.
In Australia, Ningaloo Reef is well known for whale shark encounters between March and August and on Christmas Island between November and April. In Indonesia, there are aggregation sites in Raja Ampat’s Cenderawasih and Triton Bay, the lesser-known Saleh Bay in West Nusa Tenggara, and in the Philippines, Oslob, Donsol and the Tubbataha Reef. They are also frequently seen in Myanmar and Thailand, in both the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand dive destinations.
Whale sharks are frequently sighted in the Maldives, with a 90 per cent chance of encounter at South Ari Atoll, a secondary nursery populated mainly by juvenile males year-round.
Reef Sharks, Hammerheads, Great Whites, Tigers and Bull Sharks
Sadly, many shark species are endangered, and encounters with large aggregations are rare, especially in Asia but there are still several spots around the globe where it’s possibly to have a close encounter.
Great Whites can be viewed from an underwater cage in South Australia, South Africa and Guadalupe. Tiger sharks are a popular attraction in the Bahamas and can also be seen, along with bull sharks year-round at the shark dives in Beqa Lagoon and the southern Yasawa Islands in Fiji. Bull sharks are also common in the Bahamas and from November to March in Playa de Carmen, Mexico.
The best places to see schooling reef sharks and Galapagos whaler sharks are Lord Howe Island, the northern Great Barrier Reef, French Polynesia (especially during the grouper aggregation between June and August) and, of course, Galapagos, with increased shark activity from December to May.
For schooling hammerheads, dive Layang Layang off the coast of Malaysia in March and April, the remote island of Yonaguni, Japan in February and March, and Galapagos from January to May. At Cocos Island, Costa Rica, though it’s the rainy season which can have very rough sea conditions, from June to November is the peak time of year for hammerhead sharks, whale sharks and manta rays.
There are not many places with easy access to diving or snorkelling with the giant mammals of the ocean, however more and more opportunities to snorkel with whales are emerging.
In the South Pacific, Tonga is well-known for the annual aggregation of humpbacks as is Moorea in French Polynesia. In Australia, you can swim with minke whales in the far north Great Barrier Reef between June and August with Mike Ball Dive Expeditions and Spirit of Freedom, and humpback whales in Coffs Harbour, Hervey Bay and the Ningaloo Reef.
The Banda Sea in Indonesia, accessible by liveaboard on crossover Komodo to Raja Ampat tours in September and October, is a great spot for encounters with several species of whales, including humpback, pilot and blue whales. Liveaboards including the Pindito, White Manta, Blue Manta and Damai I and Damai II all offer Banda Sea itineraries.
In Timor-Leste, between October and December it’s possible to spot sperm, pilot, humpback and blue whales as well as orcas and several species of dolphin.
If you’re bold (or maybe crazy?) enough to dive with saltwater crocodiles, there are two places you can do this. The Gardens of the Queen National Park in Cuba, or Banco Chinchorro in Xcalak, Mexico.
(Banner Image credit: Solmar Liveaboard, Mexico. Humpback whale and calf photographed by Eric Hanauer)