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Diving With Sharks


Our special guide to some big thrill encounters – from whale sharks to hammerheads we tell you where to go and when to dive…


Whale sharks

 

At first glance, the Republic of Djibouti doesn’t suggest itself as the ideal holiday setting. A little-known, sun-blasted enclave in the Horn of Africa, it is the hottest place on a hot continent – a land of salt flats and scrub desert. It has barely changed since the 1920s, when Evelyn Waugh visited and declared it ‘a country of dust and boulders, utterly devoid of any sign of life’.

In the highly unlikely event that Waugh had found time to go for a swim in the Gulf of Tadjoura, he may never have written that sentence. Here, just a couple of hours’ sail from the capital, Djibouti City, is a place where juvenile whale sharks gather in numbers. The whale sharks congregate in front of Arta Plage, a beach used as a camp and training ground by the Foreign Legion. Djibouti was once French Somalia, and today its strategic importance at the entrance of the Red Sea is such that the country is home to French and US garrisons.

Arta Plage is a small bay where zooplankton is concentrated by an eddy. This is manna for young whale sharks, which swim up and down the bay filtering the water. When they find a particularly concentrated patch of plankton, they go upright in the water and just stay there gulping it down. This is called ‘ram-feeding’, and when whale sharks are doing it they get pretty blissed out. You can swim around them taking photographs and they don’t seem to care. As Djibouti’s whale sharks are adolescents, you’re unlikely to find any real giants here. The smallest ones are barely 2m long, while the average length is 5–6m.

The good news is that Djibouti’s liveaboards are French-run, so while they may be a bit rough and ready, the food is always enjoyable and there’s never a shortage of wine. It is possible to find grey and white-tipped reef sharks from the reefs in Tadjhoura up to the Seven Brothers islands in the strait of Bab El Mandab. However, in all the whale shark areas, the best tactic is to snorkel. Several operators offer liveaboard-based trips that mix whale shark encounters with a little diving in the Gulf of Tadjoura, though with the arrival of faster, better boats, you can now incorporate the Seven Brothers into a week’s itinerary.

Dive Tip The reef diving around Tadjoura is good, but not amazing. You’ll find better reefs on the Seven Brothers to the north, but trips here tend to be a bit more expensive. There are wrecks offshore from Djibouti City, but the visibility is shocking. On land, you can visit the desolate salt flats or a local cheetah refuge.

Contacts

Scuba Tours Worldwide, 01284 748010 www.scubascuba.com 
Oyster Diving, 020 7159 8628 www.oysterltd.com 
Regaldive, 01353 659999 www.regaldive.co.uk 

 

HOT SPOTS Whale Sharks

You can bump into whale sharks wandering around in most tropical waters. In the Red Sea and the Maldives they have made many an ordinary dive into some memorable. But these are chance encounters. Thankfully there are a number of spots across the globe where we see regular aggregations.
Belize: Gladden Spit Around the full moons of April to June vast numbers of whale sharks gather to feast on snapper spawn.
Western Australia: Ningaloo This UNESCO World Heritage site is famous for attracting whale sharks in good numbers from March to early July.
Mozambique: Bazaruto Archipelago From October to April is the prime time for these gentle giants.

 Thresher sharks

thresher1 shutterstock 112571672 optThe upper caudal fin can be as long as the body

Thresher sharks are among the most enigmatic creatures on the planet; for sheer kudos, you can’t beat them. Thousands of people have photographs of hammerheads or great whites, but only a handful of decent photographs exist of the oceanic thresher. For the most part, this is down to its preferred habitat: the deep ocean. In common with many elasmobranchs, they are afflicted by parasitic copepods that attach themselves to the shark’s body, so they must have recourse to a cleaning station, and that means a rare foray into shallow water, where cleaner wrasse live.

If there are thresher shark cleaning stations all over the tropics, we don’t know about them. Threshers are sometimes seen on the deeper slopes of the Brother Islands in Egypt, but their appearances are impossible to predict. There have also been reports of thresher activity off Japan and Bali, but these are little more than rumours.

For the moment, the world’s number-one thresher site is Monad Shoal, near the island of Malapascua in the Philippines. Malapascua is an appealing island, very much the archetypal tropical paradise, with white sand beaches and overhanging coconut trees. The diving’s pretty good as well – an array of coral gardens and walls, with plenty to interest macro photographers.

But the sharks are the stars of the show. The best encounters take place in the early morning (5am!), when divers load their kit onto motorised catamarans for the 20-minute ride out to the site. So it’s still pretty dark when you descend down to the top of the reef at about 25 minutes, hunker down and wait for the sharks to arrive.

After the first flush of excitement when this site was discovered a decade ago, there were rumours that the sharks had been taken by local fishermen, or the presence 
of divers had prevented them from visiting the cleaning station. In fact, the site has continued delivering good encounters.

Dive Tip Manta rays also come to be cleaned at Monad Shoal, and if you’re not completely exhausted by the late afternoon, you can do a dusk dive and watch mating mandarinfish. The area is blessed with superior critter action, and there’s even a Second World War shipwreck to please the metalheads.

Contacts 

Thresher Shark Divers +63 32 437 0985 www.thresherdivers.com
Divequest 01254 826322 www.divequest.co.uk
Scuba Tours Worldwide 01284 748010 www.scubascuba.com
Oyster Diving 020 7159 8628 www.oysterltd.com
Regaldive 01353 659999 www.regaldive.co.uk

thresher2 shutterstock 126894221 optThe cleaning station at Monad Shoal, near the island of Malapascua in the Philippines is one of the few places in the world for divers to see threshers

HOT SPOTS Thresher Sharks 

This distinctive shark is found around the globe in warm waters both coastal and in open ocean. Reliable sighting spots are rare but they are seen fairly regularly in the Sea of Cortez, the Galapagos Islands and in the Red Sea


Great Whites

 

South Africa has a great line-up of shark adventures.You have the cool waters of the Atlantic side, with its temperate inhabitants, and you have the warm Indian Ocean to the east, where you are more likely to encounter Indo-Pacific species.

If you don’t mind the cooler water, the seas around the Cape can be very rewarding. The most obvious attraction is the great white shark found primarily around False Bay and Dyer Island. Most people view the whites while snorkelling in cages – the sharks are always there, but water conditions are variable. Rough seas and bad visibility are obviously bad news, so you need to be lucky with the weather.

The SA cage-diving experience is not a sure thing, but it’s competitively priced when compared to its liveaboard-based rivals in Mexico and Australia, and recent months have yielded good action. If you want to see lots of different shark species, you should factor in some diving out of Cape Town. You may find yourself face to face with the cryptic seven-gill sharks, which have a way of suddenly appearing out of nowhere. Or there are the 11 species of catshark to find out on the reefs.

The star the Indian Ocean coastline is the tiger shark, an opportunistic all-rounder. The tigers can be seen in baited dives around Aliwal Shoal and Durban. The dives take place in a current with bait suspended from the boat and contained in a metal cylinder – there’s no cage, but divers are briefed to bunch together for general protection and safety. Sometimes the tigers fail to turn up, but these baited dives also attract black-tip sharks.

Further up the Indian Ocean at Sodwana Bay and Protea Banks, the key species is the sand tiger shark, which can be found in numbers from June through to November.

Also in this part of the country, there is a good chance of running into the bull shark, a bulky, testosterone-driven hunter that intimidates with its size and speed, but relies on instinct rather than brain power.

Dive tip An annual wonder is the famous Sardine Run, a seasonal incursion of coldwater currents along the Indian Ocean coast, which brings vast schools of sardines together for a whole range of predators to feast apon.The copper shark or bronze whaler, is the main sharkj species but expect dolphins and whales to join the fun. The Sardine Run is highly variable, but it usually kicks off in June.

Contacts

Dive Worldwide 0845 130 6980 www.diveworldwide.com
Oonasdivers 01323 648924 www.oonasdivers.com
Oyster Diving 020 7159 8628 
www.oysterltd.com
Regaldive 01353 659999 
www.regaldive.co.uk
Safari Diver 01428 644501www.safaridiver.co.uk
Surf and Turf Safaris 0845 489 0414  www.surfandturfsafaris.com 

 SR great white repro optUp close and personal with a great white in South Africa/Simon Rogerson

HOT SPOTS Great White Sharks

There are two other destinations famous for cage divingwith great whites.

South Australia: Port Lincoln Around the Neptune Islands, where the Spencer Gulf meets the Great Australian Bight, the seal pups make their first forays into open water from May to October and the great whites come to hunt.

Mexico: Guadalupe Late each summer around this remote island a 160 miles off the coast of Baja California, visibility hits 30m, water temperature peak at 18ºC and the great whites arrive. World class cage diving, all from liveaboards. 


 Reef sharks

 

One of the best night dives in the world is Maaya Thila in the Maldives. The white-tip reefs sharks swarm over the tennis-court-sized submerged island terrorising any fish daft enough to venture out. They dart between your legs and brush your mask as they writhe and wriggle chasing down their dinner. High energy madness.

The Maldives since banning shark fishing is now a great place to dive with reef sharks. Given the incredible amount of fish that move around the passes and pinnacles of the atolls, it is only natural that there should be sharks to control their population, playing their role by removing old or sick fish from the gene pool.

The species most often encountered are grey reef and black-tip reef sharks. When it comes to finding grey reef sharks, you need a deep wall or thila with a moderate current – the greys move around, so you’ll be relying on your guides’ knowledge of the currents to find them. White-tip reef sharks are still relatively common. Juvenile black-tips can often be found in the lagoon shallows.

Hammerheads are trickier, though they do tend to favour specific points. Dive guides on the Sea Queen liveaboard have reported good encounters at Hammerhead Point on Rasdhoo Atoll, and also near Filitheyo on Vaavu Atoll.

There are sporadic reports of one of the most enigmatic species, the great hammerhead, preying on schools of eagle rays in the southern atolls. Also in the south, the Sea Queen guides have been finding some impressive guitar sharks (which are not rays, though they look like them).

Aside from the amazing manta ray (not a proper shark, so not included here), the trump card in the Maldives is the whale shark, which can be seen pretty much anywhere. They are known to cruise up and down the southern parts of Ari Atoll, where you can spend many an exhausting morning snorkelling with them. However, if there is a crowd already around one shark, have a heart and give it a miss. Mobbing whale sharks is poor form.

DIve tip The fish-heavy reefs of the Maldives are more than enough to justify a visit. Whether you’re on a liveaboard or staying on one of the powder-sand islands, you’re going to have a great time. Highlights include caverns and overhangs full of soft corals, magnificent anemones, mating octopus, green and hawksbill turtles, plus those amazing manta rays. Value? The Maldives has it in spades.

Contacts

Scuba Tours Worldwide 01284 748010 www.scubascuba.com 
Blue o Two 01752 480 808 www.blueotwo.com 
Oyster Diving 020 7159 8628 www.oysterltd.com
Regaldive 01353 659999 www.regaldive.co.uk

 


Shark feeds

 lemon sharks2 shutterstock 35982790  optFeeding time: lemon sharks wait for food

The Bahamas is the spiritual home of the shark feed. For more than 30 years, dive operators have been spicing up action on the sometimes sleepy Bahamian reefs by putting on shark feeds.

Part of the reason behind the success of Bahamian shark feeds is the Caribbean reef shark itself. It is, by nature, a highly social shark; while it has the classic streamlined, muscular form, it shows little of the aggression associated with species such as the bull or the oceanic white-tip. So you get plenty of them at feeds, but they seldom go into frenzied behaviour. Contrast this with grey reef shark feeds in the Pacific, where the sharks are edgy and unpredictable, zipping around and adopting threat postures. Caribbean ‘reefies’ have an instinctive hierarchy, and generally behave themselves, even around a around a food source. Also, the sharks have been habituated to the rituals of the feed, so as long as the divers stick to the rules, it’s relatively safe.

Normally, the divers are arranged in a line or semicircle separate from the feeder, who then distributes fish parts to the sharks. Some individual sharks are quite docile, to the extent that the feeder can turn them upside down, which prompts a semi-catatonic state in the shark, called ‘tonic immobility’.

Such feeds take place all over the Bahamas. Sometimes there is a feeder, and sometimes the operator deploys a ‘chumsicle’, a block of frozen fish that gradually thaws as the sharks bite at it. Stuart Cove is probably the best known exponent of this type of feed.

In the northern Bahamas, there are a few remote sites visited by liveaboards that carry out sustained baiting operations to attract big sharks including tigers, bulls and great hammerheads. The original and best such operation is Jim Abernethy’s Shearwater liveaboard, which runs out of West Palm Beach in Florida. This is extreme diving, however – it’s not recommended for shark novices, or anyone of a nervous disposition.

Dive Tip While they lack the diversity of the Indo-Pacific, Bahamian reefs are very pretty, with lush swaying corals and brightly coloured sponges. You can expect a good smattering of marine life and a few shipwrecks. It’s easy-going diving in good visibility – good enough to justify a visit with or without the sharks.

lemon shark shutterstock 32835475 optLemon shark, Bahamas

Contacts

Scuba Tours Worldwide 01284 748010 www.scubascuba.com
Blue o Two 01752 480 808 www.blueotwo.com
Oyster Diving 020 7159 8628 www.oysterltd.com
Regaldive 01353 659999 www.regaldive.co.uk 

 caribbean reef sharks shutterstock 71406598Caribbean reef sharks at an organised feed

 

HOT SPOTS Shark Feeds

In many parts of the world organised shark feeds have been banned. Some experts argue it is unnatural, others fear sharks will associate divers with feeding. However, well run, organised feeds are held in Roatán and other places in the Caribbean and in Fiji in the Pacific. 


 

 Hammerhead Sharks

school of hammer heads shutterstock 43956502 optVast schools of scalloped hammerheads congregate at Cocos 

You never forget the moment when your liveaboard first arrives at Cocos after the 30-hour crossing from the Costa Rican mainland. Towering sea cliffs topped with virgin rainforest loom out of the morning mist. Thousands of sea birds rise from their perches and soar over the waterfalls cascading from the cliff tops. One by one, your fellow guests emerge blinking from their cabins to take in this timeless scene.

On every dive at Cocos, you will see white-tip reef sharks littered around the sea bed. They are everywhere – you can count on seeing at least 20 or 30 per dive. But the reason people keep returning to Cocos is to try and find the vast schools of scalloped hammerheads for which the island is famous.

You can see a hammerhead anywhere around the island, but the hot spots seem to occur off the deep sections of offshore pinnacles, in depths of 20–40m. These places are often subject to fast currents, so the idea is to squeeze yourself down into the rocky reef, then just watch and wait. You can see hammerheads all over the tropics, but only in the eastern Pacific do you get the really big schools of hundreds of sharks. .

The theory is that the sharks follow electromagnetic contours on the volcanic rock, using them to navigate around the reef. The schooling behaviour also seems to have a social function, as the sharks are all female, and certain positions in the school are held by dominant sharks. Whatever the scientific theory, the experience of seeing hundreds of sharks swimming in formation is one of the most amazing spectacles in the natural world.

Recent years have seen the arrival of tiger sharks at Cocos. While these add to the island’s already impressive predator count, liveaboards have had to cancel night dives, as the tigers have taken to hunting white-tip reef sharks at night and have behaved aggressively to divers. The cognoscenti say that Cocos isn’t quite the place it was – the longline fleets of Costa Rica and Guatemala have taken their toll on hammerhead, silvertip and silky populations – but it’s still better than everywhere else.

Dive Tip There are no pretty reefs at Cocos, just volcanic rock covered in algae, barnacles and urchins. What you do get is fish – big schools of jacks, snappers, bonito and leather bass. And there are the ubiquitous Pacific creolefish, which occur in such numbers that, at times, they seem to block out the sun. Whale sharks are often encountered, as are manta and mobula rays. In short, Cocos is pelagic heaven.

Contacts

Scuba Tours Worldwide 01284 748010 www.scubascuba.com 
Dive Worldwide 0845 130 6980 www.diveworldwide.com 
Oyster Diving 020 7159 8628 www.oysterltd.com 

 hammerheads in galapagos shutterstock 45950731Schooling hammerheads in the Galapagos

 

HOT SPOTS Scalloped hammerheads

 The only places that compare to Cocos are Darwin and Wolf islands in the northern Galapagos, and lonely Malpelo Island, a barren rock that lies in Colombia’s territorial waters. You can see them in a few dive sites in the Red Sea such as Giftun and Brothers but in far smaller schools. 

 

 

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