5 amazing shark dives in killer locations

As a huge shark fan, I had been eagerly awaiting the new  big-budget BBC series ‘Shark’, which started last week and continues tonight. The film crew spent two years capturing different species of shark in all five oceans in order to dispel some of the myths surrounding these much maligned creatures.

Episode one included some incredible footage, most notably of the joyless existence of the Greenland shark, an animal that spends its solitary life (which can last as long as 200 years) under the ice, often in permanent darkness thanks to a parasite that burrows into its eyes, rendering it blind.

This first instalment very much focused on the traditional image of shark as predator, so I am hoping the rest of the series, as promised, gives a broader picture of these ancient, misunderstood  and threatened creatures.

One of the reasons I learned to scuba dive was to see sharks in their natural environment, and the thrill of first time I saw one elegantly glide into view is something that stays will me (just as the little underwater dance I did when it happened will stay with everyone who had the misfortune to witness it). The first sight of their perfect form cutting silently through the water never gets old for me.

If the BBC series has convinced you to take the plunge with these amazing animals, here are my recommendations for five incredible places to make it happen.

1. Aliwal Shoals, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

South Africa features heavily in the BBC series, and with good reason. Aliwal Shoals, and Sodwana Bay, on the east coast of the country are considered two of the finest areas for diving in the world, not least because of the abundance of big fish.

Tiger sharks are found here, easily identified by their distinctive stripes, and there are plenty of black tips cruising around, but it is the ragged tooth shark that is king. They are everywhere. Although their alarming, haphazard dental work may make them look vicious, they are incredibly timid.

Aliwal Shoals are located just South of Durban, and if diving here has given you a taste for spotting big stuff, it’s a great starting point for a picturesque road trip, via some breathtaking vistas to Kruger National Park, to go in search of the big five.

elephant, kruger national park

Elephant, Kruger National Park

 

2. Ningaloo Reef, Exmouth, Western Australia

This 26okm reef stretching down the northern west coast of Australia is often overshadowed by its bigger counterpart on the other side of the country, but its accessibility from the shore, and lack of crowds make it a much more relaxed place to visit. The reef here has also suffered much less degradation than the Great Barrier Reef.

There are enough reef sharks to satisfy your need to see big stuff here, but it is the whale sharks that draw the crowds. During the winter months these giants of the sea migrate north and are seen in numbers along the west coast.

Even if you aren’t lucky enough to be joined on your dive by a whale shark (and we weren’t) humpbacks, dolphins, dugongs (if you are very lucky) and an array of colourful reef fish will soften the blow.

For those who can’t bear to leave without catching a glimpse of a whale shark, there are plenty of operators offering ‘money back guarantee’  boat trips to view and swim with them.

If you have some time on your hands (you will need at least 10 days), then Exmouth is a great starting point (or stopping point if you start in Broome) for an epic road trip down the beautiful west coast to Perth, starting with Coral bay, an excellent spot for snorkelling the reef.

dolphin in Monkey Mia

Friendly locals in Monkey Mia

Heading south to Monkey Mia – home to a pod of friendly dolphins, and Shell Beach, a beach made up entirely of, well, shells, you can stop at Hamelin Bay, in Shark bay world heritage area, one of the only places on earth you can see living marine stromatolites.

Before you reach Perth, stop near Cervantes to see the Pinnacles and ponder  the how and why of thousands of limestones pillar rising from the dessert ground. This existential questioning is best enjoyed at sunset.

The Pinnacles, Western Australia

The Pinnacles, Western Australia

 

3.  Semporna,  Sabah, Malaysia

The islands off Semporna in Malaysian Borneo hold a special place in my heart, as this is where I saw my first shark.  The first descent was like dropping into an aquarium.

Here you will find white tips and grey grey reef sharks, casually criss crossing turtles (green and hawksbill) giant wrasse and bat fish and schools of angel and butterfly fish, in clear waters where the colour of the marine life is matched by the vibrancy of the reef itself.

Resting Turtle, Sipidan

Resting Turtle, Sipidan

Visiting this marine paradise early in your diving career has the potential to taint all possible future dives, however good it might seem, it might never be as good as this. You will frequently remember this, and sigh wistfully.

There is a wide range of dive sites in a small geographic location, from huge drop-offs and beautiful coral gardens off Sipidan to great muck diving at Mabul, perfect for seeking out the little stuff – juvenile fish, shrimps and a myriad of tiny colourful nudibranch.

 

4. Drop Off, Sipidan, Sabah,  Malaysia

One dive location deserves special mention for its shark spotting potential. The island of Sipidan is considered to be home to some of the best dive sites in the world.  Now a protected area, you can only go ashore with a permit, of which only 120 are issued a day, in order to protect the endemic wildlife. Not that you would want to stay on land for long.

White tip shark, Sipidan, Borneo

White tip shark, Sipidan, Sabah

From the beach you can see what is in store for you – the way the sand extends into the water for about 20 metres, and then disappears, and the water turns inky as the sea floor plunges hundreds of metres.

The coral wall at along this drop off is so bursting with life and colour, its easy to get caught up in the minutia, but the keen shark spotter really needs to be looking outward into the big blue. From the nothingness suddenly a shape will take form, sharpening into focus and gliding disinterestedly by. Sharks love the deep waters, and here, alongside the many reef sharks, you may get just spy some hammerheads emerging from the deep.

Beyond the extraordinary diving, the islands off Semporna – Mabul and Kapalai,  also offer divers incredible accommodation – the kind of private island, beach front and over-water villas that are usually the preserve of luxury travellers. Here you can take limitless shore dives, straight from your front door.

If you fancy something a bit different, then the old Russian oil rig that has become an artificial reef and popular dive site over the years, has now been converted into a hotel, which even offers the lazy diver an elevator direct to the sea floor.

Orangutan, Sabah

Orangutan, Sabah

 

It’s also worth remembering, you are on Borneo, one of the world biodiversity hotspots, but also one that is under serious threat, so now might be a good time to take an eco-tour into the jungle to spot some orangutan, before they disappear forever.

 

 

5. Saba, Dutch Antilles, Caribbean

Not to be confused with (or pronounced like) Malaysian Sabah this tiny volcanic island 15 miles from Saint Martin is not for the faint hearted – or the weak legged. The only flat land on Saba is the landing strip – which juts out into the sea like the deck of an aircraft carrier. And as the world’s shortest commercial runway, is about the same length. Be prepared for a hairy arrival and departure. From here, as Yazz once told her Plastic Population, ‘the only way is up’.

View of the Bottom from halfway up, Saba

View of the Bottom from halfway up, Saba

This is no palm-fringed beach Caribbean idyll, in fact there is not a single beach to speak of. There is just one road – called ‘the road’, starting at the Bottom (that is actually the name of the town) that goes steeply up to the main town Windwardside where most of the shops, tourist accommodation and restaurants are.

People come to Saba for four reasons – to hike, to study medicine (the island inexplicably has a medical school), to run away from something else, and to dive.

The volcanic nature of the island makes for a particularly interesting seascape, from near-shore coral ridges to giant pinnacles formed by spewing magma. There is abundance of healthy coral and sponges, attracting over 150 species of fish, including Caribbean reef, nurse and black tip sharks in abundance. There have also been sightings of hammerheads and occasional tigers, and with unparalleled visibility, you may just be lucky enough to spot them in the distance.

A visit to Saba is a unique experience, with a population of less that 2000, everyone knows everybody’s business, stay more than a couple of nights, and you will too.

Although numbers are increasing, the island remains unaffected by mass tourism. This means you may often have a dive boat to yourself, and you certainly won’t be sharing dive sites with other groups.

mount scenery under cloudIt also means accommodation is limited, generally to eco-lodges and simple dive hotels, and there are only a handful of eating options, of varying quality, and prices are fairly high as everything has to be shipped in.

You will always be walking steeply uphill or downhill to get anywhere, but you are generally rewarded with a very warm welcome and an incredible view, especially if you make it up the 1064 steps to the top of Mount Scenery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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