Nothing else in the ocean better serves that cocktail of adrenaline and amazement quite like a shark. Professional shark divers are drawn to the experience of swimming alongside them because – from migratory patterns to breeding habits – they remain a mystery.
With these seven species, through the eyes of the pros, you can learn how they gain experience and build a foundation for understanding shark behavior.
When a pro meets a great white
Species: Great White
Pro tip: Don't bait water too close to the cage
Since 2001, Terry Salmon has captained the M.V. Horizon, a boat that departs San Diego, California, for the waters off Baja, Mexico, to dive with great whites. His team pioneered cage diving where a hookah rig supplies air to those inside the cage. To date, he has a perfect safety record. The trick: never bait the waters too close to the cage. The species, reaching up to 5m, needs room to maneuver.
Mellow tiger sharks
Species: Tiger shark
Pro tip: Don't let sharks dictate contact
"It's surprising how mellow tiger sharks are," says Eli Martinez. The editor of Shark Diver magazine has donned scuba gear and swam with them dozen of times at Tiger Beach, a site off the island of Grand Bahama.
He says a safe experience is predicated on learning the rules – the biggest of which is to stay on the offense, using your hand to push away a tiger that swims too close. Sharks shouldn't dictate contact.
Best underwater acrobatics
Species: Caribbean Reef shark
Pro tip: Be patient
Professional divers are able to coax these sharks into a headstand on their palm, such is the bond they develop. That move is known as putting the animal in tonic immobility, and it's best left to experts like Cristina Zenato, head shark trainer at UNEXSO Resort on Grand Bahama.
Species: Bull shark
Pro tip: Don't make sudden movements
"They're not looking to bite an arm," says Jorge Loria, owner of Phantom Divers scuba center in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. He's talking about the bull sharks that appear every winter just off the coast, 25m below the surface.
Loria follows a series of precautions: to keep from resembling bait, wear all-black wetsuits and carry nothing white or shiny, like a slate. GoPro cameras must be on sticks.
Most mentally challenging
Species: Oceanic white-tip
Pro tip: Be aware of surroundings
What's noticeably absent on dives with oceanic whitetip sharks is sand – quite literally, the bottom has dropped out. Divers are in open ocean, typically underwater, at depths of 21m and near a 915m drop-off. With no ground beneath their fins, this complicates the action.
Divers must be alert to 360 degrees of what surrounds them. This shark demands power and presence. They must stare it in the eye and lean into each encounter, demonstrating dominance. A lack of fear.
Martinez says there are a lot of rules involved in diving with oceanic whitetips. "We watch them very closely," he says.
Snorkling with friendly giants
Species: Whale shark
Pro tip: Don't make noise
The only risk in snorkeling with whale sharks is making noises friends will imitate later. Just remember that the fish may be big – up to 13m long – but it's nothing more than a plankton muncher. Screaming into a snorkel spooks the sharks.