6 sharks professional divers love to swim with

From bull sharks to whale sharks, these are amazing creatures to dive with and these guys know how.
By Brooke Morton

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.

More: Go swimming with the world’s second-biggest shark

When a pro meets a great white

Cage divers have a close-up experience with huge great white shark in the waters of the Baja peninsula in Mexico
Close-up to a great white in Baja. © Brandon Cole

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

Diver Eli Martinez plays with a tiger shark called Emma in the water off Grand Bahama
Eli Martinez has a bond with tiger shark Emma. © Paul Spielvogel

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

A diver swims underwater during a close encounter with a reef shark
A reef shark. © Jeff Rotman/Getty Images

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.

Bull sharks

Diver Charlie Estrabeau feeds a bull shark in the waters off the island of Fiji
Charlie Estrabeau feeds a bull shark. © Paul Spielvoge

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

An oceanic whitetip shark swims past a diver in the open Pacific ocean
An oceanic whitetip shark swims past a diver. © Brian Skerry/National Geographic

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

Diving with a Whale Shark
Diving with a Whale Shark © Brandon Cole

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.

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