6 Sharks That Divers Actually Love to Swim With

Despite their Hollywood reputations, sharks are amazing creatures to dive with — if you know how.
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
By Brooke Morton

Sharks tend to be typecast on the big screen, usually depicted cruising toward an unsuspecting swimmer with rows of teeth bared or maliciously chomping a boat and its captain to bits. Professional shark divers, however, are actually drawn to the experience of swimming alongside sharks. Why? Because these impressive creatures remain quite a mystery.

The six species below are often studied by the pros. Find out how they gain experience and build a foundation for understanding shark behavior.

Great white (pictured at top)

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 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 more than 16 feet in length, needs room to maneuver.

 

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

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.

 

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

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.

 

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

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, 80 feet 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.

 

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

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 about 70 feet and near a 3,000-foot 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.

 

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

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 42 feet long — but it's nothing more than a plankton muncher. Screaming into a snorkel spooks the sharks.

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