With so many amazing species and locales, it can be hard to decide where to take your next dive vacation. We’ve narrowed down the top 10 destinations to encounter big animals underwater:
Remotely located 250 miles off Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, the waters of Socorro top the bucket lists of many divers. It’s no secret why — the area is known for aggregations of hammerhead sharks; humpback whales migrate down from Alaska each year; and if that weren’t enough, mantas and dolphins round out a big-animal checklist found seldom elsewhere.
Megafauna sights are just one reason they call the west coast the best coast of the U.S. Off Monterey, sea lions swirl through thick kelp forests, putting on a show for divers. Farther south, blue sharks circle the waters off San Diego. If you’re aiming to stay dry, watch for humpbacks in the San Francisco Bay.
A little-traversed French Polynesian liveaboard destination, the Marquesas Islands are perhaps the best chance a diver can get to be up close and personal with majestic manta rays. These resident gentle giants school around the islands, giving ample opportunity to see dozens of mantas in a single day’s worth of diving.
Africa is known for epic safaris, not the least of which happen in the waters off the continent’s southern coast. Photographers from across the world flock to South Africa from May to July in hopes of catching the perfect shot of blacktip and spinner sharks, Cape gannet birds, dolphins and Bryde's whales rounding up and predating on massive baitballs in the ultimate ocean feeding frenzy.
Isla Mujeres, Mexico
There’s no place quite like Isla Mujeres to dive alongside the biggest fish in the sea. Whale shark season around the island, situated only 8 miles off the Yucatan Peninsula, lasts from May to September. This is when the sharks congregate to feed on large, nutrient-rich patches of fish eggs after the bluefin tuna spawning.
Listen to the songs of humpback whales mating and giving birth in the waters of Tonga from May to October. This South Pacific paradise is one of the ocean’s best places to witness these incredible ocean megafauna — but you’ll have to ditch your tank for a classic breath hold. Freediving is the best way to see humpbacks underwater.
The Bahamas has a few options for big-animal encounters, and to see them all, you’ll have to island hop. Off Grand Bahama, visit Tiger Beach and learn just how gentle notoriously aggressive tiger sharks can be. To dive with wild pods of bottlenose dolphins, head to Bimini. Leatherback turtles and eagle rays are best spotted on the reefs around Exumas.
For some of the most interesting megafauna biodiversity, head to the remote Galápagos Islands. You’ll find the usual suspects, like sharks (scalloped hammerheads aggregate in early June), manta rays and sea lions, but you might also come across rarities like endemic breath-holding marine iguanas and giant mola mola.
In the North Atlantic, the Azores take the prize for best big-animal encounters. This archipelago of volcanic islands is home to mantas and schools of mobula rays, which can be seen by the dozen off Pico Island. Plus, between resident and migrant species, more than 20 types of cetaceans like blue, fin and sperm whales can be found in these waters.
If you’re looking to swim with super pods of sperm whales, make Sri Lanka your next destination. Kalpitiya is known for its resident spinner dolphins as well as sightings of sperm whales and occasional blue whales. Visit between December and mid-April for the best chance to see one of these incredible ocean giants.