Swimming with giants

Ever dreamed of finning beside a whale shark or watching a female humpback nurse her calf? Ten of our top photographers and experts reveal their most incredible underwater encounters – and explain how you can take the plunge and experience them for yourself.

Swimming with giants opening spread

Ever dreamed of finning beside a whale shark or watching a female humpback nurse her calf? Ten of our top photographers and experts reveal their most incredible underwater encounters – and explain how you can take the plunge and experience them for yourself.

1. Whale sharks, Western Australia
Brad Norman is a marine biologist who has been studying whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef since 1994.
Jumping off a boat into crystal-blue oceanic water 50m deep is thrilling enough, but knowing that you’re plunging into the path of the world’s biggest shark – up to perhaps 15m long – really sends your heart into overdrive.
At least 10,000 tourists do this every year at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia, which was recently named a World Heritage site.
There are more than 20 locations worldwide where you can swim with whale sharks, but Ningaloo is perhaps the best site of all; it’s certainly the most famous.
I often relive my first time: as I snorkel languidly at the surface, a creature as big as a bus powers towards me. The shark slides effortlessly past, seemingly unconcerned by my presence.
A giant shark, I say to myself, is within 5m of me – and there is no cage between us. Marine encounters truly don’t get much better.
Now you do it
  • For a list of operators at Ningaloo Reef, visit the Western Australia Tourist Board website.
  • If you go swimming with whale sharks, take a camera and upload your photos to ECOCEAN to help with research and conservation efforts.
Top tip
  • When you enter the water and first see the shark, swim out to the side and stay at least 5m away. Try not to splash.
2. Hammerhead sharks, Red Sea, Sudan
Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch is a photographer and the author of three books on sharks.
Beyond the reef, out in the current, the hammerheads gather in schools. They are most likely to be seen on an early morning dive, but here, off Sanganeb Atoll in the Sudanese Red Sea, you must wait for them to come to you.
I plunge through the thermocline and down to the colder water that the hammerheads prefer. The current is strong, so I work against it with biting fin strokes while controlling my breathing.
I gaze into the crepuscular emptiness then clang my knife against my air tank a few times. The shimmer of a distant ghost appears through the haze; then several others materialise, followed by many more solidifying forms. A school of scalloped hammerhead sharks populates the liquid half-light, their beautifully ugly, flattened heads jerking from side to side.
In a few thrilling seconds, their primitive curiosity is satisfied – I am inedible – and they turn as one to return to a gloom I cannot enter.
Now you do it
  • Schooling scalloped hammerhead sharks can be encountered on healthy offshore reefs throughout the Indo-Pacific including the Red Sea. Famous locations include Cocos Island, off Costa Rica, and the Galápagos Islands.
  • A number of dive operators run trips to see hammerheads, including Diving World and Undersea Hunter.
Top tip
  • Wherever you go, expert local knowledge is vital, as are good diving skills.
3. Sealions, Galápagos islands, Ecuador
Tui De Roy is a wildlife photographer and author who spent 40 years living in the Galápagos and still returns there frequently.
From the moment I hit the water, I know the tables are turned. I thought I was going to be the observer – but I quickly realise that all eyes are on me, and the curious young sealions are eager to engage in rambunctious play.
These underwater aerialists put on quite a show, transforming this undersea realm into a veritable circus. They are full of confidence, reassured by their strength in numbers and bursting with energy, still nourished by their mothers’ milk.
The sealions dart, spin, turn, loop and leap, while blowing bubbles and chasing each other in tight circles.
They egg each other on – some come closer and closer, heading straight for my mask, then veer away adroitly at the last moment, constantly watching my reactions.
Their greatest joy – and mine – comes when I try to imitate them by turning somersaults of my own. My clumsy antics drive them wild, and they circle me in ever-tighter loops.
Their agility makes me feel like a floundering cow, and I nearly drown in my own laughter as I fail miserably to keep up.
Now you do it
Top tip
  • Engage the sealions’ curiosity by copying their movements or swimming in short bursts then stopping. Trying to get too close will only put them off.
4. Orcas, Norway
Zoologist Mark Carwardine is never happier than when swimming with a top marine predator.
Tysfjord is Norway at its deepest, narrowest and moodiest. Winter daylight is in short supply, and the air is very, very cold. We head out to sea in a small boat, and I’m ready for action, dressed in a drysuit, mask and snorkel.
I keep an eye out for the familiar dark dorsal fins of the world’s apex marine predators – killer whales.
Once we’ve spotted a pod, we try to get ahead of it and then jump into the water so that the animals swim right past us. There’s no guarantee that it will work, but I plunge into the frigid fjord anyway and wait.
Staring into its cold, dark depths, I am suddenly engulfed by a huge school of herring. A moment later, I feel a swishing movement and turn to see an adult female orca disappearing into the murk in hot pursuit. For the brief moment she’s in my field of view, the killer whale appears much bigger than she did from the sanctuary of the boat.
Moments later the entire pod surrounds me, stunning fish with slaps of their powerful tails before picking off their prey, one by one. I am floating right in the middle of their meal.
Now you do it
  • The number of local orcas has decreased in recent years because the herring have thinned out.
  • Orca Tysfjord runs trips to swim with them between mid-October and January. 
Top tip
  • Don’t try to chase after the orcas – just lie still on the surface and watch.
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