Diving: five of the best underwater encounters

Although there’s no official hierarchy for aquatic animals, most divers agree that must-sees include manta rays, great white, whale, tiger or hammerhead sharks.

It’s possible to see these creatures on a recreational dive but there are excursions geared to optimise your chances of seeing them. While there are never any guarantees underwater, here are some safe bets for spotting the underwater big five.

Great white shark

Where? South Africa is the best spot for seeing great whites but it has to be done from the comfort of a cage. Most cage diving takes place in the waters off Cape Town and involves chumming or baiting the water to attract the sharks. You are ensconced in your cage but as the sharks often ram it, the experience is adrenalin-fuelled and not for the faint-hearted. Great whites can be seen all year, but the best time is between May and August.

Also see them in: Southern Australia.

Sample package:Dive Worldwide offers a three-night great shark weekend to Cape Town, staying at the three-star Breakwater Lodge on a bed-and-breakfast basis from £1,315 per person, including return flights, transfers and two days’ shark diving in June 2008.

Manta ray

Where? One of the most graceful creatures in the ocean, manta rays are somewhat elusive. The best place to see them is at a cleaning station – where large fish gather to be cleansed of parasites by smaller fish. Southern Mozambique is one of the best places to see manta rays and its Manta Reef has three main cleaning stations. There are regular sightings of devil rays, whale sharks and other pelagic fish.

Also see them in: Djibouti in eastern Africa is good for mantas, as are Borneo and Australia.

Sample package:Dive Worldwide offers a 10-day holiday in Mozambique staying at the three-star Barra Lodge from £1,650 per person, including flights, transfers and a dive package in January 2008.

Whale sharks

Where? Little is known about these gentle giants, which can reach 15 metres in length. Their movements are unpredictable but they’re often spotted in the waters around Djibouti, off the coast of eastern Africa. Although they can be seen all year round, October to January is the best time to spot them, when the plankton-rich waters attract many pelagic species. Divers may also see manta rays and dolphins.

Also see them in: Ningaloo Marine Park, off the coast of Western Australia, has whale sharks and giant manta rays between March and June. Some islands off the coast of Borneo have a short season and in recent years, the southern coast of Kenya has been attracting them between November and February.

Sample package:Regaldive offers six nights on a liveaboard, one night in a Star hotel to Djibouti, from £1,449 per person in January 2008, including return flights, transfers and all diving.

Tiger sharks

Where? The only place tiger shark sightings are guaranteed is at Aliwal Shoal, off the coast of Durban in South Africa. The tigers, which can be between four and six metres long, swim up very close and if they get too frisky, the guides put themselves between you and the shark.

Also see them in: It’s a bit of a gamble trying to spot these elusive creatures. They sometimes pop up in the Red Sea and the Bahamas but it’s possible to do many dives without ever seeing one.

Sample package:Tony Backhurst Scuba offers nine nights’ half-board accommodation at the three-star Tree Lodge Cabin at Sodwana Bay near Durban from £2,600 per person in January 2008, including flights, transfers and five days’ diving, including two tiger shark dives.

Shark-feeding dive

If you’re not ready for the great white and tiger sharks, try a shark-feeding dive in the Bahamas. It involves reef sharks, some of which are more than two metres in length. The dive is organised by Stuart Cove’s Dive Center in Nassau.

Sample package:Aquatours offers seven nights’ bed and breakfast at the three-star Orange Hill Resort from £1,092 per person, including return flights and transfers in January 2008. The two-dive Shark Adventure costs £75 and 10 dives over five days at Stuart’s Cove will set customers back £199.

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