Video: Great White!

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updated 9/19/2008 10:02:53 AM ET 2008-09-19T14:02:53

The only sounds are breath and bubbles.

A tuna head floats just feet away. I peer through the blue to the limits of my visibility, straining to see that tell-tale shape emerge from the murky edges of the water. Suddenly, a frantic tap on my shoulder from a fellow diver forces me to pivot to my right, and there, barely a foot away, is one the world’s greatest predators — his black eye staring right into my wide blue ones as he slowly glides past the cage.

I had met my first Great White Shark.

The fear elicited by sharks — by the very idea of something toothy and hungry lurking beneath the surface — is primeval. But it is also, for the most part, unfounded. Sharks don’t want to eat humans. We’re far too bony. They want to eat fish or seals or even plankton.

Sharks are actually in far more danger from us than we are from them. Millions are slaughtered for their fins every year, putting dozens of species in danger of extinction. And if we lose the apex predator in the ocean, the whole eco-system is in danger. Already, scientists have traced the shortage of sharks to the shortage of shellfish in U.S. waters. What else might disappear from our oceans along with the shark?

Fortunately, there are places in the world where you can still see these powerful predators in their natural habitat, dive with them — even swim alongside them. While diving with some of the bigger sharks is an inherently perilous activity (those teeth weren’t made for smiling), steel cages and experienced shark professionals minimize the danger. And it might just turn out to be one of the most exhilarating and exciting experiences of your life.

10 places to swim with sharks

South Africa
From Gansbaai, the self billed “World Capital of the Great White Shark”, you can get on a dive boat to the infamous Shark Alley. Rumor has it that there are more Great Whites in that one stretch of ocean than anywhere else on the planet. And at nearby Seal Island, you might even get to witness an astonishing sight: Great White sharks literally leaping out of the water as they hunt seals. Plenty of diving operations offer you the chance to see the sharks underwater in a cage, or to enjoy them from the relative safety of the boat. And many operators don’t require you to be a certified diver either, so snorkelers are welcome.


Guadalupe Island, Mexico
For Americans looking for something closer to home, try Guadalupe Island — about 144 miles from the coast of Baja California. I had my first experience cage diving with Great White sharks here in 2007, and not only was the water warm and surprisingly clear, but we saw Great Whites on every single dive. And seeing those massive, magnificent animals — I once heard them described as camper vans with teeth — in the wild was the most amazing experience of my life. This excursion is an excellent introduction to shark diving because certification isn't required.

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Galapagos Islands
As well as the spectacular array of fauna that inspired Charles Darwin to realize his theory of evolution, this Ecuadorian paradise is also home to some of the world’s best shark dive sites. You can see huge schools of Hammerhead sharks and dozens of Whitetip sharks, Silky Sharks, Whale Sharks and of course, Galapagos Sharks.


Cocos Island, Costa Rica
For experienced divers only, this island off the coast of Costa Rica has more sharks per cubic yard of water than anywhere else in the world. Divers regularly see huge schools of hammerhead sharks — literally hundreds of them swimming together. And there are dozens of other sharks swimming around this island, including Tiger sharks, Whitetip sharks, Silvertip sharks, Blacktip sharks, Silky sharks, Galapagos sharks and Whale Sharks. Cocos Island is a must-see on any shark lover’s bucket list — mine included.


The Maldives
The honeymoon destination of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes has much more to offer than just sun, sea and sand. It has sharks. More than 26 different species call this island country in the Indian Ocean home, including Hammerhead sharks, Whale sharks, Whitetip sharks and Grey Reef sharks.


The Bahamas
Warm seas mean plenty of sharks. You can snorkel above Caribbean Reef sharks (that’s the way I introduced myself to shark diving before jumping in with Great Whites), and watch them feed at the surface from the safety of the boat. Or, for the more adventurous diver, you can watch as a professional shark wrangler hand-feeds Reefies on the ocean floor right in front of you. The Bahamas is also home to the Tiger shark, Great Hammerhead shark, Lemon shark, Silky shark, Nurse shark and the notorious Bull shark.


Malapascua, Philippines
Dive companies here virtually guarantee that you will see the elusive and rare Thresher shark in the waters off Malapascua. And that’s not all that this tiny island offers. It’s also a popular place to see Hammerhead sharks, Whitetip sharks, Blacktip sharks, Bamboo sharks and Nurse sharks.


Video: Whale (shark) of a good time

Isla Holbox, Mexico
This is one of the best places in the world to see the biggest fish in the ocean, and the gentlest shark of them all, the Whale Shark.  Called “Dominos” by the locals — thanks to the distinctive white spots on their backs — these huge fish can grow up to 30 feet long. But they only eat plankton, so swimmers are perfectly safe. To protect the sharks, the Mexican government only allows snorkelers, accompanied by a guide, to swim with them. I spent three days doing exactly that this summer, and believe me, there is nothing quite like swimming right in front of one of the biggest mouths in the sea.


Red Sea, Egypt
Visitors to this world-renowned dive destination have seen dozens of species, including Grey Reef sharks, Silvertip sharks, Silky sharks, Hammerhead sharks and Whale Sharks. You might even see the increasingly rare Oceanic Whitetip shark, the predator suspected of eating so many shipwrecked sailors and plane crash victims over the years. And at the Ras Mohamed dive site, there have even been rare sightings of Great Whites.


Rhode Island
The fictional “Jaws” was actually inspired by real shark attacks along the New Jersey shore in 1916. Nowadays, you’re far more likely to find Eastern Seaboard sharks off the coast of Rhode Island instead. Blue sharks are most prevalent, but divers can also encounter Mako sharks and Basking sharks. There are rare reports of Thresher shark sightings, and even the occasional Great White.


Tina Cone is a producer for MSNBC News and is an avid shark diver. If you'd like to comment on her adventures or tell her about yours, send her an e-mail.

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