Amazing underwater shark photographs, plus photos of mantas, whales, and dolphins
Bull shark closeup, in Fiji. I’m terrified just looking at it! Photo by Alexander Safonov
Underwater photographer Alexander Safonov took some amazing photos – close-up shots of sharks, dolphins, gigantic manta rays, sperm whales, and more. Buy these photos here
Check out the full slideshow of Alexander Safonov’s impressive underwater photography.
Photographer Alexander Safonov is originally from Voronezh, Russia. He’s lived in eastern Asia since 1998, spending a decade in Japan first and currently residing in Hong Kong, according to a profile in the Telegraph. Buy a copy of his photographs here.
The Marianas Trench is located just northeast of Indonesia.
The world’s deepest point in the oceans is the Challenger Deep which is found within the Marianas Trench. The Marianas Trench is a depression (deep cracks) in the floor of the western Pacific Ocean. Marianas Trench is formed (as other ocean trenches) as a result of the oceanic plate being pushed against a continental plate whereby causing the oceanic plate to pushed downward making deep fissure. Its location is east of the Mariana Islands and is 1,554 miles long and averages 44 miles wide (see diagrams below). The Marianas Trench depth is 36,200 feet (11,033 m or 11.03 km).
Swimming in Shark Infested Waters – SCUBA Diving with sharks, no cage
I went swimming in shark infested waters – and lived to tell about it!
We went SCUBA diving in the Semporna Archipelago, and sharks were everywhere! This was only my second time seeing whitetip reef sharks while SCUBA diving so I was still getting comfortable with the idea of it. Eventually I got really excited to see (and photograph sharks – we saw a dozens of sharks per dive!
I’ve received tons of questions about diving with sharks, so I’ll tell you about it here. I’ll also attempt to dispel some myths about sharks.
Aren’t sharks dangerous??
This is the most common question I get when people hear my excitement about swimming with sharks. The short answer: No. We’ve all seen the movie Jaws, but not all sharks are the same. The overwhelming majority of sharks are not dangerous (unless provoked). These were reef sharks – people commonly refer to them as “vegetarian” sharks! They’re just as scared of us, as we’re the same size as them. Whitetip Reef sharks are curious and will swim right up to you, but aren’t often aggressive unless provoked.
Are there dangerous sharks in Borneo?
The places where I went are safe when diving safely. Sipadan and the Semporna Archipelago also has a reputation for having Hammer Head Sharks, but the divers I met said they hadn’t seen them in a long time.
[Note – unlike what my dive master told me, whitetip sharks are not actually “vegetarians” – their diet is explained below]
Whitetip Reef Sharks
Whitetip Reef Sharks get their name from their fins, both of which are white tipped. Whitetip Reef Sharks can be found swimming alongside us and the other fish. They also like to hang out near the ocean floor and in caves.
“Wait, you went diving with sharks and weren’t even protected in a cage??”
Do you need a cage to dive with sharks?
Nope. I live dangerously. Seriously, with a few precautions, not all sharks are aggressive and a cage isn’t necessary for Borneo and in many other regions of the world, assuming you’re not deliberately doing stupid things (listed below). If you treat them with respect and are smart, they’re not the vicious predators you see in movies like “Jaws.”
“I would do anything … but I won’t do that” –
Are all shark species safe to go diving without a cage?
No! I wouldn’t seek out Bull Sharks or Tiger Sharks, or the Great White, the “most feared predator on earth,” to dive with. There are people that do (including some in the comments below), and SCUBA diving tourism is souring, but it’s all about comfort level and education. I would never want to deliberately confuse a shark as to their food – I wouldn’t dive with a group that deliberately throws dead fish and blood in the water (called “chum” – more on “chumming” from wikipedia here), and I don’t recommend you do either. I wouldn’t go spear fishing, as they’ll try to steal catches. Some say they also hear the sound of a spear gun and respond in seconds. I also wouldn’t recommend that you make physical contact with a shark, tease a shark, or otherwise mess with their environment. All three of these are messing with the shark’s environment, and leads to accidents. Why increase your risk and make it dangerous? Perhaps these things will change over time, but as of now this is where my comfort level is. I was just swimming and photographing in their world, and loving it!
What do whitetip reef sharks eat?
If they don’t eat people…what do whitetip reef sharks eat? Whitetip Sharks hunt at night, and like to eat octopus, crabs, and lobsters, and hang out on the ocean floor near potential meals. They have a blunt snout so when they’re getting into caves, they can still snatch some lunch. They also mix into their diet some bony fish, including eels, squirrelfishes, snappers, surgeonfishes, triggerfish, damselfishes, parrotfishes, and goatfishes.
Even after seeing dozens of reef sharks in the Semporna Archipelago, it was still exciting!
Reef Sharks come in 3 varieties –
Whitetip Reef Shark, Triaenodon obesus (sometimes written as White Tipped Reef Sharks or White Tip Reef Shark)
SCUBA Diving in Sipadan in the Semporna Archipelago in Malaysian Borneo — It was my first time swimming with sharks – they were everywhere, and didn’t seem to care much about us swimming a few feet away. Sipadan dive photos below, including sharks, sea turtles, harlequin sweetlips, school of jackfish, surgeonfish, purple antihas, big eye emperors, yellow mask angelfish, triggerfish, butterfly fish, parrotfish, unicorn fish, and more!
A graceful Sea Turtle swims next to us during our SCUBA dive
(Press SL for Slideshow, FS for Full Screen):
Taking (good) photos underwater is really challenging! You’re aiming at a moving target in less than optimal lighting conditions. At this point I’m still very much a beginner diving, still getting comfortable equalizing and improving my buoyancy, so I couldn’t really focus on the photography as much as I would have liked.
See the full Sipadan slideshow of my Semporna Archipelago diving experience in Borneo (Malaysia), including more photos of white tipped reef sharks and sea turtles, as well underwater photography of Yellowtail Barracudas, Harlequinn Sweetlips, Sea Turtles, Lionfish, Jackfish, Parrotfish, Yellowmask Angelfish, Vlaming’s Unicornfish, Big Eyed Emperors, Triggerfish, and more. I loved diving in Sipadan!
Below is the slide show with captions on the fish:
Introducing Thresher Sharks! Imagine seeing a shark with a long tail that can be as long as the total body length. Thresher Sharks can only be consistently spotted in a few places in the world, so when was in the Philippines I had to see them up close.
What’s a Thresher Shark?
In this post I’ll cover why thresher sharks have such long tails, what thresher sharks eat, how big thresher sharks typically are, and where to find thresher sharks, in addition to showing some videos of threshers in motion. I’ll also detail my specific experience SCUBA diving to see thresher sharks at the bottom of this page as well.
Thresher sharks are mostly known for the size of their tail (“upper caudal fin lobe”), which is typically equal to the length of the rest of their body! Check out this below photo:
Why do Thresher Sharks have large tails?
Thresher sharks are active predators – they use their huge tails not only to swim, but also to swat and stun much smaller prey fish. Whack! When hunting schooling fish, thresher sharks are known to “slap” the water, herding and stunning prey.
Thresher Shark diet – what do Thresher Sharks eat?
Thresher sharks eat squid, octopuses, crustaceans and small schooling fish such as bluefish, mackerel, needlefish, lancetfish, lanternfish, and more.
How big are Thresher sharks?
Threshers range from 8 feet long on the small end, to as big as 20-25 feet long! That’s 2.5 meters to 7.5 meters. 1,100 lbs!
The scientific name of the three most common thresher sharks are Alopias vulpinus, Alopias superciliosus, andAlopias pelagicus. Below is a diagram from this site:
How are thresher sharks like the dolphins?? Thresher sharks are one of the few shark species known to jump fully out of the water, making turns like dolphins, this behaviour is called breaching. Here’s a photo and example for a thresher shark that wandered towards Europe, jumping out of the water.
Videos of thresher sharks:
Where can you find Thresher Sharks?
They are generally not found deeper than 500 meters (1,640ft). You can find thresher sharks everywhere from off the coast of southern California to South Africa, but there’s not many dive sites that see them with such regularity.
The best place in the world to spot thresher sharks is in the Philippines off the coast of Malapascua Island in the Visayan Sea, located across a shallow strait from the northernmost tip of Cebu Island, at the sunken island sea mount of Monad Shoal at a dive site that’s now called Shark Wall.
Why is Monad Shoal the best place to spotThresher Sharks?
Why do thresher sharks go there? Monad Shoal is near the Filipino island of Malapascua – it’s a sunken island at 18-24m whose sides drop off to 230m. The thresher sharks live and hunt in this deep water for most of the day, but in the early morning, before it gets too light, they come up to the Shoal, attracted by its “cleaning stations.” Here they have a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship with the small fish called cleaning wrasse, which eat dead skin and bacteria from the shark’s body, its gills, and even inside its mouth. Because the cleaning benefits these huge animals, the sharks would never think of eating the wrasse as an early morning snack. The cleaning stations are like a carwash for fish!
My experience SCUBA diving to see Thresher Sharks
Most boring dive ever! While I find thresher sharks to be fascinating, the actual dive was actually the least interesting SCUBA Diving experience I’ve ever had. You depart around 430am, in order to arrive before sunrise. The top of the sea mount is about 80 feet down. There’s almost no fish or coral and once you get to the optimal viewing spot, you just sit on the ocean floor. Yes really. Visibility was poor. We sat on the ocean floor doing nothing but waiting and watching for 24 minutes of the dive. Eventually we were rewarded with a thresher shark whizzing past us. Other divers said people often spot Manta rays and schools of devil rays, in addition to hammer head sharks and reef sharks. Also common near the cleaning station are batfish, flutemouths, barracuda, tuna, mantis shrimp, pipefish, scorpionfish, free-swimming lionfish, moorish idols, schooling bannerfish, unicornfish, squid, octopus and various moray eels.
This 1st video below is a 9minute chronicle of the experience that’s fairly similar to ours (except he saw a Manta Ray, aka Devil Ray):
2 more videos of thresher shark videos:
How to get to Malapascua to see Thresher Sharks?
Getting to Malapascua Island to see Thresher Sharks isn’t easy. Fly into Cebu, the second largest city in the Philippines. Then arrange a private taxi for 4 hours up to a tiny town of Maya (there’s an unreliable bus but I don’t recommend it – it randomly doesn’t come on many days). You’ll need one of the local fisherman to take you to the boat for a small fee, and then there’s a ferry that “leaves promptly at 8am” (more likely whenever it’s full). They operate on frustrating Philippine Time / Filipino Time, so schedules are never strictly adhered to. That’s quite a bit of effort, but once you get there, Malapascua Island is wonderful!
While I’ve never gone snorkeling with so few fish in Malapascua, Philippines, the water was clear and we had a great group and our first ever encounter with a Sea Snake! I’ll post about the Sea Snake soon, but in the meantime, here are some fun pics from our snorkeling experience below.
With hardly any fish and great visibility, we mostly just played. Our international group of friends were from Italy, Sweden, England, Holland, and the U.S.
I’m often asked, is there good snorkeling in Malapascua? If you’re looking for clear water, it’s wonderful. If you’re looking for lots of fish, I don’t recommend. With that said, I had an amazing time!
Imagine being surrounded by Grey Reef Sharks while SCUBA diving – it’s all captured in this awesome 5-minute diving video of Grey Reef Sharks in Nassau, Bahamas, at the Ray of Hope shipwreck. I love the ominous music too. Check out the video of SCUBA diving with these “Apex Predators” below:
Imagine snorkeling with massive Whale Sharks! They’re the largest fish in the sea, and they migrate right through The Philippines annually. It provided a perfect opportunity to not only see whale sharks up close, but get in the water and actually swim and snorkel with them. Wow. It was certainly one of the highlights of my trip!
How big are Whale Sharks? Huge. The first one we saw while snorkeling was about 20 feet long; they can grow to the size of a school bus! Average size is more than 30-feet and 20,000 pounds. They can grow much larger; a whale shark caught near Taiwan in 1994 was 79,000 pounds, and that’s not even the largest ever! (catching whale sharks is now banned)
Is a Whale Shark a Whale or a Shark? It’s a Shark. It’s a whale-sized shark. Rhincodon typus – the largest fish species still around (I just learned the term is “extant” – the opposite of extinct)
How close were you? Very close (see below photo). I was in the water swimming with whale sharks, and they were so close that I didn’t even see the whale shark at first because I was too close. I looked down and only saw cloudy water, but my friend Julian pulled me over a few feet so I was directly over the dorsal fin. OMG. The water wasn’t cloudy – those were spots on the shark about 5 feet below us. If I accidentally went vertical I could have kicked it with my fin! [see below photo]
Is it safe?? Yes! They’re rather docile and aren’t bothered by humans swimming around them.
Were you in a cage? Nope! We went in the water with massive whale sharks without a cage. Lucky for us, they have no interest in eating us.
What do Whale Sharks eat? Lucky for us, their favorite meal is plankton and tiny fish near the water’s surface. They eat algae and microscopic plants. Their mouths are 4-5 feet wide with 300 teeth (which play no role in eating). It’s a filter feeder – they leave their mouth open for small fish and the clouds of eggs and sperm during mass spawning.
How fast are they? They weren’t moving fast at all – slow enough that we went snorkeling with the Whale Shark for about 20 minutes before he swam off, and then found another for about 35 minutes. Reeeeally cool experience!
Whale Sharks are also known as – Whale Sharks are called “butanding” in Donsol, Philippines, where I was. They’re called “pez dama” in much of Latin America. They’re called “Sapodilla Tom” in Belize, named after the area of the Belize Barrier Reef where they’re often seen. In Vietnam, where the whale shark often known as a deity, it’s called “Ca Ong.”
Where can you go Whale Sharks snorkeling?
We were in Donsol, a known migration area, but there’s lots of places to find, see, and swim with Whale Sharks. Near the US, I’ve read about sightings in Mexico (Isla Mujeres), Belize, Puerto Rico, Panama (Isla Coiba), Honduras (the Bay Islands), and more.
Other places to see whale sharks, according to wikipedia and the book Sharks of the World: Thailand, the Maldives, Western Australia (Ningaloo Reef, Christmas Island), Taiwan, Tofo Beach in Mozambique, Sodwana Bay (Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park) in South Africa, the Galapagos Islands, the Seychelles, West Malaysia, islands off eastern peninsular Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Oman.
When to go whale shark snorkeling in Donsol?
We went to Donsol in the Philippines. I was in Donsol in late March, which was ideal – the peak time to see whale sharks in Donsol is February through April. Whale shark season is from December to May.
Who I went with: I went with Gabbi (from Sweden) and met up with Julian and Christie (from Germany), and we met Sarah there. I traveled with Gabbi all over the Philippines, met up with Sarah to travel throughout Vietnam, and met Julian and Christie in Borneo and went on to meet up in Singapore and all over the Philippines. The four of us went on to meet up in Boracay, one of our favorite parts of our trips. Awesome!
Getting ready for whale shark snorkeling in tiny Donsol, in The Philippines
Swimming with whale sharks was an amazing experience – you’re swimming with whale sharks! It’s definitely an experience you’ll never forget.
The boat is specially designed for these whale shark snorkeling trips — we all get on this little platform and then drop in for snorkeling as soon as we locate a whale shark. Just as we jumped in someone yelled “Free Willy!” (from the movie)
Learn how to photograph the distinctive patterning and scarring on whale shark here, which are used to uniquely identify individuals for long-term, mark-recapture analysis.
Here’s more info on going swimming with whale sharks right in Mexico in Isla Mujeres (a short ferry from Cancun) – check out this post from Jack and Jill Travel.
More photos of whale sharks found here: 1, and here.
Underwater photos from my SCUBA diving experience in amazing Sipadan, within the Semporna Archipelago (in Borneo / Malaysia), the best diving I’ve ever done. I’ve posted assorted images from my first time using the underwater camera when diving. Photos from my Borneo diving adventure in the Semporna Archipelago are below (Press SL for Slideshow, FS for Full Screen):
Photos from my trip to the Semporna Archipelago for scuba diving (Borneo, Malaysia). I caught photos of various types of sharks (mostly White Tipped Reef Sharks), Yellowtail Barracudas, Harlequinn Sweetlips, Sea Turtles, Lionfish, Jackfish, Parrotfish, Yellowmask Angelfish, Vlaming’s Unicornfish, Big Eyed Emperors, Triggerfish, Butterfly Fish, Unicorn Fish, Surgeon Fish, Goat Fish, Bat Fish, Purple Antihas, Damsel fish, and various types of Wrasse.
Sipadan in the Semporna Archipelago was the best SCUBA diving I’ve ever done; it’s often rated by many as one of the top dive destinations in the world. The whole Semporna Archipelago was amazing!
Jacques Cousteau referred to Sipadan in the Semporna Archipelago as ‘an untouched piece of art’ – the crown jewel of the diving is Sipadan. Lucky for you, I rented an underwater camera to capture some of the experience, including lots of sharks! Here’s some of my underwater photos from Sipadan.
I was still learning how to dive (buoyancy, breathing, equalizing, etc) when I added underwater photography to the mix, so there’s much improvement to be made in future dives, but this should give you a feel for the experience.
To get there from KL I flew to Tawau, on Malaysian Borneo. Then I took a road trip to a sleepy fishing town called Semporna, and the next morning I took a boat out to Mabul, my home base foor SCUBA diving on the Semporna Archipelago. Some areas in Borneo take quite a bit of time effort to get to, but this was worth it.
See the full Sipadan slideshow of my Semporna Archipelago diving experience in Borneo (Malaysia), including more photos of white tipped reef sharks and sea turtles, as well underwater photography of Yellowtail Barracudas, Harlequinn Sweetlips, Sea Turtles, Lionfish, Jackfish, Parrotfish, Yellowmask Angelfish, Vlaming’s Unicornfish, Big Eyed Emperors, Triggerfish, and more.
Sipadan is the only oceanic island in Malaysia, rising 600 metres (2,000 ft) from the seabed. It is located in the Celebes Sea off the east coast of Sabah, East Malaysia (which is on the island of Borneo). It was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct volcanic cone that took thousands of years to develop. Sipadan is located at the heart of the Indo-Pacific basin, the centre of one of the richest marine habitats in the world. More than 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species have been classified in this ecosystem.