1. Manta rays, the Maldives
Manta rays are incredible to dive with as they effortlessly ‘fly’ underwater using their wings, which can have a span of over 20ft.
The Maldives is home to over 2,000, which migrate year-round to different islands depending on the monsoon season. The best place to spot them is at pinnacles and cleaning stations (sections of reef where cleaner fish gather to pick dead skin and parasites off large marine animals and fish). The weaker currents here will suit less-advanced divers. The mating season (Oct/Nov and Mar/Apr) is when the rays are most numerous.
The pinnacles are their favourite feeding grounds, where they take advantage of nutrient-rich currents being pushed towards the surface. This is the ideal place to dive alongside a group of mantas.
Dive rating: Depends on the dive site, but at Manta Point all levels of diver (PADI Open Water Diver and up) depending on the current.
Depth: Around 12 metres, but at other parts of the Maldives it’s possible to snorkel with manta rays too.
How to do it: cinnamonhotels.com backpackerbanter.com
2. Bait fish, Sisters Rocks, Carriacou, Grenada
Having deftly manoeuvred the small craft into position, Georg Schmitt yells “Dive, dive!” and we quickly roll and splash, plunging rapidly towards the bottom. The flow catches us and we join a current that whisks us past giant soft corals, sea whips and bountiful gorgonians. Above us, purple Creole wrasse rain down as we look upward through the crystalline water to see our boat following our trail of bubbles. The stormy seas crash against the pillars of rock, creating a wash of white and turquoise, when suddenly the sky darkens and we’re engulfed in a cloud of bait fish.
Huddling as a group, the fish pulse in the water, moving together in a murmuration of motion. My dive partner, Conny, points her camera towards the sky and the bait fish swirl in a vortex around her. A small shark zips below us, finding refuge in a cave, but it’s the bait fish that hold our attention.
Dive rating: PADI Advanced Open Water Diver, comfortable with drift diving.
Depth: 12-30 metres. Bait fish typically seen in 2-12 metres.
How to do it: arawakdivers.com
3. Whale Sharks, Oman
You can bet that pretty near the top of every diver’s wish list is an encounter with the biggest fish in the sea, the whale shark, a filter feeder that lives in warm tropical climes and lives up to 80 years. My chance to tick that one off came a few years ago while on a liveaboard in Oman. It was right place, right time: autumn.
The first encounters were while snorkelling, which is good, but I hoped better was to come. It eventually happened when we were least expecting it. We were diving on a pretty reef, looking for tiny critters, when I caught sight of something big out of the corner of my eye. I was amazed to see an eight-metre whale shark cruise by just above us. They can grow up to 12 metres, so not the biggest, but still pretty impressive. And while they can move fast when they want to, this one just took a lazy swim past, giving us as long as possible to enjoy the view.
Dive rating: PADI Advanced Open Water Diver or equivalent, with 30-plus dives.
Depth: Max 30 metres.
Find out more: To see whale sharks in the autumn in Oman or year-round in the Maldives, contact Regal Dive.
4. Great white shark, Durban, South Africa
I’d just finished a dive when someone shouted that there was a shark behind me. I turned and saw a fin disappear three metres away. Thinking it was a whale shark, I grabbed my camera and finned towards where it’d gone. The visibility wasn’t good and I swam into the side of a huge great white shark. I don’t know who was more surprised. She had massive eyes that looked straight through me, then she was gone.
Dive rating: PADI Advanced Open Water Diver.
Depth: 30 metres.
How to do it: Great white encounters off Durban are scarce; most divers head to Aliwal Shoal (off KwaZulu-Natal). calypsoushaka.co.za
5. Mimic octopus, Bohol, Philippines
The mimic octopus is the only creature known to mimic multiple animals. What’s more, it’s clever enough to select which creature to impersonate to present the greatest threat to its most imminent predator. Scientists have observed the octopus mimicking the banded sea snake while under attack from damselfishes; other impersonations have included a lionfish and a flatfish.
They’re most often seen in the Lembeh Strait, Indonesia, though I’ve spotted them in the eastern corner of Bohol, a Philippine island.
Dive rating: PADI Open Water Diver and up.
Depth: Areas with sand or silt at depths of under 15 metres.
How to do it: diveworldwide.com
6. Dolphins, Mozambique
It starts with intense waiting: your eyes are small slits against the sun reflecting off the water, your whole body tensed, waiting for that flash of dorsal fin or cloud of breath. Then a sleek grey body leaps out the back of a wave and a shout goes up: “There! In the surf!”.
Now we watch. It looks like they’re playing — good; we don’t get in the water with pods that are sleeping or mating. Then… it’s a go! Masks on, deep breath, and a quiet slide off the boat. Suddenly, the water is alive with the clicking and whistling of 20-plus dolphins. We hear them before we see them, as they scan us. ‘Who are you? What are your intentions? Want to play?’
With one big breath and a strong kick down, I leave the sun and accept their invitation. Two young males leave the pod and swim around me, the coveted ‘circle-swim’, the dolphin equivalent of a hug and friendship.
Keeping eye contact, I swim faster and faster as they set the pace without seeming to move a flipper. A mother and baby come in close — miniature light-grey body, still slightly uncoordinated, sticking close to mum’s side, always touching as they race alongside me. Is the mother showing me her young one, or is she showing me to the baby? Together, we swim to the surface and I gasp for a breath, echoed by the puffs of dolphins breathing around us. We are kin; cousins of a kind as they breathe and weave and play around us.
Dive rating: Swimming ability.
Depth: 3-10 metres.
How to do it: iamwateroceantravel.com
7. Pygmy SeaHorse, Tulamben, Bali
Finding your first pygmy seahorse is really quite magical, and will make you feel pretty proud. Not only is it the smallest seahorse species in the world, but it’s a master of disguise, frequently hiding in matching coloured sea fans. This camouflage expert is so good, it wasn’t until 1969 that it was discovered, completely by accident, in New Caledonia. To spot it, you’ll have to be patient — although that’s no bad thing; it’s a great opportunity to test your buoyancy control!
Dive rating: PADI Open Water Diver and up.
Depth: From 16-40 metres.
How to do it: baliscuba.com
8. Orcas, Norway
There’s something magical about snorkelling just above the Arctic Circle, in the far north of Norway, where you can spot the Northern Lights and some fantastic wildlife below. It’s here you can find one of the world’s largest gathering of orcas. November to February is the best time to go, when large shoals of herring seek shelter in the fjords of Troms before migrating south to spawn. These attract the orcas, as well as huge amounts of humpback whales.
Dive rating: You should be in good health and have previous snorkelling experience.
Depth: Surface snorkelling.
How to do it: waterproof-expeditions.com
Published in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)