Are you an ocean lover looking for an out-there vacation, or perhaps you’re a seasoned diver searching for your next adventure? Either way, seeking out the world’s best marine life encounters will help you create the ultimate travel wishlist.

There are hundreds of ocean destinations and even more bucket list marine species to discover within them: sharks, mantas, whales, and cuttlefish, to name a few. But visiting the right place at the right time will take your wildlife experience — and vacation — one step further.

From closer-than-close shark sightings to beautiful sea life mating displays, here are 14 of the best marine life encounters and where you’ll need to go to find them.

Scuba diver approaching a giant sardine bait ball in South Africa's Sardine Run

1. Seek Thrills With South Africa’s Sardine Run

During May and July, millions of sardines make an annual migration up the southeast coast of South Africa, followed by a frenzied entourage of hungry predators. Darting seabirds — like gannets and penguins — join pelagic hunters, such as dolphins, sharks, and gigantic whales. The Sardine Run is always challenging and never guaranteed. Still, if you’re lucky enough to witness it, you’ll be left exhilarated by one of the best marine life encounters on the planet.

divers see a manta ray during a night dive

2. Watch the Moonlight Manta Ballet in Kona

Manta rays feature on any scuba diving bucket list, even by day. But, as the sun sets on Hawaii’s ‘Big Island’, as many as 30 to 40 of these majestic giants take center stage in a spectacular underwater acrobatic show. Twisting, turning, frolicking, and dancing among the beams of light, they glide effortlessly between the divers below and the snorkelers above. When it comes to outstanding night diving and prime Hawaii marine life, Kona is as good as it gets.

Golden jellyfish swim in the sunlight

3. Be Surrounded by Jellyfish in Palau

Jellyfish Lake in Palau is around 12,000 years old and contains thousands, if not millions, of golden jellyfish. They are entirely harmless to humans, and for a truly ethereal wildlife encounter, you can swim amongst them as they migrate across the lake in search of sunshine. A toxic layer at the bottom of the lake means scuba diving isn’t allowed. However, freedivers and snorkelers will definitely want to add this world-famous UNESCO site to their marine life wishlist.


4. Meet Migrating Manatees at Florida’s Crystal River

When the Gulf of Mexico’s temperatures drop between November and March, hundreds of manatees migrate into the warmer freshwater springs of Crystal River. Some even stay year-round within a resident community. Florida is the only place in North America where you can legally swim with these inquisitive-but-gentle mammals. More often than not, they’ll come very, very close to you, providing an unforgettable activity for the whole family.

A thresher shark in Malapascua in the Philippines

5. Get Closer to Thresher Sharks at Malapascua Island

With puppy-dog eyes and a whip-like tail used to stun prey, threshers are undoubtedly one of the most photogenic shark species. They’re also incredibly shy, making close-up observations few and far between. That’s why Malapascua Island — near Cebu, Philippines — offers some of the world’s top shark diving. When day breaks at Monad Shoal, pelagic threshers gather around cleaning stations. It promises almost-guaranteed, year-round sightings of this endangered marine species.

The glowing blue dots of bioluminescent ostracods in the Caribbean, a courtship display that looks like underwater fireflies

6. Marvel at an Underwater Light Show in St. Croix

The wonderful and weird mating habits of animals often go hand-in-hand with the best marine life encounters. In particular, St. Croix (one of the British Virgin Islands) promises a night dive with a shimmering difference. In one of the most stunning courtships on earth, male Caribbean ostracods (tiny crustaceans) release a glowing, bioluminescent substance into the water to attract females. This ‘String of Pearls’ illuminates the seascape in an enchanting, firefly-like parade you won’t want to miss.

dive in europe with seals

7. Play with Seals in the Farne Islands

The UK is home to nearly half of the world’s grey seal population. In particular, the Farne Islands has one of the biggest colonies, with around 5,000 individuals — and they’re renowned for their playful nature. Seals love buzzing snorkelers or divers. Indeed, they won’t hesitate to give your fins a quick nibble or even plant a kiss on your camera! Brave the North Sea’s colder waters, and you’ll be rewarded with one of the most joyful animal interactions in the ocean.

cold water diving destinations

8. See Humpbacks Under Norway’s Northern Lights

While destinations like Tonga are celebrated for close-up humpback action, it’s possible to make sightings of these peaceful pelagics even more magical. Blend the icy climates of Norway with good timing and plenty of luck, and you might get a rare glimpse of migrating humpback whales playing beneath the aurora borealis. These northern lights turn the sky into a moving canvas of green, pink, and yellow. It’s a mesmerizing backdrop for one of the best marine life encounters.


9. Come Face-to-Face with Australia’s Great Whites

With an intimidating appearance and negative media portrayal, great white sharks are often condemned as monsters. Fortunately, conservation-led, natural cage diving trips are helping people overcome these misconceptions alongside adrenaline-pumping adventures. At the Neptune Islands in Australia, divers descend in cages for a breathtaking encounter with these impressive sharks. Here, you’ll find some of the most reliable great white shark encounters in this changing world.

giant cuttlefish in Australia

10. Behold Australia’s Giant Cuttlefish Migration

Every year, during May through August, Australian giant cuttlefish migrate in the thousands to breed in the waters around Whyalla, South Australia. When it comes to animal mating rituals, this has got to be one of the most flamboyant. These masters of camouflage impress potential partners with a dazzling display of colors, shapes, and textures. The result is a living spectacle that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime!

Diver captures Hammerhead shark encounter in the shark capital of the world, Malpelo island Colombia from below in a unique marine life encounter

11. Enter a Hammerhead Haven in Malpelo, Colombia

Witness the mesmerizing congregation of hammerhead sharks in the waters of Malpelo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site off Colombia’s Pacific coast which forms a corner of the Hammerhead Triangle. This remote island offers some of the best hammerhead diving where underwater seamounts and rocky reefs meet. Dive into the action and experience the thrill of encountering these apex predators up close in the shark capital of the world.

Diver captures perspective of how large whale sharks are compared to divers off the coast of the Maldives, one of the best marine life encounters

12. Witness the Wonder of Whale Sharks in the Maldives

Prepare for an awe-inspiring journey into the realm of the largest fish in the ocean. These gentle giants move through our oceans with a grace in juxtaposition to their colossal size. Amidst the turquoise waters and vibrant coral reefs of the Maldives archipelago is what many claim to be the world’s largest population of whale sharks. Experience the awe-inspiring moment as you swim alongside these distinctive spotted creatures from May to December, during the southwest monsoon season when plankton blooms attract these whale sharks.

a grouper on a florida shipwreck

13. Encounter Goliath Groupers in Florida

Living up to its name, this mighty grouper is truly a sight to behold. Once overfished, goliath groupers have made a remarkable comeback thanks to strict protection measures throughout Florida. Known to inhabit the wrecks and artificial reefs scattered along the state’s coastline, these colossal fish are one of the largest species of grouper in the world, weighing up to 800 pounds (363kg). See how you size up next to one of these guys on your next underwater encounter!

best places for gray whale encounters off the coast of Baja California. Watching the gray whale migration.

14. Make Lasting Memories Grey Whale Watching in Baja California 

Experience the magic of Baja California’s grey whale migration, one of nature’s most spectacular events. Every year, thousands of grey whales embark on a journey from the cold waters of Alaska to the warm breeding grounds of Baja California. Expect to see this spectacle off the Baja peninsula from late December through April. Fun Fact: Baja California is also home to humpback and blue whales during the same season, offering divers a rare opportunity to witness multiple species of whales on a single trip.

Live Unfiltered for the Best Marine Life Encounters

A photo is worth a thousand words, and many of the above experiences are certainly Insta-friendly. However, there’s no denying that for the best marine life encounters, you need to get up-close and witness the magic with your own eyes.

Learn to dive with PADI, and you’ll unlock a lifetime of real, unfiltered underwater adventures across every continent. What’s more, spending time with nature and the ocean is proven to make you happier.

So, what are you waiting for? Sign up for the PADI Open Water Diver course today, then get ready to discover the world’s best marine life encounters unfiltered.

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