#SharkWeek: 5 Destinations for Real-Life Encounters

Leave the couch behind—in favor of coastal Mexico, South Africa or Australia's Great Barrier Reef—if you want a real-life shark week.

We have to give the Discovery Channel credit for Shark Week, its captivating, weeklong series of programs about the majestic creatures. And for most people, sharks on TV is probably close enough. But if you're part of the adventurous crowd, for whom a broadcast encounter is not enough, we've rounded up five ways from which you can experience all the excitement of Shark Week, up-close and personal. We hope you like wearing a wetsuit.

Whale Sharks Diving Tours

Take a journey well off the beaten path with Baja AirVentures tours out of San Diego, California. Begin your adventure with a flight from San Diego to a small remote fishing village in Mexico, called Bahia de los Angeles. From the village, it's an hour-long boat ride south to Las Animas Wilderness Lodge, a self-sustaining retreat nestled on a mile-long beach on a beautiful private cove. Guests on the tour spend as long as five hours a day in the water, diving with whale sharks, which arrive in the warm waters during their annual migration in the late summer and fall. While Las Animas is open year-round and certainly worth a visit any time of year, the six-day whale shark tours are conducted only during migration season, from August through October. Reservations are recommended; these tours often sell out early.

Swimming with whale sharks off the Baja coast

Cage Dives With Great Whites

Off the coast of South Africa lies a small land mass called Seal Island, thanks to its dense population of Cape Fur seals. Near this island, Great White sharks can be regularly observed breaching—launching their entire bodies out of the water—in pursuit of the seals. Their behavior makes for excellent observations, and Great White Shark Tours offers that opportunity. Book a group tour or private charter from a harbor near Gans Bay, about two hours southeast of Cape Town. Breakfast is provided, after which guests take a five-mile voyage out to sea. The waters are "chummed," and when sharks begin appearing, guests enter the cage. The tour operators guarantee a shark sighting, and the company boasts an 18-year safety record. It's a perfect side trip for a visit to Cape Town.

Similar tours are also available in North America. Travel to Oahu's famed North Shore for a trek out to sea with Hawaii Shark Encounters. These tours teach guests about shark biology and conservation efforts, as well as the shark's contributions to Hawaiian mythology and culture. Since the cages on these tours do not fully submerge, scuba experience and equipment are not required. You'll receive snorkeling gear to get a better glimpse at the Galapagos and Sandbar sharks that populate the North Shore waters. Tours can be canceled because of weather, but the company does its best to reschedule and accommodate any inconvenienced guests.

Preparing for a cage dive with sharks in South Africa’s Ganis Bay

Swim With Sharks in an Aquarium

Only recently usurped as the world's largest aquarium, the Georgia Aquarium in the city of Atlanta is home to more than 100,000 animals. Among those residents are four whale sharks, housed in the Ocean Voyager exhibit. The Aquarium's Journey With Gentle Giants program offers two ways for visitors to get up close to the beautiful creatures. First, the Swim With Whale Sharks program lets guests swim at the surface with a floatation device and snorkel. The second option is the Dive With Whale Sharks program, which is open only to open-water-certified divers. Equipment is provided for both experiences, and each lasts  2.5 hours, with a 30-minute swim and a behind-the-scenes tour of some Aquarium areas. All participants must be at least 12 years old.

Open-Water Encounters

There are several places around the world where your chances of seeing a shark are higher than average. The Great Barrier Reef is an excellent spot, with its populations of tropical sharks like blacktip reef and the colorful wobbegongs (carpet sharks). Ecuador's Galapagos Islands sees extraordinary numbers of hammerhead sharks. Andy DeHart, former shark adviser for Discovery Channel, says divers there list hammerheads among the 20 most common fish sighted. North Carolina's Outer Banks also make for prime shark-watching territory—known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, the vast number of shipwrecks attract hundreds of fish, which in turn attract dozens of sand tiger sharks. 

Fishing for Sharks

There are hundreds of places around the world perfect for fishing charters, and shark fishing is no exception. You can find guided shark-fishing excursions from Cape Cod to Miami to Galveston. Depending on the location, participants can catch everything from mako to hammerhead, but most shark fishing trips are catch-and-release only. Be sure to check the tour company's policy.

Planning to take one of these trips soon? Don't forget sunscreen, Dramomine, sunglasses and raincoats—just in case.

Travel tip: Despite a general apprehension toward sharks, an average of only four fatal attacks occur per year worldwide.