Diving With Sharks In The Remote Malpelo Island

The deep waters of the east Pacific are teeming with fantastic wildlife.  
Swimming above schools of silky sharks in the waters off Malpelo Island. Photo: Tomas Kotou/National Geographic Society/ Corbis/ Imagelibrary
Swimming above schools of silky sharks in the waters off Malpelo Island. Photo: Tomas Kotou/National Geographic Society/ Corbis/ Imagelibrary

Malpelo Island is perfect for divers who prefer thrills to frills. In the waters surrounding the rocky, uninhabited island lives a formidable population of sharks. Hundred-strong shivers of hammerhead sharks, silky sharks, white-tip sharks, small-tooth tiger sharks, barracudas, whale sharks, and moray eels swim in and out of the ocean’s underwater caves, scouring the water for prey. It is widely recognised as one of the top diving sites in the world, and since none of these shark species are aggressive towards humans, divers aren’t put in a cage. Malpelo’s waters can be explored freely.


The prehistoric hammerheads can measure up to 20 feet in length and swim in complex formations during the day, breaking away to hunt alone at night. Occasionally, divers can see humpback whales, and giant manta rays, which span 23 feet. Some dive sites have coral encrusted reefs.


Divers need the Advanced Open Water certification or proof of diving experience to depths of 40 m. The waters around the island comprise the Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest no-fishing zone in the east Pacific. Travellers can visit only on liveaboards, diving boats with accommodation. The Malpelo Foundation allows only one liveaboard at any one time, with a maximum of 25 divers.

The Island

Malpelo Island is barren, rocky, and inhabited largely by masked boobies, a gannet-like bird species. There are over 25,000 on this 1.6-kilometre-long piece of land. An astounding variety of lichen and moss also thrive here, sustained by the nutrient-rich guano or bird faeces. The island is uninhabited, save for a few Colombian army personnel. Visitors are not allowed on land without permission from the National Natural Parks offices in Bogotá.

Getting There

Malpelo Island is 500 kilometres off the coast of Colombia. Buenaventura (30 hours by boat), is the closest port. Seats on liveaboards can be booked from Buenaventura in Colombia and Puerto Mutis in Panama. Liveaboards from Ecuador offer trips that stop at the Galápagos Islands as well.


Sharks aren’t the only threat in Malpelo’s waters. The ocean has strong currents and dives are meant for advanced divers only.

Appeared in the August 2014 issue as “Jaw-Dropping Dives”.

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    Neha Sumitran is Nat Geo Traveller India's perpetually hungry Web Editor. She loves exploring food markets or better still, foraging for new kitchen ingredients. She hopes to have a farm near the mountains someday. She tweets and instagrams as @nehasumitran.

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