Photo: Adam Leaders/Shutterstock

Diver's Bucket List: 7 Rare Ocean Animals and Where to See Them

by Christina Koukkos Suzie Dundas Apr 17, 2023

Our planet is an amazing place, with thousands of wonderful, rare, and unusual creatures living among us. From anteaters to pangolins to the “pig deer” babirusas (Google it), humans are lucky to share our land with so many species.

But — that’s on land. Underwater, creatures get even weirder, without the limitations of pesky things like gravity or a need for sunlight. Some of the most mysterious animals in the world live in the ocean, and there are probably plenty more rare ocean animals we haven’t discovered, since only about five percent of the ocean has been explored.

The seven rare ocean animals below aren’t easy to find, so when you do manage to see them, consider yourself very, very lucky. And that goes for sharks. Shark attacks are incredibly rare and usually not fatal, and people kill hundreds of thousands of sharks per year. They should be afraid of us, not the other way around.

If you want to maximize your chances for seeing these rare creatures, do everything you can to protect the oceans, including simple things like using reef-safe sunscreen when you travel.

1. Whale sharks
diver with whale shark

Photo: Mohamed AlQubaisi/Shutterstock

The largest fish in the ocean, a whale shark can grow up to 45 feet long — about the size of a typical Manhattan apartment. The whale shark population is decreasing, thanks in large part to the shark-fin trade. Whale sharks used to be listed as a “vulnerable species,” but their numbers are dwindling, and they’re endangered as of 2023.

Wolf Island or Darwin Island, Galapagos, Ecuador

  • When: June – November
  • Get there: The Galapagos are 620 miles off the coast of Ecuador. Tourism is strictly but randomly controlled and regulations change frequently. Easiest is to book a live-aboard dive boat, well in advance. Otherwise, take your chances with dive shops on San Cristobal Island, who may or may not be able to get you to Wolf and Darwin Islands. Flights from Quito or Guayaquil to San Cristobal run frequently during high season and cost a few hundred dollars. Try AeroGal, Tame, and LAN Airlines. The Galapagos is known for being home to many rare ocean animals and is very popular with divers, so make your plans early.

Zanzibar, Tanzania (Manta Reef)

  • When: November – March
  • Get there: Zanzibar is an island off the coast of Tanzania in southeast Africa. Ferries from Dar es Salaam, the capital, run frequently and take about 1.5 hours. Flights are more expensive, especially with added baggage fees if you bring your own gear.

Thailand (Hin Daeng or Richelieu Rock)

  • When: March – May
  • Get there: Dive shops on Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta run day trips to Hin Daeng. Richelieu Rock, in the Surin Islands, can only be reached by live-aboards out of Phuket, Khao Lak, or Ranong. AirAsia has cheap flights from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur to Phuket and Krabi (for ferries to Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi), though baggage overage will add to the cost if you bring your own.

Exmouth, Australia (Ningaloo Reef)

  • When: March – April
  • Get there: During tourist season, buses run from Perth (about 15 hours) and Broome (about 16 hours) in Western Australia. If you’re in a rush, SkyWest does daily two-hour flights from Perth.

Placencia, Belize (The Gladden Cut)

  • When: April – June
  • Get there: Tropic Air and Maya Island Air have flights from Belize City. Flights are often canceled if they aren’t full enough, but this shouldn’t be a problem during tourist season.

The Seychelles

  • When: August – October
  • Get there: The Seychelles, a 115-island nation, sits just north of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. The cheapest flights are on Emirates and Qatar Airways.

Donsol, Philippines (snorkeling only)

  • When: November – May
  • Get there: Philippine Airlines flies from the capital of Manila to Legaspi City. From Legaspi to Donsol, either take a cheap private van (aircon, leaves right away), or a ridiculously cheap public van (chickens, open windows, leaves when overstuffed).
2. Great White sharks
rare ocean animals - great white

Photo: JonMilnes/Shutterstock

Great Whites are teeny-tiny compared to whale sharks. They only grow to about 18 feet, a mere three times bigger than an adult male. They get a lot of hate because they look scary, but like all sharks, they don’t want to eat humans — it’s seals and fish that they consider tasty. You can see them in the wild either by going in a shark diving cage, or (if you’re lucky), seeing them while scuba diving.

Non-scuba divers may think it’s odd to describe seeing a great white as “lucky,” but certified divers know they’re among the most rare ocean animals to see in the depths most divers are limited to. So consider it a treat if you see one. They’re currently listed as “vulnerable” by the world wildlife fund.

Gansbaai, South Africa

  • When: Year round; best March – September
  • Get there: Contact your shark-dive operator to arrange transport to Gansbaai, a two-hour drive from Cape Town.

Port Lincoln, Australia

  • When: August – November, January – March
  • Get there: Port Lincoln is an eight-hour drive from Adelaide, in southeastern Australia. Most divers take a puddle-jumper from Adelaide on Regional Express or Quantas.

Farallon Islands, California

  • When: September – November
  • Get there: Most dive trips leave from San Francisco and the Bay Area.
3. Hammerhead sharks
hammerhead shark rare ocean animals

Photo: Tomas Kotouc/Shutterstock

There are nine known species of hammerhead, most of which are either endangered (scalloped and great hammerheads) or vulnerable. Hammerheads are one of only a few shark species that swim in schools, and can get up to 14 feet long (but are usually smaller).

Wolf Island and Darwin Island, Galapagos

  • When: Year round; best June – November
  • Get there: See info for the whale shark above.

Layang Layang, Malaysia

  • When: February – October
  • Get there: Layang Layang is a small island off the northern coast of Malaysian Borneo. There’s one place to stay, and the only thing to do is dive. A daily charter flies guests in from Kota Kinabalu. AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines have cheap flights from Kuala Lumpur to KK.

Malpelo Island, Colombia; Cocos Island, Costa Rica

  • When: June – November; July is best
  • Get there: These two islands are about 380 miles apart, situated in the Pacific Ocean between Costa Rica and Colombia. Live-aboards originating in Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica can include stops at one or both. In theory, a day trip to Malpelo can be arranged from Guapi, Colombia, though given the distance (235 miles) I imagine it would be a long, frustrating day.

KwaZulu Natal, South Africa (Protea Banks)

  • When: Year round; June is best
  • Get there: Most divers fly into Durban. The only direct international flight from outside Africa is on Emirates, from Dubai. Otherwise, Kulula Airlines flies from Johannesburg.

Tahiti, French Polynesia (Rangiroa atoll)

  • When: January – February
  • Get there: Air Tahiti connects Rangiroa to other parts of the archipelago, including the capital of Papeete on Tahiti island.
4. Mola Mola
rare ocean creatures - mola mola

Photo: Vladislav Klimin/Shutterstock

The mola mola, or ocean sunfish, looks like a 7-foot-long serving platter with fins. They are shy, deepwater fishes, so it’s extremely rare to see them while diving (as opposed to seeing them from the dive boat in open water). Sometimes, divers travel all the way across the world to sites where they’re known to be, only to not see them for days on end (as this writer did). They’re not interested in hurting people, despite their large size, as they don’t eat anything bigger than crabs. These rare ocean animals like cooler water and are usually spotted close to sunrise, so plan on an early dive.

Bali, Indonesia (Crystal Bay at Nusa Penida, Mimpang, Nusa Lembogan)

  • When: July – October
  • Get there: The international airport on Bali is in Denpasar. AirAsia runs cheap flights from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and other Southeast Asian hubs. Most dive trips to Nusas Penida and Lembogan leave from the coastal town of Sanur, which is a two-hour minivan ride from Denpasar.

Galapagos, Ecuador (Punta Vicente Roca)

  • When: Year round
  • Get there: See info above for the Galapagos.
5. Mantas

Photo: magnusdeepbelow/Shutterstock

There are two species of mantas, and the largest can be up to 18 feet long. They’re one of the coolest looking rare ocean animals, and it’s a safe bet one out of every three dive shops you see will have a manta in its logo. Buyer beware: “Manta Point” is probably the most misleading dive site name in the world — and there are a lot of sites named Manta Point.

Bali, Indonesia (Manta Point at Nusa Penida)

  • When: Year round; best April – May
  • Get there: See info above for Nusa Penida.

Similan Islands, Thailand (Koh Bon)

  • When: November – April
  • Get there: Like Richelieu Rock, Koh Bon can only be reached by live-aboards out of Phuket, Khao Lak, or Ranong.

Yap, Micronesia

  • When: December – April
  • Get there: Micronesia is a federation of 607 islands a few hundred miles east of the Philippines. Continental flies from Guam to Yap at least once a week.

The Maldives

  • When: Year round
  • Get there: Another archipelago nation, the Maldives are located in the Indian Ocean off the southwest coast of India. The international airport in the capital of Male is served by many operators from Southeast Asia, Dubai, and Europe. The diving improves, naturally, the farther you get from Male.

Sea of Cortez, Mexico

6. Pygmy seahorses
rare ocean animals - pygmy seahorse

Photo: Fiona Ayerst/Shutterstock

At the other end of the size spectrum are pygmy seahorses, which can be as tiny as 1/3 of an inch long — and are never longer than one inch. They’re seen most often — usually only after your divemaster has found one for you — in the sprawling Indonesian archipelago. They have exceptional camouflage, so if you want to see one, find a grassy seabed and move really, really slowly. They wrap their tails around the end of sea plants and soft coral.

Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia

Sulawesi, Indonesia (Wakatobi, Lembeh Straights)

  • When: Year round
  • Get there: A remote group of islands in the remote Indonesian province of Sulawesi, Wakatobi can be reached by either a live-aboard or a charter flight from Bali.

Pulau Weh, Aceh, Indonesia

  • When: Year round
  • Get there: Regular ferries run between Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province, and the island of Pulau Weh.

Bali, Indonesia (Tulamben)

  • When: Year round
  • Get there: From Denpasar, rent a car or take a minivan to Amed. At one of the many local dive shops, ask to dive the Liberty Wreck at Tulamben.

Mabul, Sabah, Malaysia

  • When: Year round
  • Get there: AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines do cheap flights from Kuala Lumpur to Tawau, in the province of Sabah. From there, take a shared taxi to Semporna, and then a speedboat to Mabul. All this can be arranged in advance by one of the local dive shops.

7. Blue-ringed octopus

rare ocean animals - octopus

Photo: kaschibo/Shutterstock

If there’s one rare ocean animal on this list you want to remember, it’s this one. If you see one, first, remind yourself how lucky you are. And second, don’t go anywhere near it. They’re extremely venomous. If they sting you, it could kill you in as little as 30-45 minutes.

Fortunately, they’re very easy to identify as they’re covered in blue rings. So if you see an octopus covered in blue rings, stay away. That said, your chances of seeing them are slim as, like most octopuses, they tend to hide in rock crevasses out of sight most of the time. They’re more common at night, so pack an underwater flashlight and plan on a night dive or two if you’re keen to see one.

Raja Ampat, Indonesia

  • When: Year round
  • Get there: Get yourself to Bali, then either fly to to the small Sorong Airport on Raja Ampat and do day trip from the island, or book a liveaboard trip that tours the islands. Raja Ampat is generally considered to have some of the best scuba diving in the world

Anilao, Phillipinnes

  • When: Year round
  • Get there: To reach Anilao, which is near the city of Batangas, either fly into Manilla and arrange an airport pickup, or take public transportation to Batangas and a ride share or taxi from there to get to your dive resort. This is a popular destination for muck diving, so you could see other rare ocean animals like seahorses and mantis shrimp while you’re there.

Mabul, Malaysia

  • When: Year round
  • Get there: Mabul Island is hard to reach. You’ll have to first get yourself to Kuala Lumpur, then fly to the region of Tawau (Tawau Airport). You’ll then need to hitch a ride to Semporna, then take a ferry ride to actual Mabul Island. Then you’ll have to get to wherever you’re staying. You can also book liveaboard dive trips from Semporna, instead of staying on the island.

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