Roatan, Honduras
Credit: Jeff Rotman / Getty Images

Roatan, Honduras

For the past 25 years, Discovery Channel's annual Shark Week has hooked viewers with equal parts tantalizing and terrifying footage of the ocean's top predator. The ratings-bait programming is a perennial hit, but it has also caught flack from some scientists, as it turns out that the planet's number one predator (that's us) has taken a serious bite out of the shark population. Whether it's from commercial fishing practices that slaughter sharks in the process of hunting other game, shark competitions, or cultural delicacies like shark-fin soup (in which fishermen slice off a shark's dorsal fin and then chuck the fish back in to die), humans have decimated many shark populations, even despite protections for some species. It's grim: A recent study by Canadian and American scientists in the journal 'Conservation Biology' estimates some Pacific reef-dwelling species have plummeted as much as 90 percent.

Inspired to combat the unnecessary devastation of perhaps the most iconic creature of the ocean, the Project Aware Foundation and the Professional Association of Diving Instructors have joined forces to offer specialty diving courses that allow everyday divers the chance to experience sharks up close. "These courses do a nice job of showing people the need to protect these beautiful animals that, after seeing 'Jaws,' we all thought were going to eat us on sight," says PADI instructor Budd Riker. "Sharks have been around for millions of years, and we've wiped them to near extinction in a matter of decades."

Shark awareness courses are starting to pop up all over the world, for instance: Barefoot Divers in Roatan, Honduras; Bimini Big Game Club Resort, in the Bahamas; and, for a less adrenaline-steeped experience, a specialty course visiting placid whale sharks with Avadon Divers in Placencia, Belize. Any diver will tell you a shark spotting is among the ultimate dive experiences, and Riker has certainly seen quite a few of them during his 35-plus years of diving. Still, he says there's nothing quite like a first encounter with a great white shark. "It's like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time," he says. "They're so big – like a bus coming through the water. You forget to breathe."

A more comprehensive listing of shark courses are offered through PADI's travel website. And even if you're not quite ready for a shark close-up, do your part to ensure they'll still be around for the future by learning more about them.