As Hawaii Shark Encounters’ speedboat took off, the spray of the Pacific Ocean hit our faces. My stomach seemed to rise in my throat. I was terrified. To calm myself down, I took deep breaths, reminding myself that getting up close and personal with sharks was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If I lived, I could brag to my friends.
Fifteen minutes after leaving Haleiwa Harbor on Oahu’s North Shore, we came to a steel cage weighted down by a buoy, which rocked back and forth in the open ocean. Pulling up next to the cage, Capt. Chris Parker attached the boat to the cage with lengths of thick rope. The cage itself was mostly submerged under water, with only a foot of steel bars above the surface.
As Parker began to explain how to enter the cage, three sharks emerged, easy to spot in the crystal clear, blue ocean. Their fins skimmed the surface, and their dark bodies were at least 10 feet long. I felt panic rising. How could I get out of doing this?
As the captain handed out diving masks, he asked for volunteers to go first.
I jumped right up. I knew if I didn’t go first, I wouldn’t go at all. Taking a deep breath, I climbed over the side of the boat, onto the cage’s cold steel staircase, finally diving into the water. My heart was pounding, the water was cold. I concentrated on taking deeper breaths, because my short gasps for air were bordering on hyperventilating.
Having gained control of my breathing, I gripped onto the rail at the top of the cage and adjusted my eyes. There they were: Circling the cage were about a dozen Galapagos and Reef sharks.
As the other participants braved the cage, I found myself a spot in the corner. The cage rocked back and forth in the surge, but the sharks surrounding us looked as if the ocean’s currents did not affect them at all.
The sharks glided smoothly, and circled us several times. Then they’d swirl down toward the bottom and disappear into the blue that seemed to never end, only to reappear within a few seconds like magic. Fish of all different sizes swam by their sides. Tiny white fish even appeared to be eating microscopic creatures off the sharks’ skin.
I took deep breaths and dove under the water to grip the bottom of the cage and get closer to the animals. My heartbeat began to calm, and my fearful thoughts settled.
The sharks brushed inches past the steel cage, close enough that, if someone dared, they could reach out and touch them. Their beady, yellow eyes stared back at me. All I could think was, “Do we look like a can of sardines to them?”
As quickly as the experience began, it ended. Within 30 minutes, enough time for my skin to start pruning up, the experience was over. As the first person in, I was the last person out of the water.
As we sat waiting for the second group to complete its shark experience, I sat and talked with Parker. Shark encounters have generated their share of controversy, even an attempt to ban them altogether. In 2009, a law was enacted to keep shark-encounter boats from chumming the waters, because of fears that feeding them draws the sharks into waters used by swimmers, divers, paddlers and surfers.
I was glad there was no chumming. It would have been far more terrifying to see sharks feeding.
Still, seeing them in their natural habitat, cruising through the open ocean, made me realize how majestic they were. My fear of the unknown was exactly that—the unknown. After this experience, I am far more at ease when it comes to thinking about sharks.
If I were ever asked to do this again, I’d jump at the opportunity in a heartbeat. To this day, while I’m at my desk, or doing a mundane errand, I find myself smiling at the thought of sharks surrounding me.
Hawaii Shark Encounters
66 Haleiwa Road, Haleiwa