An opportunity to snorkel with one of Earth's most misunderstood creatures, the cageless shark snorkel on the North Shore of Oahu is one memorable experience. Free dive with sharks in their natural habitat, ranging from Galapagos to Sandbar Sharks and sometimes even Tiger Sharks. For those willing to put your fears behind you, it is an opportunity you won't regret.
Unlike some places in the world (cough Australia) Hawaii is not known for its dangerous land creatures. There are no snakes, bears, crocodiles, etc. The most dangerous creature land creature is probably a tourist or college student stumbling out of Kelly O'Neils in Waikiki at 4am. However, being the most remote island chain in the world surrounded by warm water, does mean we will run into some animals that call this underwater domain home. Of course, one of the first things that comes to mind when people think of what might be lurking underneath that blue surface is sharks.
Fear of sharks is quite common. This 2017 fear survey by Chapman University states that of the people they surveyed, 25% of respondents stated that are afraid or very afraid of sharks. Not quite as high as the 75% of the people who are afraid of corrupt government officials (can't imagine why), but one quarter is significant. I'd also wager a bet if people took this survey when they were at the beach or near the ocean, that number would go up.
I hesitate to call fear of sharks an irrational fear. When we are in the water, we are out of our innate comfort zone (being on land), and sharks are the dominant species in the food chain. They are fast, strong, and probably most unnerving, they are always around us in the water without us knowing it. On top of all of that, shark attacks do happen. This database tracks shark attacks around the Hawaiian Islands over roughly the last 20 years. I distinctly remember hearing about a fatal shark attack in 2015 off Maui, a few months before I found out I'd be moving to Hawaii.
All of that being said, sharks are severely misunderstood creatures. They are not the mindless killers that Hollywood makes them out to be. They are a crucial part of our ecosystem and nowadays many species are threatened or endangered. It's an awareness issue, something that many passionate researchers are trying to educate people about. That is precisely what One Ocean Diving hopes to accomplish during their cageless shark snorkel, introducing the general population to sharks in their habitat. Now that I'm finished with my monologue, let's go shark diving!
The meetup for the dive is at the Haleiwa Boat Harbor. Unless you are staying/living on the North Shore, it will be a bit of a trek to get out here. The group for this adventure was me, my roommate, Nate, and his friend who was visiting the island, John. We had decided on the 7am dive, the first of the day (but there are 11 time slots each day). Unfortunately, that meant getting up around 5:30 so we could leave our house in Kailua. Fortunately, that meant we were in Haleiwa to view the beautiful colors of the sunrise. Fair warning, this is by far the best picture I took today. Turns out photographing sharks underwater is quite a challenge!
Our dive master/shark expert for the day. I feel bad, I never actually caught her name, but she was great. She was knowledgeable with solid aloha vibes. The ride out to the site is about 30 minutes. On the way out, we were briefed on shark behavior, the types of sharks we could see, and the the safety rules for snorkeling (more on those later).
We arrived at the sight with a little sunrise glow still in view. From the conversation our dive master and captain were having, it sounds like One Ocean dives at two different sites. "300" where my roommate went last time he did this, tends to have more sharks, but they are smaller in size. This site, which they referred to as "Hammer," often has less sharks, but they are bigger. Apparently, there is a greater chance to see a Tiger Shark here as well, which is exciting (and a bit unnerving).
After the boat was tied up, our dive master hopped in and said she saw 6 big sharks. One she referred to as "Mufasa," as if he was an old friend. Can't be scared of a shark with a name right? I guess we will see. Sometimes, you will see the sharks fins on the surface, but today they were hanging out a bit deeper. I guess the only way to see them is to hop in and have a look. Somehow, I was the first to get in the water. Here we go...
After descending the ladder I instantly submerged my head to become orient myself with my surroundings. Just beyond the props were 4 decent sized sharks, probably 6-10 feet in length and another 2 behind me. I was surprised at how calm I felt in the water. I've had two experiences with sharks before. The first was in the Bahamas, when I stood in knee deep water with Nurse Sharks who had been attracted from the fishing guts that were thrown in from local fisherman (you can see some of that in this video). The other encounter was when I went scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, and saw little 4-5 foot reef sharks on just about every dive (video here).
These were definitely larger sharks. And yet, they seemed so peaceful swimming below us. They didn't seem like mindless killers. They just looked happy to be swimming around in the current, probably working off that evening meal.
Nate and John followed me in the water. The rules of the dive are pretty simple. There are 6 ropes (for the 6 people diving) that you can hold onto to rest and take in the view. You are free to swim away from the boat, but you must stay between the boat and the imaginary boundary created by the location of the dive master. You also cannot swim past the bow or the stern. The dive master will let one person at a time dive down to the shark's level when she deems it is an appropriate time. That might sound confusing, but it makes sense when you are there.
Unfortunately for us, the current was so bad, they wanted everyone holding on to the boat and would only allow one person to free swim and dive down at a time. A bit of a bummer, but it really didn't detract from the experience. I did end up getting pretty sore in my left arm the next day though. Holding on to that rope with the boat bouncing from the waves was tough!
Our dive master doing her own diving. One of the things they teach you, is to always be aware of the most shallow shark. The depth level is what distinguishes dominance. Since we are the most shallow at the surface, we are considered the most dominant creature. I guess here, she isn't quite following that rule, but we will let that go since she is the expert.
These sharks never really got too close to us, and stayed a good 10 feet below us in depth. But watching them move through the water was so majestic, a word I didn't think I would use to describe sharks. They were very peaceful. Sometimes they would come in for a closer look, but whenever one of us dove down, they would retreat.
Probably my closest shot of a shark I got during one of my dive downs. I realize it isn't the best photo, but hey, it's still a photo of a shark! This looks to be a Galapagos Shark, one of the more common Hawaiian sharks. It is also one of the larger sharks in Hawaii and can get up to 12 feet in length. It is certainly no Tiger, but if it is bigger than me, then it's a big shark. The other shark we saw, was the Sandbar shark. Check out this link for more info on the typical species you could see in Hawaii.
On your typical dive with One Ocean, the Galapagos and Sandbar are likely the species you will see. Tiger sharks are the next most common, followed by Scalloped Hammerheads. The FAQ does advertise some other species that have been seen, including a Great White and a Mako, but when they say extremely rare, they mean EXTREMELY. Basically, if it has been seen once, they put it on that list. Apparently, the Great White was seen back in 2005... so don't get your hopes up. However, it's always exciting that there is that possibility.
One last photo of Nate diving down. The sharks retreated pretty quickly from Nate. Maybe Nate is perceived as more dominant than me? It's probably all those bicep curls he does... Anyway, it was time to get back on the boat and head back to dry land. It's breakfast time!
I really enjoyed this experience with One Ocean. They do an amazing job at turning what for many could be an intimidating experience, into a fun and educational one. It is no doubt thrilling being out there with these ocean predators, but you are out there as equals, existing in harmony with one another. This harmony is exactly what One Ocean strives to achieve on a larger scale. I think anyone who is willing, should give this experience a chance. It may not be cheap, but that money is going towards a good cause, shark conservation. And at the end of the day, if you don't buy into the whole "sharks are misunderstood creatures spiel", at least you can go home and tell your friends you swam with sharks!
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