The sudden spike in shark attacks in the Hawaiian islands have done nothing to quell people’s fear of sharks. These creatures, made infamous, perhaps, by Steven Spielberg, have the right to be feared – but as for tagging them as deliberate manhunters that feed on humans, could not be further from the truth. When a chance arose to get up close and personal with one of my favorite creatures, I jumped on the opportunity to see for myself.
In Haleiwa, I found One Ocean Diving, a foundation supports pelagic research and conservation particularly on sharks. Running daily tours out on the North Shore of Oʻahu that allows people to snorkel with sharks – without a cage. This activity gives them a platform to educate people on conservation and allows them to show how sharks in nature behave – that they are not the man-hunting monster from “Jaws.”
Being surrounded by sharks without a cage can seem like a daunting idea. However, the safety briefing by our safety diver, Julia, put us at ease. She explained the behavior of sharks and how they would react – for instance, we are to play “chicken” in the water and not appear larger or more overwhelming over the animals; this would ensure they still feel “dominant” and would not disappear. We were also told to stay close to our safety diver, and to make minimal splashing with our fins since sharks are attracted by noise.
Slipping into the water after Julia, we were greeted by an astonishing sight. Galapagos and sandbar sharks surrounded us, drawn by the sound of the boat’s motor. Usually, groups were told to rotate with two or three people in the water at a time, but with two safety divers on hand that day, all five of us were able to maximize our tour time in the water. The initial experience was exhilarating with 10-12 foot long sharks swimming just inches away from you. Our two safety divers, were on hand to “block” any shark that came too near to nipping our heels. Safety required that we remained on the surface (no diving down), and that we did not drift further than either safety divers, but once the sharks had gotten over their initial caution, around 10 began swimming towards the surface.
I felt no fear from these creatures. Their shy behavior pinpointed them as one of the most docile creatures in the ocean – curious, but never vicious unless provoked. There was no sense of foreboding, and my accelerated heart rate was only the result of being so excited with seeing these animals up close with no barriers, in the wild, for the first time.
It’s easy to see how a careful and controlled experience like this could change many people’s perception of sharks. It is not enough to promote education through teaching and campaigns, although that method is effective in their own way, but to enable others to appreciate sharks means helping them disbelieve the myths and wrongful perspectives of them as vicious killers.
I was not allowed to touch sharks or swim alongside them, but after all – safety first. On the way back to shore, Julia briefed us on how to support calls for bans on shark finning, a policy China successfully implemented for official dinners, and the reasons why we need to conserve and protect these animals. From my point of view, I can see how many shark-fearing individuals would be converted to the “truth” about sharks from the experience. It would make others believers, not just about the real nature of sharks, but also on the importance of protecting them.
The crew of One Ocean Diving all have big hearts for the ocean and its inhabitants – we even stopped the boat halfway out to grab a plastic bag that the captain spotted floating along. Their actions are wholehearted efforts to improve research, conservation and education on endangered and misunderstood marine animals, an example which is clearly inspiring even to those who fear sharks. I was always a believer and a lover of sharks, but the real thing has reaffirmed my faith once more.
One Ocean Diving’s Pelagic Shark Program can be booked online through their website, oneoceandiving.com. The cost is $150 per person, and all you have to do is bring yourself, leave your fear behind, and prepare to believe.