Swimming with sharks off Hawaii

Although curious about us, the sharks didn't seem to see us as potential food

[slideshow_deploy id=’88227′]All photos courtesy Hawaii Shark Encounters
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HONOLULU, HI Aug 20, 2015/ Troy Media / – It’s about an hour before dawn in Haleiwa Harbor, on Oahu’s spectacular North Shore. Despite the early hour, my wife and I, along with several other guests, aren’t groggy in the least; in fact, everyone seems wide awake and excited.

We are all waiting to board one of Hawaii Shark Encounters’ tour boats, which will take us out to do something I have been waiting 30 years to do: swim with the sharks.

As we slowly head out to sea, the captain pulls out a binder and opens it to several high-resolution underwater photographs.

“Here’s what we’re off to visit this morning, guys – the Galapagos shark.” And it is going to happen in about 30 minutes.

Not at all like whale-watching

A colleague in Honolulu recommended that I contact Stefanie Brendl, who owns Hawaii Shark Encounters. Her company offers very close encounters with sharks, which is nothing like whale-watching tours where tour boats stay a respectful (and legal) distance from the main attraction and spectators have to be content with a binocular-assisted view. From Hawaii Shark Encounter’s cage, sharks come close enough to touch – which is a common enough reaction that, more than once, the crew made very clear is a strict no-no.

“Rules enforced by Mr. Darwin,” I quipped to nobody in particular.

“You’d be surprised,” Brendl said, smiling.

The sharks were visible as soon as we arrived at our destination three miles offshore, north of Haleiwa. Circling the boat, swimming just under the surface, they look brownish green through the blue water, and they are very close indeed.

How close? The first woman to go in the cage – which the crew had brought out beforehand – squealed in delight about 10 seconds later.

The sharks don’t just swim around randomly, as you might think. Observing them on their turf, it becomes patently obvious they’re more than “just fish.” You’re keenly aware of their interest in you: in fact, they seem to be evaluating you because they single each of us out. One circled us a few times, then started to swim directly away from me. Suddenly, it turned 180 degrees and headed straight for me. It veered off only at the last possible second, but not before making sustained eye contact.

Sound scary? It’s not. It was in fact thrilling, humbling and wonderful. While you can certainly understand someone being nervous before jumping in – after all, this is the open ocean, and sharks are predators – once you start paying attention it’s obvious there’s no danger.

Although curious about us, sharks didn’t seem to see us as potential food. While Brendl and her crew are forbid their guests from venturing outside the cage she said she and her crew swim with the sharks, including great whites, “all the time” with literally zero incidents.

“We’ve had crew members fall off the boat, literally, right onto a shark,” Brendl said. “They were perfectly safe. Nothing ever happens. The sharks know better,” she added with a smile.

For Brendl’s guests, there’s no reason to want to go outside the cage, which has two sides partially made up of clear Plexiglas: the walls aren’t all Plexiglas, however, because there would then be nothing to hold onto. But there is more than enough Plexiglas to suspend your disbelief and make you feel like you’re adrift, unprotected. There is no need for SCUBA gear because the cage floats; only a mask and snorkel are required. But one woman in our group had never even been snorkelling before and Brendl said they even get non-swimmers.

For Brendl, sharks are more than just ecotourism fodder. She’s passionate about shark conservation, and is the driving force behind Shark Allies, a non-profit group dedicated to educating people about sharks and encouraging their conservation.

Shark conservation is a serious topic. As the 2006 film Sharkwater demonstrated, sharks are being fished to the brink of extinction – for their fins. “It’s ridiculous and stupid,” Brendl said, “all for their fins, which add absolutely no flavour or nutritional value.”

Unfortunately, shark tours aren’t universally supported in Hawaii. There are even occasional protests. According to prominent marine biologist and shark researcher Dr. Carl Meyer, there are a variety of reasons for the criticism. But whether those reasons are grounded in reality is another matter entirely. Meyer works at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.

“To date we have found no scientific evidence that these activities threaten public safety,” Meyer said. “(Some people) believe cage diving is increasing shark numbers in the area of operation and more sharks means a higher risk of shark attacks. Certain opponents believe sharks follow the tour boats back toward shore . . . thereby increasing the risk of shark attacks. (But) there is no scientific evidence to support any of these theories, and in certain cases our empirical data clearly disprove them.”

After spending an all-too-brief 20 minutes among the sharks, these concerns seem ridiculous – surely demonstrating sharks are worthy of protection is worthwhile? How is that exploitation?

Back on shore, I am thrilled, humbled, and still processing this unique privilege and experience – but I am also somewhat embarrassed. It’s surf season, which means the waves were high, very high. I thought I had sea legs, but . . .

“Does anyone ever get sick,” I asked.

“Frequently,” Brendl laughed. “No big deal, though – it disappears in the ocean pretty quick.”

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