Miles off the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii and 15 ft below the ocean’s surface I find myself eye-to-eye with a living dinosaur. Yet, in this life-changing moment, my thoughts are less on the historical significance of the animal swimming next to me, and more on its terrifying pop-culture portrayal.
The subject of horror movies, nightmares and phobias, sharks have gotten a bad rep over the last few decades (thank you, Jaws). However once you cast aside any preconceived notions about these animals, gather enough confidence to dive into shark infested waters, and meet a shark IRL, your outlook on them changes (to say the least).
I’m not sure exactly what it was that motivated me to wake up at 5am on a Saturday, take a boat out to the middle of the ocean on the windiest day ever, and dive into a ‘shiver of sharks’ (I shit you not, that’s actually the technical term for a group of sharks. Aptly named, amiright?!).
This potential lapse in judgement was amplified by the fact that there were no cages involved in my impending shark interaction. When I say “swimming with sharks”, I mean snorkeling / freediving without any protective gear, whatsoever. Cages be damned — I wanted an adrenaline rush, and an adrenaline rush I shall have.
I went as part of the “Pelagic Research and Interaction Program” and, therefore, had a Marine Biologist guide who occupied the (seemingly long) boat ride by giving us a crash course on shark behavior and a rundown of the types of sharks often found in Hawaii.
Before diving in, I learned it’s a common misconception to assume that sharks attack people intentionally. Most of the time, shark attacks were attributed to misdirect feeding attempts. Meaning, most shark encounters occur out of simple confusion.
Sharks are hardwired to snap at anything looking remotely like prey or a thrashing fish. Hence, when you’re in the water with these sharks “don’t look like prey,” the Marine Biologist instructed.
She told us to always face the sharks (which proved easier said than done when you’re surrounded by 20 of them), and make slow, easy movements. Don’t turn or swim away too quickly, try to avoid splashing, and keep your fingers pressed together and your hair tied down.
Basically just try to avoid looking fishy or fish-like at all costs.
As I prepare to enter the shark infested waters, I contemplate how to “not look fish-like”, while also weighing the intelligence of my decision and questioning whether or not this was actually the best idea.
When facing certain life-or-death scenarios, It’s always hard for me to decipher if what I’m doing is inspiring bold or recklessly stupid… generally the only differentiating factor between those two polar opposite classifications is whether or not I die.
As I put on my fins and got ready to go swimming with sharks, the above notion was at the forefront of my mind.
“Is this inspiringly bold or recklessly stupid?”
“Am I going to walk away with an amazing experience or without a limb?”
The Marine Biologist went into the water first to check the sharks’ behavior and ensure none were showing any signs of aggression. Once she gave the “all-clear” it was my turn to dive in.
It was with more-than-slight trepidation that I entered the water and attempted to make my way through the growing whitecaps without too much splashing or limb-flailing. When I was a safe distance from the boat I dove beneath the surface to take in the scene that was forming in the waters below me.
10 sharks appeared from the ocean’s depths, making lazy counter-clockwise circles around me and the boat. With each loop they came higher and higher as more shadows-turned-sharks emerged from the depth below. 10 sharks became 15, and 15 became 20. Next thing I knew I was surrounded by TWENTY, 15-foot Galapagos sharks that circled at varying depths.
The sight of them, initially, was intimidating: Slowly rising like ghosts from the deep blue abyss. However, once they got closer and I was able to watch their behavior and get a good look at them, my preconceived notions about sharks were shattered and replaced with a new appreciation.
The first thing that surprised me about these sharks were their eyes.
I had always assumed sharks would have fish-like eyes — a blatant stare with not much depth or intelligence/recognition behind them. However, that wasn’t the case at all. Getting close enough (within touching distance) to look into the eyes of a few of these creatures, I was surprised to find them looking back at me and regarding me with an equal amount of curiosity. Their eyes were more reminiscent of humans than fish.
Come to find out the shark’s eye is very similar to that of a human’s eye — with a cornea, lens, retina, pupil and iris (in fact, it’s so similar that the shark cornea has been used in human eye surgery). Not only are shark eyes structurally similar to humans, but evidence suggests that shark vision and processing may in fact be similar to human vision as well.
Aside from their eyes, another thing that shocked me about sharks was their behavior and blatant curiosity. They were very inquisitive and would often get close just to see what’s up, similar to the way a dog or cat may get close enough to sniff you. It was never in a threatening way, but more inquiring in nature.
I was surprised how much interacting with sharks reminded me of dealing with horses. As a lifelong horseback rider, I learned early on to keep my emotions under control, since every emotion felt by the rider is often reflected in the horse’s behavior. If I was scared, I’d have to force down any feelings of fear to keep my crazy horse from being even more spooky. It was the same with these sharks.
A scared shark is a dangerous shark, so you have to stay calm and collected to avoid startling the SHARK (as counterintuitive as that may sound).
Once I was (shockingly) able to relax between the thrashing waves tossing me about at the surface and the circling sharks looming below, I was overwhelmed with the reality of the amazingness I was experiencing.
I wasn’t just sitting in the ocean “observing” sharks, I was actually swimming next to them. Diving down as deep and as long as my lungs would allow, to swim alongside 20 of the most feared predators in the world. But I was no longer scared. Meandering next to these animals, I was in awe of how shockingly intelligent, surprisingly mellow/friendly, and completely beautiful they were.
Swimming with sharks was one of the most life-changing encounters I’ve ever experienced, and I wish more people could have the same “shark epiphany.”
Our culture has spent so much time and production budget advancing the fear of sharks — *Cough*: Jaws, The Meg, The Reef, Sharknado, Deep Blue Sea, 47 Meters Down, Open Water, The Shallows.*Cough* (…and those were just off the top of my head) — that this phobia has propelled a universal hatred of the species.
This has allowed the unwarranted perception of sharks as deadly killing machines to eclipse every other facet of their existence. Like, for instance, the fact that their DNA could help CURE CANCER, or the overlooked statistic that 470 species of sharks are endangered, or that you’re more likely to die by vending machine, cow, or air freshener than shark.
…OR, the most depressingly overlooked statistic: that shark population has declined by up to 90% in the last 5 decades. NINETY PERCENT!!
If any other animal population were to decline by 90%, they would become the logo for World Wildlife Foundation (looking at you, panda bears). But for some reason, sharks are ignored because they don’t look as cuddly as pandas.
As a society we turn a blind eye to the huge decline of shark populations because “sharks are bad / scary.” Most people don’t realize how vital sharks are to the ocean’s ecosystem. Their presence, or lack thereof, serves as an indicator for ocean health.
All-in-all sharks are ecologically, economically, and culturally significant creatures who just happen to possess the uncanny ability to clear a beach shoreline in 30 seconds or less (which kinda makes me like them more).
It’s my hope that our society can stop allowing its irrational fear of sharks to eclipse the benefit of these animals that makes them not only worthy of all the love, but also worth fighting for.
If you want to go swimming with sharks in Hawaii, check out One Ocean Diving.