In honour of Shark Week, I’m finally sharing my experience free diving with sharks off the North Shore of Oahu. We left from the boat harbour in Haleiwa. It was a pretty small boat, they most they can take is 6 people. It was $140 each to do it, and then $75 to do a ride along.
I wasn’t scared when we signed up, I kept pushing everyone in my family to agree so I could call and book it, but as it got closer I was absolutely terrified, I had nightmares the night before. The one thing I held onto ferociously was that this was an accredited, insured business, and if everyone that went ended up getting eaten, they would probably get shut down? Right? RIGHT?!
When we were getting on the boat, there was the most adorable British family getting off, and they had just done what we were about to do. They all told us it was an amazing experience, and they appeared to still have all of their limbs intact, so I was slightly comforted by that. They took us out about 3 miles off shore, apparently it’s a place near the crab traps so a lot of sharks hang out there hoping for some scraps, but we didn’t see any other boats.
On the way out, our guide told us about the different types of sharks we might see, it’s not called a shark dive because sometimes they see dolphins, whales, and other types of animals, but predominantly it’s sharks. It changes every day, but the earlier group had seen Galapagos sharks, and Silty sharks, which are very rare. They also see Tiger sharks and Hammerhead sharks, but we didn’t see either (sad we didn’t see a Hammerhead, SO GLAD we didn’t see a Tiger.) They haven’t seen a Great White there in over 10 years.
Once we were almost to the spot, our guide started briefing us on what was going to happen. He would get in the water first, and then if the sharks didn’t seem agitated, he would have us get in, two at a time. Then he started telling us about shark behaviors and hierarchy. The closer sharks are to the surface, the higher they are in the hierarchy, so as snorkelers, and closest to the surface, we needed to assert our dominance.
In order to do that, we had to stare the sharks down. He told us if a shark thinks you can’t see it, or you aren’t paying attention, it will come closer to investigate. But if you stare it directly in the eyes, it sees you as more dominant and won’t come closer. And then he gave us big flippers to “make us look bigger”. And that’s when I decided there was no way in hell I was going.
But somehow I ended up in the water. My sister and I reluctantly agreed to go first. He told us to enter the water the same way we would be in it, with marks and fins on, because sharks remember behavior, and if something changes, they get curious and come closer to see why. He told us to slide smoothly off the back of the boat, which we did, and right away we saw at least 5 big Galapagos sharks swimming around.
To be totally honest, I freaked out a bit. I couldn’t catch my breath in my snorkel, so I kept having to lift my head up to try to breathe, but then I was scared because I couldn’t see them when I did that. It only lasted about a minute though, I got my breathing under control, and started to watch them swim around.
They had told us not to splash, and not to swim with our arms, which was nerve wracking in itself. I had my arms glued to my sides the whole time, but I was paranoid at first that I was splashing a lot with my feet without realizing it. It was very deep there, about 675FT, so once we were in the water all we could see was blue from all directions. And then all of a sudden a shark would swim out of the blue.
At one point there were at least 15 big sharks swimming under and around us, and our guide was like “there’s a lot of them, so stay together”. And I was like, yeahhhh NO PROBLEM BUDDY. What he said about the sharks was really true though.
If one was swimming towards you, and you stared it directly in the eyes, it would turn and swim away. I noticed though that if one was coming up behind you, and you didn’t notice it right away, it would swim closer until you turned around and stared at it, and then it would swim away. I don’t know if that’s true of all types of sharks, but it was definitely true for these.
Most of the sharks were pretty chill, you could tell they were as scared of us as we were of them, but still curious. There was one that was kind of a dick though, he was pretty big, and would swim right at us full speed and then veer away at the last minute. The closest any of them got to us was about 6-8 feet, which feels pretty close when it’s a 10 foot long shark.
My sister and I were in there about 20 minutes before our guide decided to let my dad and brother in, and once they got in, a few of the sharks left. They were probably intimidated by all of our large flippers. But there were still always at least 5 of them swimming around. We got brave after awhile, and just started to swim around, and dive down a bit.
As scary as it was to get in (we all agreed that was the very worst part) after we were in there for awhile, watching them swim around was actually veryyyyy relaxing. Like the fish tank at the dentist’s office, but with more teeth. Our guide had told us what to watch out for in the body language of the sharks that indicates they are going to attack, like rapid jerky movements, arched backs and downward pointed pectoral fins, and we didn’t see anything like that.
After about 45 minutes, I started to not feel very good. At first I thought it was just because I had been so nervous that my stomach was in knots, but then I realized I was getting sea sick from floating around in the open ocean for so long. We were almost done anyways, so I got back in the boat.
Now this is the part of our guides cautionary tale that I almost could not believe. He said he sees about 80% of people do this, which was mind blowing to me. He said a lot of people get out of the water onto the platform at the back of the boat and then sit there, dangling their flippers in the water for awhile before they get into the boat.
After everything we had just learned about shark behavior, curiosity, and splashing, that was about the last thing I ever would have done. I literally log rolled my whole self out of the water onto the metal platform at the back of the boat. I scratched myself all to hell but you know what? Worth it.
All I kept thinking was, I just had this completely amazing experience, and I accidentally still have all of my limbs, now let’s keep it that way.
I’ve been scuba diving for years, and I’ve seen sharks many, many times. But there was something about it just being us and them, no fish, no reefs, nowhere to hide, that made it so much more exhilarating.
I’ve always been pretty scared of sharks, and after that experience I’m both more and less afraid. On one hand, it’s hard to see them as terrifying killing machines after an experience like that. Most people that get bit are in murky water, or are splashing around like a chubby baby seal, and they are curious. Unfortunately, they don’t have hands. If they come to see what you are, they have to use their mouth to investigate.
On the other hand, I had no idea how many sharks were around us while we were sitting in the boat. I couldn’t see any until I got in. So knowing how often they are probably around when you don’t know they are there is still pretty scary.
All in all, it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, and I’m really glad I was able to do it with my family. I would encourage anybody to do it, especially if you have a fear of sharks. You learn a lot about them, and develop a whole new respect for these amazing animals.