I have two physical fears in life, and being part of a family of adrenaline junkies means I’ve had to face them both: heights and sharks.
I know I’m not the only one who gets that evolutionary shake in the pit of my stomach when I look over a thigh-high ledge down a steep building. Maybe if I didn’t watch so many medical or crime dramas where idiots are constantly falling off of roofs this wouldn’t be an issue.
And sharks…. phew. I have a strong memory of being shown Jaws as a child when an older kid was babysitting us. No one else seemed as affected, but I feel like I’m back as a little empathetic child screaming as that poor girl got dragged into the water every time my siblings tease me with Da Dum on the piano.
Being afraid of heights is something I knew was unsustainable as an adventurer. We go hiking, rock climbing, and sightseeing in tall places pretty much all of the time. I’ve had to constantly re-evaluate this fear and tell myself that I, my child, and my husband are all intelligent people with good instincts who can be trusted to not fall into Grand Canyon.
But sharks? You don’t encounter sharks on a regular basis! The only time my fear of sharks has ever affected us is when I choose not to go SCUBA diving with Ben. And you know what, that stance has never bothered me. Whit is too young to go, anyway, so it’s not like I’m holding the group back.
And then we went to Hawaii. Without Whit. And it seemed as though being deathly afraid of sharks and needing to watch our son were no longer decent excuses to miss one of the coolest things you can do on the islands: Cage Diving.
Shark Diving in Hawaii
To be honest, going cage diving was actually my idea. Crazy, huh?
I think I was on a planning high since we only had around 2 weeks to organize our entire trip. I went through this phase where I e-mailed every activity company I could find telling them that we were a couple of adventure journalists excited to visit Hawaii without our son and offering our services to write about their program.
When, in my frenzy, I read the information on North Shore Shark Adventure I was excited to learn that their adventure included more than just sharks. They sail you 3 miles off of the coast in a boat. I like scenic boat rides. At this time of year they often see dolphins or whales. I want to see dolphins and whales. You don’t have to get off of the boat if you don’t want to. I can just enjoy floating on the ocean and Ben can come face-to-face with a giant mankiller. Perfect!
But when they wrote back and accepted my offer to trade passage for promotion? Well, that’s when I started to worry.
I told myself that I didn’t have to get in the water if I didn’t want to, but that it could be a really great, therapeutic experience if I could work up the nerve in time. I had 2 weeks to get myself excited to face my fear.
The morning of the cage dive I still wasn’t sure what I would do.
North Shore Shark Adventures
We scheduled the earliest dive of the day to ensure a little more privacy, since those are usually less popular. It worked! We met our captain, our guides, and 5 fewer adrenaline junkies than normal before the sun even rose at the North Shore marina. We knew we were at the right spot when we saw a passenger boat with a giant open shark’s mouth on the side.
Shiver. This is actually happening.
I didn’t want the crew to know how deep-seated my fear of sharks is. They might have felt obligated to encourage me to stay out of the water if they had an inkling that I might hyperventilate or something.
Our main guide must be used to some level of fear, however, and had his own method of keeping us all calm and happy.
“Have you done this before? Because we’re the new crew. Our first day was yesterday, and it didn’t go that well.”
“You’ll notice no employees get in the cage. There’s a reason for that. If you’d seen what I’ve seen you wouldn’t even get on this boat.”
“Life jackets are under this hatch. If you see me putting on a life jacket, you need one, too. Emergency exits are all around you.”
“If something goes wrong we may need you to step in and call for help. Just scream ‘Shark tour! Usual place!’ Happens all the time.”
“We are not a petting tour. Do not pet the sharks. They do not like to be petted.”
In a strange way, the jokes actually made me feel better. Obviously they had to be well trained with a great safety record to be able to operate, so such a care-free attitude must come from a firm knowledge that any threat of an accident was truly ridiculous.
I like that sort of confidence when meeting the stuff of nightmares.
They also gave us a short history of sharks and shark diving in Hawaii while we boated out the 20 minutes to our dive site.
This section of the North Shore of O’ahu is a popular cage diving spot because there has been a 60-year crabbing industry here. For decades boats have come to these exact waters to harvest crabs, with a habit of throwing unusable crabs back into the ocean. Gradually the sharks began to expect easy lunch when they heard the rumble of boat motors. Today, the hum of a boat is enough to draw them toward the surface. Thanks, Pavlov.
We were going swimming with Galapagos sharks; the most populous sharks off of the Hawaiian islands. Male Galapagos grow between 8-10 feet in length, females are 10-12 feet. They are scientifically classified as aggressive sharks based on their behavior of eating crabs, but they post virtually no threat to humans since they generally live at depths between 200-1200 feet.
When we approached our designated dive spot the cage we carried on the back of our boat was gently lowered into the ocean. Previously told to stay seated while we were moving, passengers now flocked to the starboard side of the boat to watch the three experts on board prepare the cage.
Looked sturdy enough.
The passengers were split into 2 viewing groups of around 8 people each. Assigned to the second group, Ben and I watched as members of the first group were fitted for face masks, told how to use them, how to climb into the cage, and where to stay. North Shore Shark Adventure employees were thorough in explaining that the cage was made of vertical metal rods with horizontal rods on the top and bottom which we should use as hand and feet holds. This way we could center ourselves against the bobbing of the cage or the floating of the salt water and to ensure constant visibility.
The members of the first group seemed to nod resolutely and then hesitantly back down the ladder into the cage as instructed. I was glad to see that a few seemed momentarily scared, but confident. If they could do it then maybe I could, too.
Our Turn to Meet the Sharks
It seemed like no time passed before the first group ascended from the water and our group was invited to get ready. They went through the cage entrance instructions a second time for us, but this time it was over in a flash and my ears were ringing so loudly I wasn’t able to understand them, anyway.
In no time Ben was helping me with my mask, giving me a private lesson on how to breathe with the tube, and ushering me to the entrance of the cage.
I was so nervous that I felt powerless, instead letting my body be guided by anyone with more reason and authority than I currently had.
I guess this is happening.
I was guided into the cage by experienced employees who are used to passengers who legs suddenly stop moving. They told me to slide down the left wall of the cage and to make my perch at the corner of the left and front walls by holding on the horizontal rods.
That was the hardest part.
I found myself practicing the Lamaze breathing I’d learned 6 years ago as I edged in the cold water toward my designated spot. I did take in a lot of water and started to panic, but I worked hard to calm my mind so I could calm my body and figure out how to stay alive.
This is it. I’m in the cage. I’m going to see sharks.
My body was buoyant in the salt water. I didn’t expect my limbs to get away from me so easily. We’d been advised not to stick anything out of the cage, but my knees and feet found their way through the wide vertical bars, anyway, as I tried to simultaneously get used to staying in the water and confront my deepest fear.
Ben slipped in beside me, cool as a cucumber, and he helped me descend into the water. The cage never sank, only we did, by holding deep breaths and re-emerging when needed for more air. Others stayed at the top of the water to breath continuously through their snorkels, but we’d been told the best way to see the sharks was to try and get to the bottom. I decided early on that if I was doing this I would do it all the way.
So under I went.
It took a few minutes to figure out how to regulate and calm my body and my breathing, but I was soon able to do it. I used the horizontal cross bars as hand holds to push myself underwater, and constantly scanned both the cage to check that my limbs were inside and the water for approaching enemies.
In the 20 minutes we were underwater we only saw a few sharks.
Only occasionally did we even see 2 at a time. You can typically see 100 feet away in the clear water, but after storms had pounded the island for days the seabed was too churned up for us to make out anything more than 10 feet away in the murky water. The wall of turquoise actually helped keep me calm. It gave me a chance to get used to the idea of seeing sharks as their shapes gradually emerged instead of constantly seeing them surround me near and far.
Up close the sharks were actually amazing creatures! Galapagos sharks seem pretty calm and generally non-aggressive. They never bumped into our cage, we didn’t see any open mouths, and they never felt too close. It was actually nice to be able to see them swim gracefully and realize there is nothing to be afraid of.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I was actually disappointed when we were called back into the boat. Disappointed and so, so, so proud of myself.
Not only had I actually gone in the cage, I had stayed in the cage! Not only had I stayed in the cage, I saw sharks! Not only did I see sharks, I liked them! They seemed sweet, even.
Final Thoughts on Shark Diving in Hawaii
I realize this was probably the best shark-seeing scenario for me: the employees were lighthearted, we used snorkels and stayed at the top of the water instead of SCUBA tanks at the bottom of the ocean, Galapagos sharks are less aggressive than many other species, and they weren’t coerced or made aggressive by chum.
A deep sea, Great White, or chum-induced shark tour would definitely be a more intense experience.
What I liked about North Shore Shark Adventures:
- They were in constant contact with me after I booked our shark dive
- Offer multiple tour types and times
- Fun employees
- Scenic boat ride
- Provided necessary equipment
- Offered to take pictures and videos
- Easy introduction to sharks
If you are planning a trip to O’ahu and are interested in shark diving in Hawaii please consider booking with North Shore Shark Adventures. Yes, our passage was complimentary, but they really did help me feel calm and the dive was incredible. I can’t imagine that any other tour is better!
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