“Excuse me, I don’t mean to alarm you, but I just wanted to let you know something very big was swimming near you just over there.”
We were about thigh-high in the surf of Oak Island beach off the North Carolina coast when this woman approached my two bikini-clad friends and me. The woman’s adolescent daughter was body-surfing the small waves in the shallows. The woman was calm, pleasant and non-alarmist, which I appreciated. We thanked her and moved to the shallows where sea and sand swirled around our ankles.
On a beach that had already witnessed two violent shark attacks this summer—a 12-year-old girl had lost an arm below the elbow and a 16-year-old boy lost an arm below the shoulder within the span of about an hour in June—North Carolina beachgoers have adopted an air of caution. Of the eight shark attacks off the NC coast this summer only the two on Oak Island resulted in loss of limb. So when the woman noticed something swimming in the water nearby we understandably moved to the shallows, muttered a few anxious jokes and hummed half-earnestly the Jaws theme song.
I’m not one to be scared of sharks. I respect them. Many species of shark are an apex predator ruling the top of ocean food chains. As keystone species their presence is a frequent measure of ecosystem health. Like most large predators, sharks do not actively prey on humans. While the thought of a Jaws-like monster lurking off beaches and hunting for soft human flesh is truly terrifying, the reality is that most shark attacks are a case of mistaken identity. Thrashing limbs in surf may look like a fish in distress, or our smooth mammalian bodies may look like a seal, a frequent choice of dinner for some sharks. In fact, the NOAA points out that sharks have much more to fear from us than we do from them. Humans frequently hunt sharks for meat, organs, and skin for products like shark fin soup and shark leather, to the point that overfishing threatens several shark populations. And in cases where almost nothing is known regarding the reproduction behavior of some sharks, including the Great White Shark who may take 25 to 30 years to reach sexual maturity, the risk of overfishing without knowledgable conservation techniques to ensure ocean sustainability is alarming.
My parents grew up with sensational shark attack stories, anecdotes of shark-infested waters after a wreck at sea, and the cultural phenomenon of Jaws, but my generation has grown up with a steadily increasing call for conservation, scientific understanding, and, of course, Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. While the junk science and mockumentary programming (not to mention the infamous Sharknado movie) of recent years has turned me away from Shark Week, the core appeal of learning more about some of the world’s most misunderstood species remains.
It was this fascination that drew me to the North Shore of Oahu this May when I visited Hawaii. I wanted to get closer to this amazing creature who could greatly exceed me in size, had a shocking alacrity and efficiency in the water, and had an uncanny knack for detecting trace amounts of blood dispersed in the ocean. So in my pursuit I took a two hour bus from Honolulu to Haleiwah, onto a boat two miles off shore, and then into a cage with snorkel gear and circling sharks.
SWIM WITH SHARKS. My parents and coworkers were convinced I was crazy for doing this, but seeing the manō up close was an incredible experience. It’s no surprise that the shark is a recurring figure in Hawaiian mythology. Frequently, manō are considered ‘aumākua, or the embodiment of an ancestral deity. They are respected for their power and ability, given deference in the water and even a portion of a fisherman’s catch, and, if they are hunted, they are used efficiently and in full (unlike killing sharks just for their fins and discarding the rest of the body in the ocean). The long tradition of giving sharks a portion of a catch has supposedly led sharks in Hawaii to associate the sound of motor boats with food. While chumming waters to attract sharks for viewing is illegal (chumming for fishing, what with the looming issue of overfishing is, however, legal), the sharks still reliably come. When I descended into the cage with a gaggle of fellow shark oglers it was late afternoon and the ocean surface was extremely choppy, but still the sharks came.
“From what I can see,” the tour operator said, “I think there are a few blacktip reef sharks and Galapagos sharks. Oh, and one big barracuda.”
The sharks circled the cage lazily, appearing and disappearing into the unbelievably blue water. I struggled for air at the surface where rough swells crashed into my snorkel tube, but below the surface it was almost serene. That is, if you didn’t count the pounding of blood in my ears from excitement at seeing the sharks so close and from my body straining for oxygen as I struggled to hold my breath for longer and longer.
At one point a blacktip - one of the smaller ones, about 3 or 4 feet long - skimmed just below the cage and I was so tempted to reach through the bars and touch it. I wondered if it would be smooth and soft like water-beaten skin or pebbly from its scales. Caution and common sense prevailed of course. They are wild animals and should be treated as such and I didn’t like the look the 5+ foot long barracuda cruising nearby was giving me. For some reason the fang-like teeth visibly protruding from the barracuda’s mouth looked more menacing than the rows of serrated dentition the sharks hid in their cartilaginous jaws.
The cage swim was much too short, though we spent a full 15 minutes in the water. I left Haleiwah with a deeper respect for the incredible creatures and a longing to do it again, only I didn’t plan on doing it unawares on Oak Island. Maybe next time I’d do a dive in SCUBA gear and with an underwater camera (who knew you can rent GoPros?!?). Oh, and I’d totally take some dramamine. It wasn’t clear if vomiting from seasickness counts as ‘illegal chumming’ but in Hawaii I came awful close to finding out. Too close.
P.S./Disclaimer: There are lots of opinions about the pros and cons of shark tours. I just presented my experience. Plenty of people have a negative experience (like the woman who got in the cage with me and immediately starting having a panic attack from being around the sharks), or have concerns regarding the impact of artificial interactions of humans and sharks such as these shark cage tours. It's also important to note how important fishing is to certain communities. I encourage you to research any tours or activities you may book and make responsible decisions. Also yes, getting in a cage around sharks is a potentially dangerous activity (but so is driving a car). Be responsible. Be careful.
P.P.S. If you want to see some higher resolution/image size pictures, check out the gallery! It's a work in progress, but you can see some of the better pictures there. Please note the page can be slow to load because of the image sizes. Thanks!