Jaws Encounter

Clients can swim with sharks on Oahu

By: Maribeth Mellin

The sun was just beginning to lighten the sky as I parked at Haleiwa Harbor on Oahu’s North Shore. A slight chill sent shivers up my spine when I walked toward the water. Surely the morning air was responsible for the goose bumps on my bare arms. It couldn’t possibly be the thought of snorkeling with sharks.

I’d signed up for a morning shark dive with Hawaii Shark Encounters on a lark, daring myself to up the ante in my quest to swim with as many sea creatures as possible. I’d already raced through the water with whale sharks (which happen to be totally harmless to humans) and gone diving with tiger sharks in the aquarium at the Maui Ocean Center. It was time to mingle with the big guys maybe even a mighty hammerhead.

I joined a group of fellow adventurers on the Kainani, a 32-foot boat that looked as though it couldn’t possibly withstand a shark attack. She was a fine vessel, all in all, with a toilet, hot-water shower and sound system softly playing the latest Jack Johnson ditty. The captain and mate seemed quite capable as we sailed smoothly out to sea past sailboats and hardy swimmers. The passengers chatted about the upcoming Honolulu mar-athon, which several planned to run the next day. Most of them looked fit, eager and a tad nervous. Some were downright terrified.

The boat slowed far too soon for comfort beside a metal cage bobbing in clear blue water. As the crew attached the cage to the back of the boat, we cleaned and adjusted our masks and snorkels, lathered on sunscreen and joked about our upcoming adventure. We noticed the mate lugging a foul-smelling bucket toward the back of the boat then dangling long strips of mahimahi over the water. Nasty-looking gray sand sharks soon swarmed around his outstretched hand, snatching the offerings. As the captain beckoned us toward the cage we all politely demurred, saying we’d allow someone else the first turn.

Two brave young men strapped on their masks and descended a ladder into the cage. Soon they were snapping photos of sand and Galapagos sharks baring their teeth just inches from the metal bars. My husband and I took the next turn, and my shivers turned to tremors as my body hit cold choppy water. I grasped at the cage’s upper metal bars and nearly growled when my husband pulled at my arms while pointing at sharp teeth just inches from my fingers. Silly me, I’d forgotten the first rule of shark snorkeling don’t offer your body as bait. Settling behind the Plexiglas panels lining the lower walls of the cage, I tried to breathe slowly and take in the scenery.

A dozen or so sharks circled the cage, bumping the glass with their hard, bulky bodies. Though in reality they were probably only three or four feet long, they looked enormous and most definitely dangerous. Their mouths seemed constantly open in sinister snaggle-toothed grins and their tails whipped the water into frothy waves. They ignored the schools of mackerel and small tuna darting toward the boat for a bit of chum as if strips of wahoo and mahimahi were hardly worth their attention.

I glanced down and spotted a pretty little yellow and blue filefish floating at the bottom of the cage. It looked injured and intimidated. I wondered what would keep a particularly hungry shark from swimming over the top of the cage and descending to feast upon our bodies. Our guides had assured us the sharks were virtually harmless, as long as we stayed inside the Plexiglas. But they hadn’t mentioned that the top of our cage was totally open to invasion. I figured that upped the danger quotient considerably.

To be honest, I was glad I didn’t spot a hulking hammerhead or fearsome white shark. This relatively easy encounter with Galapagos and sand sharks was enough excitement for one morning, as we all agreed when safely back onboard the Kainani. I’ll gladly wait until I’m safely ensconced in a full-scale shark cage with sturdy steel bars on all four sides before tackling my next shark adventure. We all felt a bit stronger, braver and more confident as we chatted excitedly on our way back to shore.

When I spotted the runners at the marathon the next morning, they proudly sported their new Shark Encounter T-shirts and an air of invincibility.


Prices: $100 per adult and $50 per child under 12 and passengers who don’t want to get into the shark cage. Rates are commissionable.
Schedule: 7:30 and 10 a.m. in winter; 6, 8:30 and 11 a.m. in summer. Tours last two hours. Advance reservations are necessary.

Hawaii Shark Encounters