Shark Tales

Divers get personal with citizens of the sea

By: Maribeth Mellin

Hihimanu slid her slippery wings over my body, poking her face directly in front of my mask. I held forth a clam. She sucked it right out of my hand, then glided toward the water’s surface. A few feet away, a toothy tiger shark circled us with an aloof attitude. Sunny, yellow butterfly fish flitted about spikes of white finger coral. I hardly noticed the crowds on the other side of the glass, mesmerized instead by the antics of the graceful spotted eagle ray.

Like the creatures swirling around me, I was on exhibit at the Maui Ocean Center. Three mornings each week, certified scuba divers are allowed to glide past coral gardens in the center’s 750,000-gallon saltwater aquarium as part of the Shark Dive Maui program. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to swim with more than 2,000 fish, sharks and other citizens of the sea.

As groups were assembling at adjacent dive shops for trips to Maui’s reefs, I met up with my fellow divers at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning. We chosen few were guaranteed an exceptional dive in the largest tropical reef aquarium in the Western Hemisphere. The Maui Ocean Center’s exhibits are largely populated with creatures scooped or lured from nearby reefs. There are no thrill rides at this park. Instead, the emphasis is on education and exposure to the Hawaiian view of the sea.

Our introduction to the Shark Dive included a video presentation by Kahu (a guardian and caretaker) Charles Maxwell, the center’s Hawaiian cultural advisor. Sharks are sacred to Maxwell and his ancestors. Considered aumakuas (personal gods), Maxwell blesses all of the sharks that enter or leave the park.

“They take such good care of the animals here,” he said. “They are here only if they want to be.”

When sharks in the aquarium seem fed up with captivity, they are released on Maui’s many reefs. The tiger shark we would encounter was young, healthy and, according to divemasters, apparently a bit hungry after not eating for three days. The whitetip and gray reef sharks weren’t nearly so bothersome, but tiger sharks are considered the most dangerous species common to Hawaii. Maxwell said he sees tiger sharks as being more protective than threatening; I adopted his attitude.

We suited up on a rooftop above the aquarium, then slid over the edge onto a shallow ledge. Divemaster John Gorman took my hand as we swam through the 54-foot-long acrylic tunnel that connects sections of the aquarium and gives onlookers an overhead view of the sea. I was vaguely aware of the kids and adults pointing and taking pictures as we settled on the sandy floor of the tank. Hihimanu, the eagle ray whose name aptly means magnificent one, immediately showed up to play and eat.

It took a while to adapt to the awkward constraints of the tank: Divers are accustomed to the endless expanse of open ocean. Afraid of bumping into fragile coral heads or disturbing the sharks looming in the distance, I had a hard time gaining equilibrium. Eventually, I floated above a giant stingray trying to blend into the sand. Sensing my presence, it slowly opened a beady eye and drifted away. My eyes darted from the green moray eel slithering through rocks to a spotted pufferfish hovering like a spiky bubble. As Gorman led us back to the surface, I followed wide-eyed, trying to take in each bit of the watery scenery. Hihimanu bumped me with her mouth; I turned my palm to stroke the satiny underside of her wings.

“I have a new friend,” I boasted when I broke through the water’s surface. The other divers agreed that descriptions like “awesome” and “incredible” barely summed up the experience. Subdued and shivering slightly, we smiled a lot but shared few words, as if unwilling to break a spell. But we swore we’d be back inside that aquarium again.

The Shark Dive Maui is open to certified divers ages 15 and older. Only four divers are allowed to participate in the early morning dives, held on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The entire experience takes roughly two hours. Divers spend about 30 minutes in the water.
Advance reservations are essential. When booking your clients, make sure you know if they’ll be taking their dive gear along. If not, they can rent gear before the dive at one of the dive shops in Maalaea Harbor Village or the many Maui dive shop locations on the island.
Shark Dive Maui costs $199 per person, including equipment and aquarium admission for the diver and one guest. Agents get a 15 percent commission on bookings made online at Clients pick up their tickets at the center at a special entrance, bypassing long lines at general admission windows.