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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
“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