Swimming with the Sharks

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“Malia Lt Blue top Image”

When my friend Matt Waggner told me there is a business in Haleiwa that specializes in shark adventure tours, I could not even picture what that would be like. He told me the business, North Shore Shark Adventures, has employees who take visitors three miles out in the ocean, throw bloody fish guts into the water to attract sharks, and then put the visitors in a tiny cage so they can watch huge toothy sharks swim around them. I thought he was nuts.


Who in their right mind would do such a stupid thing? I asked him.

I was hoping you would, he said.

Not wanting to be a complete chicken, I thought about his offer. Sure I probably swim with the sharks often when I am surfing or kayaking in the deep blue, but the key is I don’t ”’know”’ the toothy fellows are in fact below me, eyeing me up.

However, should I take the plunge and go on the shark adventure, there is little doubt that not only would I see a shark or two, but I would look pretty tasty to them. After all, the bloody fish guts would likely only wet their appetite, not be enough to supplement their diet.

In a moment of weakness I agreed to go and it was at that moment that I started to hear all the news reported in the local and national media about sharks.

First the man on Oahu was bit on the foot by a shark, which later was reported to be a ”’Great White Shark.”’ I thought about that for a minute, … OK more than a minute. A great white shark like the kind in the motion picture Jaws could probably swallow the entire cage I’d be swimming in with room to spare.

Just as the great white shark image began to fade and I was coming to grips with the cage in the ocean concept, a story ran on KITV about great white sharks and how they are known to pass through Hawaii. I imagined a great white shark and his friends swimming by just as I jumped in the shark cage. Would they bother to stop and taste me? Would the fish blood be just like catsup on a Malia burger?

Flipping through the channels trying to get away from the shark news, I turned on the Discovery Channel, only to see sharks, sharks and ”’more sharks.”’ It seemed everywhere I looked there were sharks. Was it a sign of something and if so what? I asked myself.

Time flew by and the night before I was to go on the shark adventure, my life started to flash before my eyes. I realized if the shark did break through the cage and eat me, or tip the cage over and eat me, that I was leaving an awfully messy desk behind. Look at all that work someone else would have to do, I thought to myself, starring at my desk and surrounding files. And my car needs cleaning, and I have so many stories to write, not to mention I still have 10 years until my 8-year-old son goes to college. And he is in the phase where he still actually likes me and isn’t yet embarrassed by me, so he might actually be sad and miss me if I am eaten to bits.

The daylight came and I headed out to the North Shore. No turning back now. I would tempt fate and go for it. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d done something crazy. In fact, it wouldn’t even be the 100th time. But I could not shake the bad feeling deep in the pit of my stomach.

I boarded a boat with five other people, three other guests and a captain and assistant. Right away I noticed a black baseball bat on the side of the boat.

“What’s that for,” I asked unsure if I wanted to know.

“Just in case the shark jumps up toward the boat,” said Matt, who decided to accompany me on the shark adventure. I eyed the bat some more, hoping he was kidding, but I never did find that out.

As we rode deeper and deeper into the sapphire blue ocean, waves rocking us from the side as we headed straight out, we could see the entire landscape of the North Shore of Oahu. It was breathtaking.

Fifteen minutes later, we arrived at an odd looking scene — a tiny metal jail like cage big enough for two people bobbing up and down in the waves.

The captain explained two at a time could put on masks and snorkels, climb into the cage and float around for 15 to 20 minutes.

He gave the last minute instructions as he whipped those fish blood and guts I’d heard about into the water. Like clockwork, sharks, virtually invisible to the passengers on the boat, rose to the surface in less than a minute and began to circle.

The captain warned everyone, as the hungry sharks started to lick their chops and eye us from the water, not to put our hands or feet outside of the cage.

”’No kidding.”’

What fool needs to be reminded to keep their hands and feet in the cage when 6- to 8-foot sharks with rows and rows of teeth are just inches away?

Understandably, the other female passenger on the boat was not sure she wanted to go in the cage and she motioned for me to go first, even though I was hoping she’d go first. As I stood there pondering the final moments before the plunge, the waves began to pick up and so did the wind and the cage rocked wildly from side to side. I prayed … OK God, if you don’t think I should go in, then let the cage sink right now, … … … … .

Only the wind responded. The cage stayed afloat. So be it, I said accepting my fate.

Inside the cage, I had the choice to watch the sharks from above the water or to go under the water and go nose to nose with them. As I went under the water, I saw 8 to 10 sharks circling around me and below me and I was extremely thankful for the thin metal bars.

Just as I became a little comfortable with the shark in the water idea and began to enjoy their beauty, strength and grace, and see the shiny blue fish around them, the sharks started to move in even closer (if that was possible) and bang the cage. The sharks hitting the cage jolted me and made a loud startling sound underwater. Whoosh! I popped my head up out of the water, whipped off my mask and asked the captain a stupid question: “are they supposed to be doing that … banging the cage like that?”

“Bad sharks,” he said, jokingly. “Stop banging the cage.”

Hmmm, I thought, what kind of answer is that? Guess it is normal activity for them.

But in lifting my head to talk to the captain, I noticed the boat somehow had floated away from the cage and we were now about 10 feet from what I considered safety — the deck of the boat.

That is when I decided the whole concept was so crazy that I’d just have to let go of my fears and enjoy the experience — sharks bumping, waves crashing, cage rocking, wind blowing and all. Even when a big piece of fish floated into the cage under my feet and the sharks came in closer eyeing it.

We got to take one more dive with the sharks before we left, but then the wind and waves picked up even further and the captain told us it was time to head for shore.

We nearly flew above the water, waves crashing on the edge of the speeding boat and showering us with their cool mist.

Back safe on land, I realized how silly my initial fears were, how needlessly I’d psyched myself out, and how glad I was I took the shark challenge.

Now back to the Legislature I went (smelling just a little fishy) prepared to cover political stories of betrayal, plunder and deception and the fall out from the special session. A funny thing happened when I got there. Everywhere I looked, there were sharks — only this time they were on land and posing as our elected officials.

”’Malia Zimmerman, president and editor of Hawaii Reporter, can be reached via email at:”’ mailto:Malia@HawaiiReporter.com