Taking the Plunge: Shark diving, Ecotourism, and the Curse of Steven Spielberg

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“We don’t need to love them like people love dolphins; just don’t fear them” – Ocean Ramsey

“The opposite of life is fear.” I stumbled upon this quote one day and it made me pause. I inhaled the simple truth of the statement and let it linger; don’t we stop experiencing life fully when we’re fearful of something? When anxiety over an exam grade or a relationship is gnawing away at us, don’t we brush our friends off or miss the beauty of the clouds or forget to feel gratitude for the day? I decided right then that I would make this my new life motto and vowed never to let fear interrupt my life. And then I found out I’d be plunging into the open ocean with sharks.

My boss and friend Marlu West, of Save the Sea Turtles International, loved to tell stories about her son Juan and his many adventures.  He had been a life-long ocean lover and a captain for the notorious Sea Shepherd Conservation Society that uses direct, aggressive tactics to thwart cetacean slaughter across the globe.  His current occupation is shark researcher and marine photographer.  His partner, Ocean Ramsey, has equally intriguing credentials.  A marine biologist and shark conservationist herself, Oceans is an expert in SCUBA and free diving, and oh yeah, she’s famous for riding the dorsal fins of the ocean’s supreme predator – Great Whites.  Marlu calls her a prodigy.  They’ve teamed up to form the groups OneOcean Diving and Water Inspired, who’s goals, in addition to conducting research, are to demystify the idea that sharks are killing machines and to change people’s perception of sharks.  “And sometimes they take guests on their research boat to dive with the sharks too” Marlu told me.  “If you’re lucky, maybe we can make something like that work out for you” she said with a twinkle in her eye.  I agreed that it would take a lot of luck alright, while inside I thought it sounded insane and hoped she’d forget.  She didn’t.  About a month later, I got the call saying Marlu had signed me up for the 6 AM tour out of the Hale’iwa Harbor on O’ahu’s North Shore in two days.  I almost cried from excitement and fear.

Now, I understand and appreciate the ecological importance of sharks as much as the next conservationist, and I firmly believe shark specialists when they say that sharks aren’t the mindless killing machines that our “Jaws”-crazed society makes them out to be.  Heck, I even went cage diving with them last year and lived to tell the tale.  But you can bet that I still fear the imaginary shark circling beneath my surfboard anytime I’m waiting for a wave, or am terrified of the sight of a dorsal fin piercing the water, even if it turns out to be a dolphin’s.  But I love animals and any chance to encounter them in their natural habitat.  Experiences like this are so precious and unique to me, they are what makes life worth living.  And with the OneOcean tour, you even get to help with the daily shark research.  Plus, breaking out of your comfort zone is always healthy and rewarding.  So I was in, albeit nervously.

A Bite of Shark Conservation:

  • Sharks are a vital part of marine ecosystems and are known as an “apex predator”, or top predator in the food web, and many food webs would collapse without the regulatory role of the apex predator
  • They function as the white blood cells of the ocean and keep fish and mammal populations robust and healthy by hunting the sick and weak; they keep coral reefs healthy by balancing the population of herbivorous fish that eat the coral
  • Oceanic ecosystems that provides 1/3 of our world’s food, produces more oxygen than all the rainforests combined, removes half of the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide, and controls our planet’s temperature and weather – and sharks keep this all in balance (sharkangels.org)
  • Scientists estimate that over the past 50 years, 90% of the world’s shark population has disappeared
  • Researcher Taylor Chapple calls the ocean the “blue Serengeti” and the sharks are “the lions, keeping everything in check – they deserve just as much respect and admiration as the big cats”

I met Juan and Ocean on an early Tuesday morning while the sky was still yawning pink and lavender in the East.  They were as wonderful as I imagined they’d be and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved to see that they still had all their limbs intact.  We loaded gear onto the tiny research boat Pono Kai, meaning “righteous/benevolent sea” and set off with a few other guests and a research assistant named Riley Elliott.  The moment we pulled out of the harbor you could feel a shift in the balance of power; we humans were no longer in control, and we were surrendering ourselves to the might of the ocean.  You cannot dominate the ocean and you cannot predict it.  No matter how much time you spend in the water you are always a visitor in a strange and volatile world.

We sped out about a mile offshore before dropping anchor.  Juan, Ocean, and Riley taught us about diving protocol and the different species of sharks we might encounter and the unique behavioral patterns of each.  We were told that tiger sharks, infamous for their aggression, had been sighted just the day before.  At this, I felt the butterflies in my stomach turn into bats.  They are very calculating predators that will circle just outside your peripherals and study your movements until they figure out where your blind spots are….and then they will come at you from that direction.  Juan told us that if we were to see one in the water, we would all swim carefully to the boat and avoid eye contact with the tiger.  We could take a quick glance, but then must turn away and hold onto the boat.  I assumed that he would go on to tell us that eye contact would just incite them like a territorial dog and that we would climb back into the boat and say our prayers, but I was way off.  Like most sharks, Juan said, tigers are skittish about eye contact and if you look at them too much they will be frightened away.  Which they assured was actually a bad thing because tigers are becoming rare and not much is known about them.  Seeing them in the cool waters of the North Shore is great luck and would provide invaluable data and insight.

No bloody chum was churned in the water; our guides explained that shrimping and crabbing vessels had historically harvested these waters for decades and sharks enjoyed a free lunch of cast off shrimps and crabs, bycatch, and bait.  The sound and charge from our boat’s engine in the water could attract sharks without having to chum the waters, which was safer since the sharks weren’t driven into an aggressive frenzy from the scent of blood.  And sure enough, after a few moments there they were.  Long, dark silhouettes circling our boat on both sides.  Before I had time to psych myself out, I pulled on my fins and swim shirt and secured my mask into place.  Ocean dove off the side like a nymph to establish a “safe zone” around the boat and I waddled to the ladder, took one final breath, and plunged in. Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 10.43.49 PM The immediate shock of the cold took my breath away and the overwhelmingly vast blueness of the water made the terrestrial mammal within me weak, but in an instant I felt all of my fears dissolve.  It’s so quiet underwater.  We’re used to the music and sound effects of Blue Planet and Finding Nemo but in reality, the pressurized silence of the ocean envelopes you like thick blue cotton.  And then there were the sharks.  There were more than a dozen sandbar sharks, noted for their long dorsal fin, short snout, and mild disposition.  Each were between eight and twelve feet long.  Ocean had explained that they were a gregarious species with a loose system of hierarchy.  Position in the water column was key – the higher the shark swims, the more dominant it is.  As I floated near the surface my eyes began to adjust to the layers of blue.  It was like stargazing: the more I looked, the more sharks I could pick out from the gloom. At first I didn’t stray far from the boat, but as I became more confident I dove deeper and approached the sharks, even following their placid circles around our boat.  When I was close enough to make eye contact with one, I got quite a shock: its eyes moved and looked right back at me.  I had thought that their eyes would be stationary and dull like the fish at the market, but the little yellow lenses swiveled and tracked me with an alert and curious glow.  There was a mind behind those eyes. Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 10.39.45 PM

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“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught”

Watching the sharks was absolute peace.  Their movements exuded easy power and grace.  The smallest sweep of their muscular tails propelled them forward and they parted the water like a blade.  They have inherited a noble and ancient design that has changed little over millions of years and has bestowed upon them the role of primordial marine predator.  Watching them, I felt a deep surge of gratitude and respect for the sharks.  Before diving in I was pumping myself up by thinking that I would be conquering a fear.  But an attitude of domination was the wrong attitude; I hadn’t conquered anything.  These sharks had allowed me to enter their watery domain.  Even the smallest one could inflict fatal injuries, but instead they acknowledged me peacefully and let me experience their world.  I was slower than the slowest ray, softer than a sea slug, and more defenseless than a seal pup, but they let me live.  It makes me sad now to think about how we’ve persecuted them because of an unfounded fear and if one was ever in our backyard or even our shoreline we would want it driven away or killed, but when we’re in their territory they are tranquil and indifferent.

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They have inherited a noble and ancient design that has changed little over millions of years and has bestowed upon them the role of primordial marine predator.

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My time in the water felt like both an eternity and a split second.  Before I knew it our time was up and we were heading back.  After I said my “mahalo’s” and “aloha’s” to Juan, Ocean, and Riley, I sat in my car with my eyes closed for a good ten minutes, letting it all sink in.  I couldn’t believe what had happened!  I felt completely different than the girl who had been sitting in this very seat just a few hours before.  I understood conservation on a whole new level, one where respect flows between you and the animal and you’re filled with wonder.  I have been changed for good by this experience.  It has helped me overcome my irrational fear of sharks and I feel a sense of freedom now when I snorkel, dive, surf, and swim.  I understand them better and know that they are a part of a web that doesn’t always include us.  Ecotourism experiences like this are what sharks – and humans – need most.  You can’t buy into the sensationalized image of sharks as bloodthirsty murderers; the simple and statistical fact is that humans are decimating them at a rate far greater (for every one human killed by a shark, 25 million sharks are killed by humans).  We need them for the health of the marine ecosystems, the planet, and our own species.  I used to advocate for shark conservation with all the enthusiasm of a person with next to no personal experience, but I now defend them with passion and urgency.  I thank them, from the bottom of my heart, for this lesson in Ka Hô`ihi, respect.

                                                                                  ~ ~ ~

When I finally got the pictures from the trip, I was overjoyed.  I wasted no time in loading one onto Instagram, but I was stumped on what I should write for the caption.  I’m not eloquent enough to sum up the experience in 500 characters or less nor do I think I could single out just one memory to write about.  I considered going for the humor angle and writing something like “Shark bait” or “#askingfortrouble”, or, in the words of Ula from 50 First Dates, “Sharks: they only bite when you touch their private parts”.  But then I knew what it had to be:

“The opposite of life is fear.”

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Biggest Mahalo to Juan, Ocean, Riley, and Marlu for the experience of a lifetime!  You can check them out at http://www.oneoceandiving.com and http://www.waterinspired.com to learn more or to book a dive if you’re in Hawai’i.  













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