Jump in a shark cage off Hawaii? Yes, people pay to do this


OFF THE SHORE OF OAHU, Hawaii — It was only when the sharks had a mo­men­tary feed­ing frenzy 6 feet from me that the won­drous beauty of Hawai­ian na­ture was eclipsed by a “what am I do­ing here?” mo­ment.

I had sur­faced, and so had two big 9-foot­ers, and all that sep­a­rated us was the top cou­ple bars of the shark cage in which I treaded wa­ter.

I looked at the metal bars, ris­ing just a foot or so above the sur­face, and the ques­tion arose: Are sharks good jump­ers?

I was about three miles off Oahu’s North Shore on a “shark en­coun­ter” out­ing aboard the good ship Kainani. Well, I wasn’t ex­actly “aboard” at the mo­ment — I was with two other tour­ists from the main­land (call them my en­coun­ter group) splash­ing about in­side an open-topped, 8-foot-square cage held up by bal­loon-shaped floats and teth­ered about 10 feet from the boat.

We’d mo­tored 20 min­utes out of Haleiwa Har­bor. In the light of dawn, wind­blown roll­ers kept the boat — and our masked, snor­kel-spiked heads — bob­bing. Be­neath us was 800 feet of blue­berry-col­ored wa­ter.

And sharks were ev­ery­where.

Ninety min­utes ear­lier, my travel alarm beeped me awake in dark­ness. As I lis­tened to North Shore roost­ers crow and June rain pat­ter out­side my rented pool house, my sleep-de­prived brain hatched one clear thought: “What kind of id­iot am I?”

My wife had found this ad­ven­ture on­line and emailed me the link as a joke. She didn’t think I was this dumb; I signed right up. The out­fit­ter highly rec­om­mended the day’s first out­ing, 6:30 a.m., for the calm­est wa­ters, so there I was.

The rain had stopped and the ris­ing sun peeked from be­hind bil­low­ing clouds as we bounced our way sea­ward in the 25-foot Kainani. Ours wasn’t the first shark boat to leave the har­bor.

We’d just signed the most de­tailed and graphic le­gal waiver I’d ever seen, ac­knowl­edg­ing that mess­ing about in a shark cage can re­sult not only in phys­i­cal in­jury or death — the ob­vi­ous things — but in “se­ri­ous emo­tional in­jury.”

That was food for thought dur­ing the ride out.

Be­fore sign­ing up, I did a lit­tle check­ing. On its Web site, my cho­sen out­fit­ter painted it­self as ded­i­cated to en­vi­ron­men­tal ed­u­ca­tion and teach­ing cli­ents about sharks.

Pro­po­nents of div­ing with sharks cite the ed­u­ca­tional value of en­abling vis­i­tors to ap­pre­ci­ate the beauty of these wild an­i­mals while also con­trib­ut­ing to the tour­ism econ­omy. How­ever, oth­ers op­pose “shark en­coun­ters” on these grounds:

— The po­ten­tial harm of mak­ing sharks ac­cus­tomed to hu­mans, ren­der­ing sharks eas­ier prey for fish­ing boats and less able to sur­vive in the wild.

— The pos­si­bil­ity that shark boats will lure sharks closer to beaches to threaten surf­ers and swim­mers.

— Some tra­di­tional Hawai­ian fam­i­lies wor­ship sharks as their ‘au­makua, or fam­ily god, and re­gard shark tour­ism as ex­ploitive and dis­re­spect­ful.

While there are clear ad­van­tages to hav­ing an in­formed pub­lic with first­hand knowl­edge of the beauty of na­ture, as is some­times the case with “eco-ad­ven­tures” there was an eth­i­cal ques­tion. Here, it was whether they drop food over­board — chum the wa­ters — to at­tract sharks.

Not only did I not wish to swim among bloody fish en­trails, such ac­tiv­ity can mod­ify the be­hav­ior of wild an­i­mals and af­fect their abil­ity to sur­vive on their own. (It’s the same rea­son you see “don’t feed the ducks” signs in parks.) For such rea­sons, state and fed­eral reg­u­la­tions pro­hibit feed­ing sharks in Hawaii.

I con­tacted the com­pany up front. They as­sured me by email that they don’t feed sharks.

So why do sharks come to their boats?

For years, crab­bers and fish­er­men have thrown fish waste off boats out here, “so these sharks are ac­cus­tomed to be­ing fed off boats,” ex­plained Phil Oury, Kainani’s young crew­man.

“And don’t tell the com­pe­ti­tion, but we have the same en­gine as the crab­ber, so the sound is the same,” added our skip­per, Rich Whyte. “It’s like the ice-cream truck!”

We soon ar­rived at the shark cage, which our crew had brought out and teth­ered to a moor­ing at first light. After a few in­struc­tions, dur­ing which she looked al­most as green as dis­tant Kaena Point, fel­low pas­sen­ger Carla Creameans of San Diego was first into the cage. She splashed, ducked un­der, then quickly sur­faced and called out, “They’re here!”

These typ­i­cally are sand­bar sharks and larger, 8 to 9-foot Ga­la­pa­gos sharks, Oury said. “They’re a very bold shark, not afraid to come up to the boat. But in all our ex­pe­ri­ence over the years, they’re re­ally doc­ile an­i­mals.”

For what is billed as an ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence, there wasn’t a lot more ed­u­ca­tional talk, though the crew was happy to an­swer ques­tions.

Once in the wa­ter, I ducked my mask un­der and there they were, in­deed: bat­tle­ship gray, six or eight or more at a time, cir­cling the cage and the boat. Big dor­sals, like ax heads, and long, dag­ger-pointed tail fins slic­ing the sea.

They glided with­out ap­par­ent ef­fort, stud­ies in stream­lin­ing, against an end­less back­drop of blue wa­ter. I couldn’t stop look­ing. I took big gulps of air and dived to­ward the bot­tom of the cage, where the wa­ter was calm and quiet. Some came nos­ing up cu­ri­ously. I felt awed, not threat­ened.

Oury had loaned me his un­der­wa­ter cam­era, a soap-bar sized GoPro Hero. In about 20 min­utes I shot more than 70 pho­tos, some­times dar­ing to stick my hand out through the cage. But not for long.

The real “Jaws” mo­ment was when I was catch­ing my breath at the wa­ter’s sur­face, look­ing out from the cage, and saw a high dor­sal fin break the wa­ter and dart quickly to­ward me.

The re­ac­tion was vis­ceral. It was like look­ing up rail­road tracks at a lo­co­mo­tive’s head­light and I was driv­ing the stalled car. Cue the scary mu­sic:

“Ba-dum, ba-dum, BA-DUM ...”

If you go:

Two guide ser­vices of­fer shark-cage dives off Oahu’s North Shore. Both op­er­ate out of Haleiwa Small Boat Har­bor, about an hour’s drive from Wai­kiki, and go out sev­eral times a day de­pen­dent on weather:

— I went with Hawaii Shark En­counters. $105 adult, $75 for kids younger than 12, $90 for mil­i­tary; www.ha­wai­isharken­coun­ters.com or 808-351-9373.

— North Shore Shark Ad­ven­tures of­fers a spe­cial on­line rate of $96 for adults, re­duced from $120; $60 for kids 3-13; www.shark­tour­sha­waii.com or 808-228-5900.

More in­for­ma­tion: www.go­ha­waii.com/oahu