Cage-diving with sharks, and possibly flaunting Darwin's law...
  • Cage-diving with sharks, and possibly flaunting Darwin's law...
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If you're in Oahu and seen enough scary people in panda suits waiting for you to give them money so they can lunge at your face, why not try a shark cage tour?

There is a debate in Hawaii about that very question. Locals argue about whether the tours are good for the sharks, whether they're good for the people sticking their hands out of the cages to pet the sharks, and what kind of liability such stupidity will rain down on the small companies that run the tours.

The debate continues in Oahu, and, to my knowledge, such tours no longer exist on other Hawaiian islands. The other sharks go about their badass, black-eyed lives unbothered. The tourists keep their fingers (thus, throwing yet another wrench in Darwin's plan), and small businesses move onto less risky things, like shark freediving.

While on a family vacation in Hawaii, my father especially was anxious that we participate in a shark cage tour. He'd done it before. He'd been stung across his chest by jellyfish and puked on by seasick jocks, so naturally he felt a strong urge to return.

My mother and brother were both committal and non-committal at the same time. I don't know how they managed it but they did. I suspect it's a mix of "I don't really care if we do this although I'd rather not" with a small dose of "Your father won't shut up about this for years if I don't get on the damn boat." On the boat they came, their gazes steadfast and mildly bored with the occasional flash of terror as we pushed farther out to sea.

We had with us a party of about 15. The two crewmen, my family of four and two other families that looked remarkably similar. They were all large, white, and had conversations filled with phrases like, "DONNIE, GET YOUR FINGERS OFF THAT STEERING WHEEL!" They were loud but they were friendly. And I knew I could out-swim them.

If you've been on any water tour, then you already know the crew. Baseball caps or short cropped hair, t-shirts with the company name, sun-craggled faces, indifferent and slightly annoyed. But you know (or, you hope you know) they'd risk their lives for you (up to a certain point – I mean, honestly, there's got to be a point where you'd just say, "You’re an idiot, you're on your own," but to their credit I've never seen them get there).

As we moved out to sea, they started the "talks" about boat and cage safety, as well as the environmental debate with a slight bias. They told us to try not to pet the sharks or accidentally leave an appendage hanging out of the cage. I started to laugh when they said "please don't try to pet the sharks," but then I looked at my group. And I understood. They were disappointed. I began to wonder if the woman in the tankini standing recklessly on the back of the boat and her family had really thought this thing through.

The crew then went onto tell us that they ran this operation because they loved the ocean. They loved the sharks. They felt the experience brought people a better understanding of sharks, and they did not want to be shut down.

On and on went the boat into open water until we couldn't see the shoreline. The crew then announced without prelude that sharks were usually seen in this area. Almost on cue, big, sleek, dark shapes appeared when the boat's engines were cut, and a metal cage of about 8'x5' was dropped into the water and assembled. A ladder was attached to the boat's edge. It started above deck and ended in the cage somewhere underwater.

Ok, we were told, anytime you want, go on in.

There is a moment with things like this, when everyone looks at everyone else. There's silence and wide eyes and unspoken questions. Is this the most stupid thing we could have done this morning? Did I ever change that will? Who's going in first?

After a healthy moment of silence, a middle-aged man popped his snorkeling gear on, and with a, "There's nothing to be afraid of, you guys are weak!" lowered himself into the water slower than a sloth on muscle relaxants. His teenage son followed him in faster, having learned to fake manliness early in his young life. They both lasted about five minutes, shouting things like "Oh MY GOD that's close!" and "Are they usually this big? I mean, I know they're BIG, but are they supposed to be THIS BIG?", before falling back onto the boat because they'd forgotten to take off their flippers. They never went back. But you know what? Everything else aside, it took guts to be the first ones in.

Having seen the sharks surrounding the cage and it maintaining its integrity with the two bigger, flailing men inside, I volunteered to go with the next group. As soon as I hit the water, there were the fins.

Big fins, small fins, medium fins. They sliced in and out of the air in constant motion, sometimes graceful, sometimes sloppy with wet kickback and waves. The sharks were between three and seven feet, the crew guessed, of a variety of those commonly found in those waters. I froze for a minute as the adrenaline started to run and the theme from Jaws began playing in my head.

One deep breath, two deep breaths... jump. There was a rush of water and panic, and then I took a clear snorkel breath. I opened my eyes to see that my mask was clear and leak-free, and ever so slowly a sense of calm overcame me. Then the excitement started to build as the shapes came together underwater.

I swam to the farthest edge of the cage, a comfortable place to stay for awhile. There are fewer people around unaccustomed to open water movement and likely to knock you into the bars while trying to get their bearings.

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bvamp Jan. 31, 2013 @ 7:08 p.m.

Great mental images, especially if you've been there. It is quite a rush when you look down and can't see bottom but can see a barracuda that could fit between the bars and sharks all around. What a memory!


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