On a calm, early mid-July morning, beneath the surface of the cobalt-blue Hawaiian sea 3 miles from shore, a silent communication was taking place between two species of predators. An 8-foot-long male Galapagos shark slowly circled four swimmers, who kept turning to maintain eye contact with him, as they had been instructed by their guide, Ocean Ramsey.
“When you turn your head and make eye contact, you’re communicating to the shark that you’re a predator, not prey,” Ramsey, co-founder of the company One Ocean Diving, had explained on the boat ride out to the dive site, a place where sharks “naturally aggregate” in waters 300 feet deep above an underwater ledge.
There, where the land slopes into the oceanic depths, she said, sharks are drawn by strong, converging currents where cooler water upwells and nutrients tend to be more abundant, attracting fish.
The shark was beautiful, a long streak of gray with a white belly and white flashing along his fins. He swam without visible effort, muscles lightly rippling in the clear underwater light, scarcely seeming to move his fins or tail. Even if you hadn’t been told, you couldn’t take your eyes off him.
As he glided past, the shark’s yellow eyes met the eyes of the humans through the glass of their face masks. There was nothing else but water between him and the divers.
Sharks are having a moment, and most of the media spotlight has not been positive.
One week ago world champion surfer Mick Fanning had a live, on-camera tussle with a great white shark that bumped him during the J-Bay Open surf contest in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa. The Australian survived physically intact but badly shaken.
Learn about the six sharks you’re most likely to meet in Hawaii
In April a snorkeler off Maui died after being bitten by a tiger shark, and by the time the Discovery Channel’s wildly popular “Shark Week” programming launched July 5, it had almost been upstaged by the media outcry over eight real-life shark attacks on North Carolina swimmers, two of whom lost an arm, and 11 attacks in Florida. (And should we mention the campy made-for-TV movie “Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!” which premiered Wednesday on Syfy?)
Although the string of incidents in North Carolina is unusual for that state, there’s been no increase in shark attacks nationwide compared with last year, according to George H. Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research and Web editor of the International Shark Attack File.
“A lot’s been made of the North Carolina situation by the major national media outlets in the area. But here in Florida, where we get 25 or so of these bites a year, there’s not much press interest,” Burgess said.
Hawaii, too, has had an average year so far, with two shark attacks, including the only U.S. fatality to date in 2015, Burgess said. Last year in the U.S. there were 52 attacks, including seven in Hawaii, and no fatalities.
Overall, the number of shark attacks has steadily risen over the past century, probably because more and more people have been going into the ocean, Burgess said. At the same time, the number of fatal shark attacks has fallen, probably because of better beach safety and rescue services and public awareness of the ocean predators.
Still, when it comes to how the media reports shark behavior, “It’s partly a perception problem,” he said.
For instance, although no one can read a shark’s mind, Burgess said that based on the great white’s behavior in the Fanning encounter, he thinks the shark was not bent on making a meal of the surfer.
“My impression is that it looked like the shark was not specifically attacking, not barreling up from below the way that great whites do. It just sort of surfaced slowly and sauntered its way in, in an investigative manner,” he said, noting that surfers’ paddling, splashing and boards attract the animals.
“I think they’re just inquisitive.”
That said, he added, the sharks will sometimes come up and bite a floating object, like a hunk of Styrofoam, out of curiosity.
Despite the widely reported fatalities, maimings and bites, humans seem more fascinated by sharks and interested in encountering the fearsome creatures than ever. Witness actor Zac Efron’s dive in June with a tiger shark off Haleiwa, which got wide exposure when he shared video and photos of what he called an “epic” experience.
Shark ecotourism, which generates $314 million a year worldwide, is expected to more than double over the next 20 years, according to a 2013 study by researchers at the University of British Columbia, University of Hawaii and the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California Sur in Mexico.
What’s the allure? Based on recent interviews with participants in cage and free-swimming shark viewing tours in Haleiwa, people are motivated by thrill-seeking, curiosity and a desire to overcome their fear.
“I’ve always been so scared of sharks, but once I saw how beautiful they are in the water, now I’m in love with them,” said Natasha Brolick, 26, visiting from Melbourne, Australia, after viewing Galapagos sharks from an underwater cage during a July 16 dive with Hawaii Shark Encounters of Haleiwa.
“I’ve seen sharks swimming around me from a glass tunnel at the Melbourne Aquarium, but here I was right next to them in their real environment. I loved it. I saw a shark eat a fish right in front of my face, and I wasn’t scared,” said Elise Perri, 23, Brolick’s friend.
The cage tours frequent a site 3 miles off Haleiwa where a crab- fishing fleet used to set its baited traps 50 years ago. Although Hawaii Shark Encounters does not chum the water (an illegal practice since 2009), sharks in the area continue to associate engine noise with food.
During the ride out on the dive boat Kainani, Capt. Richard Whyte and mate Darrin Whittaker gave safety briefings, pointing out the two fire extinguishers “in case we catch on fire again” and regaling the 13 passengers with facts and statistics, noting that the first sharks appeared on Earth 450 million years ago.
Asked whether they get many local people in addition to visitors, Whyte replied (in jest), “All the time, and we only lost one of ’em.”
On deck before the dive, the crew got serious, asking everyone to keep their eyes on the captain, not the sharks circling the boat, to learn the right and wrong way to get in the metal cage and comport oneself while inside. Conditions were rough, with wind and swells, and divers were advised to grip an interior bar for stability. Whyte and Whittaker made sure everyone’s masks and fins fit correctly.
In a cage attached to the boat, a group of six viewers was quickly surrounded by 12 to 15 large Galapagos sharks. The animals circled tightly and swam much closer to the humans than had the sharks on the cage-free dive, coming within a foot of the plexiglass window and steel bars.
In the bright midmorning light you could see the little yellow-blue pilot fish swimming in front of the sharks’ pointed snouts, remoras clinging to their sides and copepod parasites in their eyes and gills. One shark opened its mouth slightly as it approached the cage. Another took a test bite of a GoPro camera on a selfie stick protruding through the bars.
“The sharks feel safer when you’re in a cage,” said Hawaii Shark Encounters owner Steve Jordan with a smile. “The more people learn about sharks, the better off the sharks are,” he said, adding that after a cage dive, some of his clients sign up for a cage-free dive with One Ocean.
Safety rules for shark diving
>> Keep turning slowly to look all around you.
Source: Ocean Ramsey, oneoceandiving.com
Certainly people are safer in a cage, but there has been controversy as to whether shark tours pose an increased risk of attack to swimmers closer to shore. In a 2009 study, co-author Carl Meyer, a researcher at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, reported that cage diving off Haleiwa “had no visible effects on the movements of sharks in the area.”
In other words, the sharks did not follow the boats back to shore — a concern that had been voiced by residents of the area.
So long as sharks are simply watched and not fed, shark tours aren’t detrimental to the animals and might benefit them by inspiring conservation efforts, Meyer told the Star-Advertiser. Cage-free shark viewing, however, could be detrimental — to humans, he added.
While only one cageless shark tour diver worldwide has been confirmed as killed by a shark — in 2008 in the Bahamas while the victim was feeding the animal — “why take an unnecessary risk?” Meyer asked.
“We usually see a lot more sharks, but there’s only one here now, probably because they make themselves scarce when there’s a tiger shark in the vicinity,” Ramsey said before the group on the One Ocean tour got into the water. She explained that tiger sharks are recognized as dominant by Galapagos, sandbar and hammerhead sharks.
“We can’t see the tiger, they’re a very cautious species, but she’s probably out there watching us.”
One tiger shark they frequently interact with is the one Efron encountered while on Ramsey’s tour. The actor was in Hawaii to film “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,” with co-star Adam DeVine, who accompanied him on the dive. Efron posted a video of himself grabbing onto the shark’s dorsal fin “Lifetime memories #savethesharks,” he tweeted.
Efron’s behavior surprised Ramsey, she said, because she tells divers not to touch the animals. However, she could understand his impulse, having herself made waves in 2013 by swimming with a 17-foot great white shark in California waters, hitching a ride on its fin, in order to advocate against the species’ “Jaws” reputation.
Of Efron, she added, “he’s trying to help with conservation and to be commended for that.”
How to not get bitten by a shark
Unprovoked shark bites are the result of their mistaking humans for their natural prey, according to George Burgess, director of the program for shark research at the Florida Museum of Natural History. In Hawaii, sharks naturally prey on fish, monk seals, turtles, wounded or baby humpback whales and vulnerable seabirds, such as fledgling albatrosses. So try not to look or act like one of them. And, of course, don’t provoke a shark by touching or feeding it or otherwise getting in its face. Instead:
>> Minimize splashing.
Source: International Shark Attack File, Florida Museum of Natural History, flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/kids/avoid/avoid.htm
Ramsey said she recognized the Galapagos shark on this morning’s tour from his nicked fin. The boat crew keeps daily logs of the shark behavior they observe.
The captain, named Julia Hartl, turned on the engine to attract sharks, which have excellent hearing as well as electroreceptors on their noses, called ampullae of Lorenzini, that pick up engine impulses.
After a while, a second, smaller Galapagos shark appeared. The two sharks seemed wary but calm, turning slowly back and forth, moving up and down in the water column.
Ramsey surfaced and removed her mouthpiece to tell Kori Garza, a researcher, that one of the animals had exhibited “gill popping,” one of the potentially hostile behaviors divers are told to watch out for.
When one of the sharks began to swim slowly toward her, head-on but without signaling any aggression, one diver nevertheless climbed back into the boat.
The release they had signed stated that sharks were wild animals over which the tour staff had no control. (In two years of conducting the tours, Ramsey said, none of her clients has experienced aggressive behavior.)
Ramsey resurfaced, calling to the diver on deck, “There are three sharks now! Don’t you want to get back in and see them?”
The third shark, about 6 feet long, was visible just beneath the surface. “She’s a new Galapagos shark. We saw her for the first time yesterday,” said Garza, a biologist.
“She has a fishhook in her mouth, like a lip ring; it doesn’t seem to be in a place that’s bothering her,” Hartl said.
Her fear overcome by curiosity, the diver went back under to see for herself what appeared to be a silver ring glinting in the corner of the big female’s mouth.
Before heading out at 7 a.m., the divers had spoken with members of the Pono Kai’s 5 a.m. expedition who had seen a 12-foot tiger shark from the boat but not in the water.
“She swam close to the boat with her dorsal and caudal fins above the water, then she got shy and left,” said Hannah Hubanks, 25, a biologist who lives in Waialua.
Hubanks said she had swum with a tiger shark near the end of a previous One Ocean outing. Because “the species is very shy and views us as a possible threat,” Hubanks said, the shark came up to the boat, then swam away without lingering. “She truly was beautiful, and I had absolutely no fear to be in the water.” (It is worth noting that tiger sharks are believed to be responsible for the majority of the shark attacks in Hawaii.)
It was the third cage-free dive for Ethan Wang, 25, who lives in Manoa. When he saw sharks while out surfing, he used to panic and paddle straight in. Now, he said, he knows not to turn his back and splash away, but to face the shark and keep calm.
“I would highly recommend this dive to any active water person,” Wang said.
Meanwhile, for those who prefer to indulge their fascination with sharks without getting wet, the Discovery Channel is promoting its first “Shweekend” (shark weekend), to start Aug. 29.
6 Sharks you’re most likely to meet in Hawaii
Below are the sharks Hawaii beachgoers, surfers and reef divers are most likely to encounter in shallower inshore waters.
>> Blacktip reef shark: Up to 6 feet; light brown with large black marks on first dorsal fin and lower tail tips; eats small reef fish and invertebrates; seen close to coastline and coral reef edge, from the surface down to 100 feet.
>> Blacktip shark: Up to 8 feet; gray with black edges on dorsal and pectoral fins, pointed snout; eats octopus, squid, bony fish, occasionally crustaceans; caught at depths of 40 to 210 feet, pups seen from Kaneohe Bay to Midway Atoll.
>> Scalloped hammerhead shark: Up to 14 feet; gray with flattened hammer-like head with central indentation; eats reef fish, sharks, rays, cephalopods, crustaceans; adults live offshore and come into shallower waters of Hilo Bay, Kaneohe Bay, Waimea Bay and other areas to pup.
>> Sandbar shark: Up to 8 feet; gray or light tan, high dorsal fin, no distinct markings; eats small reef fish, octopus, squid, crustaceans, mollusks; found at depths of 30 to 900 feet, females cruise in shallower areas.
>> Tiger shark: Up to 16 feet; broad rounded snout, strong spotting pattern in young sharks, turning to stripes that fade with age; called “garbage can of the sea” for varied diet of marine animals and carrion; alternates between coastal and pelagic environments, from surface to 2,500 feet.
>> Whitetip reef shark: Up to 7 feet; gray and slightly flat-headed with small white tips on the tops of first and second dorsal and tail fins; eats reef fishes, octopuses and crustaceans; found at depths of 25 to 130 feet near coral reefs, seen resting in caves, sometimes for extended periods.
Source: Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, dlnr.hawaii.gov/sharks
Hawaii Shark Encounters
>> Cage tour: $115.50 for adults, $82.50 children under 12; 10 percent military and kamaaina discount. Departs from Haleiwa Boat Harbor. Call 351-9373 or visit hawaiisharkencounters.com.
One Ocean Diving
>> Cage-free tour: $150. Departs from Haleiwa Boat Harbor. Call 649-0018 or visit www.oneoceandiving.com.
Correction: The J-Bay Open surf contest was held in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa. An earlier version of this story said it was Johannesburg.