On October 9th, 2016, I swam with sharks.
I have always been a big believer in the phrase “putting your money where your mouth is”. This essentially means if you talk about a big game about something then you should be able to follow through on it yourself. For me, that meant swimming with sharks because I talk a lot about saving sharks (like a lot). As apex predators, sharks are necessary to our oceans (and in turn, world). However, sharks are at risk, because between one-fourth and one-third of shark species are vulnerable to extinction.
In many places in the world, sharks are worth more alive than they are dead thanks to ecotourism. So during a trip to the island of Oahu, Hawaii in October 2016 I signed up for a shark dive with my friend, Lucia Dill, at One Ocean Diving. It was important to me to support an organization that does not bait sharks or chum the water. Baiting sharks (or chumming the water) is something I don’t believe in because it associates humans with free easy food. I wanted to swim with sharks in a way that is the least invasive to their natural habitat, thus seeing them in the most authentic wild way. Luckily, One Ocean Diving takes shark enthusiasts to a part of the ocean off the coast of Oahu where there is an upwelling of nutrients which causes fish and sharks to congregate naturally.
The ocean is a shark’s home, not ours. Getting into that water means I am in an apex predator’s domain, a domain that I do not thrive in. No matter how good a swimmer I am, I am never going to be at home in the open ocean the way a shark will be. Therefore I believe it is important to respect the apex predator whose domain you enter and follow their rules.
Truthfully, I was nervous before we got in the water. When our boat pulled up you could see the sharks swimming on the surface right around the boat. I did some deep breathing, prepared my snorkel set, put my fins on, and lowered myself into the water. With the guidance of a safety diver in the water and the captain watching us from the boat deck, we entered the water with a list of rules that One Ocean Diving laid out on the boat ride out into the open ocean. One of the rules was to keep hands balled into fists so your hands don’t look like fish to the shark.
Once in the water, I started to relax.
Whenever I tell this to kids at school visits, they gawk at me! Especially when I show them videos of how close I was to the sharks. The cool thing I learned while scuba diving is that when you are underwater, you have to breathe regularly and deeply as a necessity (something that I am guilty of not doing on land). Because of the deep breathing, my heart rate slowed in the water. Another reason I relaxed was the fact that the sharks wanted nothing to do with us swimmers or even the other small fish around us. Swimming in a huge deep spiral, with the highest sharks a few feet below us and the surface of the water, the sharks’ movements were mesmerizing to watch. I did swim away from the boat and out towards the safety diver, but mostly I just watched and admired these fierce apex predators, totally wild, at home as the rulers of their domain. The water flowing over me and the pacing of my deep breaths with the smooth movements of the sharks below was a truly incredible and unique experience. When our hours in the water were up and we got back onto the boat, we swam with about 30 Galapagos and sandbar sharks.
I would love to swim with more sharks in my lifetime, from whale sharks to great whites. These opportunities often are costly, so if you do find yourself in the water with a shark in the wild free of charge, remember to respectfully keep your distance (and practice your deep breathing). If you want to swim with sharks, I recommend finding an ecotourism business or research-based organization that sustainably observes sharks without baiting them. It is a truly incredible experience to get to witness an apex predator in their wild home.