Inspiration Explore Open Water: Find Your Fins by Swimming with Sharks in Hawaii

Open Water: Find Your Fins by Swimming with Sharks in Hawaii

March 26, 2024
A tiger shark swimming in the blue ocean in the coast of Oahu in Hawaii, one of the best spots to swim with sharks - Luxury Escapes

Swimming cage-free with tiger sharks off the coast of Oahu, Katie Dundas overcomes her Jaws fears and finds a new-found appreciation for one of the ocean’s most misunderstood residents.

I ease into the sea with intent, rather than a sudden jump, so as not to agitate the water’s inhabitants. That was the advice from my guides, Bri and Gina, but I am still sliding off the boat’s ladder with trepidation. I adjust my mask and snorkel and hope for the best – the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean awaits.

My eyes adjust to my new environment and, seemingly out of the abyss, I spot an ominous figure slowly swimming into my field of vision; its distinctive grey vertical stripes clearly visible. Just as my heart starts to race and panic sets in, the majestic and imposing animal turns away just as calmly as it arrived, wanting nothing to do with the sudden entrance of eight snorkellers into its ocean home.

We’re lucky enough to be graced by the presence of a tiger shark, known to frequent Hawaiian waters in the summer and autumn months. There’s nothing between me and this apex predator; I’m freediving with sharks off Oahu’s North Shore with One Ocean Diving, based in Haleiwa. While this might sound crazy to some, I wanted to push myself to try something out of my comfort zone – and not only did I achieve that, but I now look at sharks in a completely different way.

One Ocean is committed to shark conservation, educating us not just on how to safely enter the open water with sharks, but also on the real dangers that they face as a species. Overfishing, irresponsible fishing techniques and pollution are just a few reasons why over 30 per cent of the world’s shark species are at risk of extinction. One Ocean is committed to changing public opinion of sharks, one snorkeller at a time, teaching guests about shark behaviour and safety, and challenging the perceptions created by films like Jaws. And with a 100 per cent safety record, I’m confident, albeit nervous, to join One Ocean on a swim with sharks in their natural habitat.

Taking the plunge

A person free diving with tiger sharks off the coast of Oahu in Hawaii - Luxury Escapes
A diver swimming with tiger sharks off the coast of Oahu.

I’m staying just down the road at Turtle Bay Resort, so I take advantage of their hourly Tesla rental, the island’s first sustainable carshare service, and head out before dawn (early morning trips offer the calmest ocean conditions) to meet my boat at Haleiwa Harbor. I’ve also taken advantage of Turtle Bay’s free GoPro rentals for guests, eager to capture some video of this morning’s heart-racing adventure.

While many operators offer caged shark diving, often accompanied by unethical practices like chumming, we’re swimming alongside sharks out in the open ocean with only our snorkels and fins. Our small boat is just three miles off the Hawaiian coast, anchored near a pelagic zone where currents converge to create a natural habitat for many types of shark and fish species, drawn to the area for easy access to food.

After I summon up the courage to enter the water, my initial trepidation soon floats away, replaced by excitement and childlike wonder. The sparkling blue water, seabed nowhere in sight, offers crystal clear visibility to the fascinating Hawaiian seascape all around me.

The movement of sharks through the water is comparable to a ballet – like dancers, each species knows its exact place on the ocean stage. The most dominant, like the tiger, swim high in the water column, near the surface, while the dozens of Galapagos and blacktipped reef sharks, more submissive to the tigers, swim nonstop below me, lower down into the deep. The occasional free dive is the best way to get a good look at their natural behaviour as they swim past in large groups.

Our shark biologists and expert guides keep us together, each with one hand on a rope that spans the length of the boat, guiding us one by one to dive down below the surface. There are so many sharks, not
only out in front but to my left, right, and directly under our boat. It’s almost hard to know where to look, but the exhilaration never stops.

My nerves never fully go away, which isn’t abnormal, considering the environment I find myself in, but the anticipation of what we’ll see next is addictive. It’s an honour to get a glimpse into this extraordinary underwater world, seen by so few. While each two-hour long excursion with One Ocean can bring unique wildlife viewing, guests are likely to see a range of shark species, including tiger, Galapagos, sandbar, or scalloped hammerheads, sometimes alongside whales, dolphins, sea turtles or monk seals.

Would I do it again? As I drove back to Turtle Bay, I told myself once was enough. But now, back at home, the allure of returning to Hawaii and coming face to face with one of nature’s most misunderstood creatures is calling my name again.

This article was originally featured in the third issue of Dream by Luxury Escapes magazine. Get your copy here.

About Katie Dundas
Katie Dundas is a travel writer and contributor to Dream by Luxury Escapes.

Tabanan, Bali
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