Fifteen sharks are circling beneath us, including at least one nine-footer. This would be totally fine if we were studying their swirling motions from the safety of a boat. But we’re not on a boat. We’re in the open ocean, three miles off the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, with snorkels stuffed in our mouths and no safety cage to protect us.
Fortunately, we’re not alone out there in the churning Pacific. We’re surrounded by dive masters, marine biologists, and shark behaviorists from One Ocean Diving, a company that runs a pelagic shark diving and research program open to the general public—the first of its kind in the U.S. If anyone can identify agonistic territorial body language, it’s this crew.
Led by founder and marine biologist Ocean Ramsey, One Ocean’s goal is to change the public’s mind about these apex predators and put an end to shark culling. (When the endangered fish isn’t being Hollywoodized as a man-eating villain, its fins are being sliced off and slurped in a soup prized for its penis-enhancing qualities.) Ramsey is passionate about shark conservation (she’s even done a TED talk on the subject), but she’s also savvy about social media. To date, she has racked up nearly 340,000 followers on Instagram and millions of YouTube views. In one particularly surreal video, the flaxen-haired shark whisperer swims alongside a Great White, grabbing its fin for momentum. She is graceful like a mermaid and shows no fear.
Not us, boy. When we first slip into the shark-filled waters, after a half-hour educational tutorial onboard the 27-foot boat, we’re crippled with anxiety, clinging to the boat’s metal ladder like a crusty barnacle. Our mind races with gruesome Spielbergian visions as we try to remember the safety instructions we’ve been given: Don’t splash around. Be quiet. Press the arms flush against the body. And—super important—always keep an eye on the sharks.
It’s that last directive that panics us the most—what if they sneak up behind us?!—but it also fills us with wonder. Each time we plunge our faces into the Elvis-blue ocean, we’re awed by the sharks’ underwater ballet. The players are Galapagos and Sandbars; tigers, hammerheads, and Great Whites are much rarer. At one point, the sharks are swimming just feet from our feet. But it isn’t scary; it’s beautiful. We finally see what Ramsey sees.
After about 40 minutes in the water, we climb back onto the deck, and instantly feel queasy. The water is choppy, the canopied boat is bouncing around like a rubber duck in a hurricane, and our stomaches are doing cartwheels. The crew hands out face towels soaked in hot peppermint and tea tree oil to soothe the seasickness. And isn’t that a kicker? For all our hyped-up, worry-wart fears, it wasn’t the sharks that nailed us in the end. It was the nausea.
The maximum amount of guests per tour is six. Vessels board at Haleiwa Harbor on the North Shore of Oahu. The port is about a one-hour drive from Waikiki Beach. Tours vary by season; check the calendar for details. Rates are $150 per person if you’re swimming with sharks or $80 if you’re just watching. Advance booking essential. Questions? Call or text 808-649-0018.