Great White shark in Hawaiian waters, a rare occurrence
I knew even before booking my flight to Hawaii that I'd be spending a good portion of my precious island time underwater. My friends couldn't picture me tanning on a secluded beach, mai tai in hand. Instead, they knew I'd be soaking up all the aquatic adventure Oahu had to offer. Their advice was succinct: "Be safe. Please."
My plan had been mapped out in successive stages of bravery, beginning with a relatively tame scuba dive and ramping up to a swim in a shark cage.
A Galapagos shark, common in Hawaiian waters, swims past the Plexiglas window of a shark-viewing cage in the waters off of Oahu. (HAWAII SHARK ENCOUNTERS)
I ticked off the first item on my list as my dive boat bobbed in waters about half a mile offshore, the majestic crest of Diamond Head crater looming on the headland.
It had been a few years since my last dive, so once
submerged, I had to remind myself to scan above and below, not just side to side as when I was topside.
Once I remembered that simple rule -- and pried my eyes from the moray eels lurking in the reef directly below me -- I discovered I had a new dive buddy, a green sea turtle that, my human dive partner later told me, had been moseying alongside for several minutes before I noticed him. My shelled friend craned his neck to meet my gaze, then rose for air, a graceful silhouette against the silvery surface.
The diving portion of our day ended at Koko Craters, where we paid homage to the 200-pound statue of Buddha that had been sunk specifically for divers' enjoyment in 35 feet of water.
A day later, I ventured to the southeast corner of Oahu for a visit to Sea Life Park, known to some as the workplace of Adam Sandler in "50 First Dates."
Initially lured to the park by my love of aquariums, I became further intrigued upon learning that Sea Life Park was not about passive viewing but rather interactive encounters. When I saw the menu of options at the ticket kiosk, I opted out of the uber-popular dolphin encounter in favor of snorkeling in the stingray tank.
More docile than sharks, stingrays often are included in aquarium touch tanks. So I had little trepidation about floating in their midst, even as the handler tossed food about me. When I held out a fishy offering of friendship, the rays' sucking action tickled my palm as they accepted the food.
Also in the tank were the largest puffer fish I'd ever seen and a baby hammerhead shark, all of 2 feet long. Both eluded my attempts to snap photos with my disposable camera, but the domesticated and curious rays had no qualms about flapping against me or running a pectoral wing along my side as they glided by. The softness of their skin and the gentleness of their touch was almost sensuous.
A few months after my visit, I was stunned to hear of "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin's death by stingray barb. A representative for Sea Life Park since has assured me that the Hawaiian Ray Encounter is still offered by the park and that, surprisingly, there had been few guest inquiries as to its safety.
This seemed to attest to the fact that Irwin's tragic passing was a fluke, even more rare an occurrence than spotting a great white shark in Hawaiian waters. Which brought me to my next aqua-excursion.
As the sun rose across Oahu, I drove my rental car up Kamehameha Highway, past the Dole Plantation toward the North Shore's historic Haleiwa, a small village oozing with quaintness and laid-back charm. The town itself is worth a half-day trip to explore such wonders as the kitschy, one-room North Shore Surf and Cultural Museum or Matsumoto's, purveyor of that ubiquitous island refreshment, shave ice.
I'd chosen Hawaii Shark Encounters over several area competitors due to the outfit's recent brush with fame. Just a few weeks earlier -- Dec. 28, 2005 -- during an ordinary outing with a boatload of clients, the 32-foot Kainani and its crew had an encounter with a great white shark more than half the length of the vessel.
Capt. Jimmy Hall saw his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and did what any shark enthusiast would: He joined the great white -- but not in the cage! -- and shot footage of/ an almost unheard-of event -- a great white in Hawaiian waters.
(To read his first-hand account of this event, and see photos and video, go to www.hawaiisharkencounters.com/great_white.asp.)
But great whites were not on the menu the day of my trip. As the chum hit the water, only the usual suspects emerged, daunting enough in their dental capacity: 10-foot Galapagos and slightly shorter sandbar sharks, all writhing and vying for the fish parts tossed near our cage.
From the other side of the bars, I resisted the temptation to caress the toothy creatures as they glided past, knowing they, unlike their winged cousins at Sea Life Park, were there solely to feed and not to be petted.
Three miles out, our cage bobbed in pristine ocean water, visibility reaching nearly 80 feet.
Although I was equipped with snorkeling equipment, not scuba gear, the ocean environment still required a 360-degree scan, and when I gazed into the depths below, I spotted several Galapagos prowling just below the bottom of the cage, under my dangling feet.
Frenzied bodies bumped the cage's Plexiglas windows inches from my face, providing a close-up view of feeding that the Discovery Channel couldn't match.
Despite the frenetic feeding surrounding me, the shark encounter was much less an adrenaline rush than expected -- not because it failed to live up to expectations or because the 18-foot great white remained elusive. Rather, the experience felt incredibly safe, more so than even a wedgie-inducing water slide at Hawaiian Waters Adventure Park.
As I helped the crew hand-feed chum from the back of the Kainani, I realized I'd checked off the last of my daredevil to-dos for this trip, and still had all my digits to show to my anxious friends back home.
IF YOU GO
Hawaii Shark Encounters -- Haleiwa Boat Harbor, on Oahu's North Shore); 808-351-9373; www.hawaiishark encounters.com/ Cost: $100; $70 children; discounts for military and Hawaii residents. Reservations required.
Waikiki Diving Center -- 424 Nahua St., Honolulu; 808-922-2121; www.waikikidiving.com/ Cost: $99 for a two-tank dive, $115 for a wreck dive. Reservations suggested.
Sea Life Park -- 41-202 Kalanianaole Highway, Waimanalo, Oahu; 866-365-7446; www.sealifeparkhawaii.com/ Admission: $29.95; $23.95 children 4-12. Encounters extra. Ray encounter: $45.78; child $40.57. Reservations suggested.
North Shore Surf and Cultural Museum -- 66-259 Kamehameha Highway, Haleiwa (Oahu's North Shore); 808-637-8888; www.captainrick.com/surf_museum.htm. Free admission, but donations appreciated.
Matsumoto's -- 66-087 Kamehameha Highway, Haleiwa (Oahu's North Shore); 808-637-4827, www.matsumotoshaveice.com/.