Splashing with sharks: Jump in a cage off Hawaii? Yes, people really pay to do this

By Brian J. Cantwell

The Seattle Times

Published: Saturday, Nov. 24 2012 3:00 p.m. MST

Sharks seen from a shark cage tethered to a boat three miles off Oahu, on an outing with Hawaii Shark Encounters.

Brian J. Cantwell, MCT

OFF THE SHORE OF OAHU, Hawaii (MCT) — It was only when the sharks had a momentary feeding frenzy six feet from me that the wondrous beauty of Hawaiian nature was eclipsed by a "what am I doing here?" moment.

I had surfaced, and so had two big 9-footers, and all that separated us was the top couple bars of the shark cage in which I treaded water.

The sharks thrashed. Saltwater splashed. I looked at the metal bars, rising just a foot or so above the surface, and the question arose: Are sharks good jumpers?

I was about three miles off Oahu's North Shore on a "shark encounter" outing aboard the good ship Kainani. Well, I wasn't exactly "aboard" at the moment — I was with two other tourists from the mainland (call them my encounter group) splashing about inside an open-topped, 8-foot-square cage held up by balloon-shaped floats and tethered about 10 feet from the boat.

We'd motored 20 minutes out of Haleiwa Harbor. In the light of dawn, windblown rollers kept the boat — and our masked, snorkel-spiked heads — bobbing. Beneath us was 800 feet of the most blueberry-colored water I'd seen outside of Crater Lake.

And sharks were everywhere.

Ninety minutes earlier, my travel alarm beeped me awake in darkness. As I listened to North Shore roosters crow and June rain patter outside my rented pool house, my sleep-deprived brain hatched one clear thought: "What kind of idiot am I?"

My wife had found this adventure online and emailed me the link as a joke. She didn't think I was this dumb; I signed right up. The outfitter highly recommended the day's first outing, 6:30 a.m., for the calmest waters, so there I was.

The rain had stopped and the rising sun peeked from behind billowing clouds as we bounced our way seaward in the 25-foot Kainani. Ours wasn't the first shark boat to leave the harbor.

"We saw that other boat pulling out, and we thought it was ours, and my daughter said, 'Maybe we're just not meant to go on this!' " said fellow passenger Carla Creameans, from San Diego, who quickly professed to our skipper, Rich Whyte, that she'd been up late partying and was feeling a little delicate.

"You want slow and bumpy or fast and bumpy?" Whyte grinned. We'd been warned that seasickness was a hazard on this outing.

We'd just signed the most detailed and graphic legal waiver I'd ever seen, acknowledging that messing about in a shark cage can result not only in physical injury or death — the obvious things — but in "serious emotional injury."

That was food for thought during the ride out.

Before signing up, I did a little checking. On its website, my chosen outfitter painted itself as dedicated to environmental education and teaching clients about sharks.

While there are clear advantages to having an informed public with firsthand knowledge of the beauty of nature, as is sometimes the case with "eco-adventures" there was an ethical question. Here, it was whether they drop food overboard — chum the waters — to attract sharks.

Not only did I not wish to swim among bloody fish entrails, such activity can modify the behavior of wild animals and affect their ability to survive on their own. (It's the same reason you see "don't feed the ducks" signs in parks.) For such reasons, state and federal regulations prohibit feeding sharks in Hawaii.

I contacted the company up front. They assured me by email that they don't feed sharks.

So why do sharks come to their boats?

For years, crabbers and fishermen have thrown fish waste off boats out here, "so these sharks are accustomed to being fed off boats," explained Phil Oury, Kainani's young crewman.

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