“Holy shit,” Michael said, looking out the window of our rental, “that guy’s missing an arm!” We were pulling into a parking lot in Haleiwa boat harbor, looking for a tiny vessel that was going to take us out to dive with sharks, so a one-armed man wasn’t exactly reassuring. Of course, the general consensus in the vehicle was that he was an old shark guide who wasn’t in the game anymore, for obvious reasons. Isn’t it funny how that’s the first assumption? Jaws was a hell of a movie.
The day prior, a guy everyone calls Aloha Big Mike wandered into our house on the North Shore. The Pipeline contest had been called off for the day, and Mike flew over from Big Island to take a few incredible photos and wear cool shirts. Originally from Illinois, Mike Caputo is a fireman that lives in Pahoa town. He chews tobacco and spends his down time mailing interesting cameras around the world with absolute titans of surf photography, Chris Burkard and Jeremy Koreski, filling each roll of film with amazing images from amazing photographers from amazing parts of the world. He speaks with an interesting mix of mid-west and Hawaii, as if the islands are slowly working their way into his mouth. Michael Woodsmall (our Deputy Editor) and I were sitting in the sand with Big Mike drinking beer in the early afternoon when his phone rang. “Juan!” he answered. “Got room for three more?” Then he looked at us. “Want to go shark diving tomorrow?” We did, and we told him so. This wasn’t a regular shark dive with cages and a rubber seal trailing behind the boat, though. No cages, no rubber seal tempting sharks in for a violent attack; it was just us in the vast, warm, Hawaiian ocean… and a surprising amount of sharks.
Later on that afternoon, Michael and I picked up Dan Lemaitre and his cameras from the airport in Honolulu. He was riddled with Xanax and lack of sleep. “I hate flying,” he said through cracked lips. “Man, I hate flying.” But even after 21 sleepless hours from Nantucket to Hawaii, Dan’s eyes lit up when we told him that tomorrow morning would be reserved for diving with sharks.
Michael, Dan, and I met Aloha Big Mike in the Haleiwa boat harbor at 9 the next morning. The sun was already hot on top of boats chugging in and out from between the jetties, the slightly acrid and curiously pleasant smell of diesel floating through the thick Hawaiian air. A small boat with a faded blue top motored up beside us, a very tanned smiling man at the helm while a blond ponytail on top of a willowy, wetsuit encased body fiddled with something snorkel related in the cuddy. The tanned smiling man was Juan Oliphant, and the willowy ponytail was Ocean Ramsey. Together, they make up a large portion of One Ocean Diving, a group of marine researchers who also happen to take people out to swim with sharks. Juan steered the vessel in, then hopped off and quickly looped a few ropes to the cleats on the dock, greeting us at the same time. After a few quick introductions, we began the short trip to the sharks.
Juan and Ocean are extraordinarily passionate about sharks and marine conservation in general. As Ocean steered us out into the open ocean, Juan sat at the stern with a laminated flipbook, telling us how to react to sharks. “Don’t splash around too much,” he told us, “because sharks are like puppies. They get excited when they think you’re excited.” Oliphant has a calming, confident way about him, which is important when you’re about to jump off a boat into shark-infested waters – and I do mean infested. The amount of information stored in his brain about shark behavior is staggering, and the conversational way he passes that information isn’t given with any pretense of arrogance. Sometimes people tell you things just to let you know that they know things. Oliphant tells you things so you can learn.
Ocean Ramsey, as it turns out, is kind of a big deal. She’s been diving with sharks for years, promoting a positive view, instead of the misperception as mindless, man-eating machines. She can hold her breath for something ridiculous like six minutes. According to Juan, she blacked out once at around 6:20. She clings to gigantic great whites when ever she can. Her passion for sharks is evident in every soft word about them that comes out of her mouth, and she spends her days collecting data with Juan, getting as close to the animals she loves as possible, and proving to as many people as she can that sharks are not what most people think they are. And to top all that off, she’s disarmingly beautiful. Soft spoken and intelligent, she somehow manages to wear a mask and snorkel all day without ever smearing her eye makeup or dripping snot all over her face, like everyone else does.
Upon our arrival at the dive spot, six sharks were clearly visibly from the boat. They swam beneath us, curious and (if one can read shark emotions correctly) friendly. Ocean climbed in first, gracefully dove down about 15 feet, then surfaced, looking at Juan, who dutifully held a notebook and pencil. “About 10,” she said. Then she listed off a few names. Juan and Ocean have been collecting data on these sharks for so long that they know them by sight and have given the usual suspects names.
On entering the water, the first thing I noticed was a strange light coming up from the bottom. I still have no idea what it was, but it was beautiful. The visibility was around 40 feet, small fish darted around us, and there were way more sharks than I thought there were going to be. Way more. Last year, I spent eight hours in a cage surrounded by murky, freezing water off the Farallon Islands looking for great whites, only to be completely skunked. If someone asked, I could honestly say that the water off the Farallons is filled entirely with jellyfish. This time, within three seconds of my fins hitting the water, I was five feet away from about ten beautiful, curious sand sharks. Sand sharks are not aggressive. Most sharks aren’t, really – they’re just very, very misunderstood. But they have sharp teeth and evolved to be perfect hunting machines, so most of us are scared of them. But here’s the thing: they haven’t evolved to hunt us. While sand sharks can grow up to 10 feet long and look like any shark you’d see in a horror movie, the ones we swam with were not anything like we’ve been trained to think. They seemed almost playful, if not a little shy. At one point, I swam beside one and we looked at each other in the eye from about two feet. I swear to God, she looked embarrassed. Then she quickly swam away, only to stop 10 feet away and demurely look back again. If she had eyelashes, she’d have fluttered them at me. Of course, these are wild animals, so being too familiar with them without a thorough understanding of their reactions to certain things is discouraged, but like Juan said, they’re like puppies. When he first gave that analogy, I scoffed in my head. “Sharks aren’t like puppies,” I said to myself. “Sharks are like fish – soulless eyes and no personality.” But they are like puppies, at least a little. When one is getting some attention, the others come to find out what’s happening. When one gets spooked, the others feel it. They seemed tentative at first, coming up from the depths slowly to begin with before getting more and more comfortable with us. It was an incredible experience.
It’s rare that an outlook on something can be completely reversed in a matter of hours. While my outlook on sharks wasn’t necessarily one that Jaws gave the world (I have, in fact, been pretty opinionated on my standpoint), it was still tainted with a bit of fear – which is still there. Only now I understand my fear a little more; as humans, it’s ingrained in us, I think. But sharks are in a precarious position – many species are teetering on extinction, in large part because of us. Practices like finning and culling aren’t being properly addressed because of that fear and misunderstanding, and while people like Juan Oliphant and Ocean Ramsey are doing their damndest to make a real change, there are many more people that are doing just the opposite. And while I would never encourage anyone to dive off a boat into shark infested waters alone, I most certainly would encourage everyone to take a trip with a few professionals.
After we stepped off the boat and said our goodbyes, we saw the one-armed man again. He was leaning against a wall with his empty shirtsleeve fluttering in the breeze. I smiled at him as we passed, and he smiled back. This time, though, I didn’t see a man who had his arm bitten off by a shark. Instead, I just saw a man with one arm.