Shark Diving on Hawaii’s North Shore with Ocean Ramsey

Millions of people flock to Hawaii each year to enjoy sandy beaches, stunning landscapes, and some of the most revered surfing breaks on the planet. But I was here for a different kind of adventure. Arriving at an unassuming boat ramp in Haleiwa, Oahu, gateway to Hawaii’s famous North Shore, the marina signage offered a clue: welcome to the mecca of shark diving.

Ocean Ramsey and Juan Oliphant are two of the world’s leading shark conservationists, and their social media accounts are the stuff of legend. They own and personally operate One Ocean Diving, and my excitement levels peaked as I watched their boat dock in the marina.

Six of us were joining Ramsey and Oliphant on a two-hour pelagic tour to learn about the iconic marine life in the area, and specifically how the stigma of shark interaction should be reversed after the longstanding hysteria of the Jaws films. Of course this was going to be best demonstrated with a snorkel and freedive alongside whichever sharks decided to show up on the day.

Often called a real-life mermaid, Ramsey is a freediving expert and can hold her breath underwater for six minutes at a time. The perfect expedition companion, Oliphant is one of the finest underwater photographers around.

Fate and the weather would determine our fortunes. Oliphant announced that we had managed to fluke an exceptionally calm day, the best in months. So far, so good.

On the 15-minute journey north, the iconic mountains and uncharacteristically large summer swell from the nearby point break provided a spectacular backdrop.

Ramsey looked around and gave everyone long handles for their GoPros: “Sharks are attracted to the electrical currents emitted by the camera. The longer handle won’t just improve your footage; it’s also safer to have your hands further away from the electrical output of the camera because it can simulate a weak or injured fish.”

Our two hosts swapped between the captain position and the science and safety briefing duties. They took us through a visual explanation of the various marine species in the area, including turtles, dolphins and fish.

The boat slowed down momentarily. “Has everyone here seen a turtle before?” Ramsey asked.

All six of us nodded in unison.

“Good. More time with the sharks,” she said with a wink as she pushed down on the throttle once again and the boat powered on to the deep blue.

The crash-course on sharks was as informative as it was thrilling. Ramsey and Oliphant explained the different shark species, their importance to the planet, how to recognize aggressive behavior, and how the actions of humans (including long line fishing, finning and culling) are almost guaranteeing that there’ll be no sharks left for the next generation. Their passion for sharks and broader environmental conservation was infectious, especially in nature’s ultimate classroom.

 

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Photo: BossFit

 

This was the second One Ocean Diving tour of the day, and Oliphant mentioned that he was quietly optimistic about seeing a tiger shark on our voyage, because the sharks on the earlier expedition seemed spooked.

We anchored and received one last safety briefing before we jumped into the ocean. First, we were reminded that sharks are wild animals and we needed to be alert at all times, constantly checking our surroundings. Second, we should only use our fins to swim and not dangle our hands away from our body. Third, keep GoPros and other camera equipment as far away from our body as possible. And finally, stay close to the boat so Ramsey and Oliphant could best manage our safety.

The water was the most spectacular blue I had ever seen. Not the turquoise of the Caribbean, but a rich, inviting blue. With 100 feet of visibility, and already a few dark shadows circling underwater, I couldn’t wait to get in there.

We were each provided with snorkels and fins, and encouraged to join Ramsey three at a time in the ocean.

Four Galápagos sharks, ranging from eight to 13 feet, were the first creatures we interacted with. After taking in the surroundings for a brief moment, Ramsay invited me to dive into the depths for a more intimate encounter with the world’s most misunderstood animal.

 

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Photo: BossFit

 

Before we knew it, more sharks joined in the fun. Eventually, there were seven in total, all swimming within arm’s length of those of us in the water, exhibiting more curiosity than fear.

They were all Galápagos sharks, and Ramsey relayed names of the known residents to Oliphant on the boat, who recorded them in their research log. One of the sharks actually had a visible tag that transmitted data on its movements to the boat.

About 40 minutes into our dive, all the sharks suddenly vanished. “Back by the boat. Right now,” Ramsey firmly instructed, her tone clearly changing.

Through the serene blue I saw the vague outline of a 14-foot tiger shark, one of the most feared ocean predators.

With the rest of the group on the boat, and me dangling off the ladder that hugged the rear of the vessel where I peered underwater as much as I could, Ramsey kept us updated. The tiger had stealthily, almost hauntingly, emerged. The only warning had been the emptiness as the Galápagos sharks bolted.

Ramsey and Oliphant had previously explained that the shark pecking order has a lot to do with the size of the shark. Passive sharks give way to the more dominant and larger species as they cruise through a given territory or point of interest. Tagging data indicates that tiger sharks are generally migratory and solitary in their nomadic life, often traveling up to 60 miles per day.

 

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Photo: Ocean Ramsey on previous tiger shark encounter |  Juan Oliphant

 

While Galápagos sharks have two human fatalities on their record, their interactions with us were equal parts curious and playful. They seemed more interested in circling their new human friends, getting increasingly close to us, but still kept relatively deep. The tiger, in contrast, cut a much more determined line, swimming so high that its fin almost pierced the surface.

The tiger kept a distance of about 80 feet, and then slowly faded away from our field of vision. A minute or so later it returned, drifting a bit closer, before disappearing again. It kept up this pattern for a little longer, eventually coming within 60 feet of our boat.

“Tigers,” Ramsey offered, “are generally both cautious and anti-social. It’s going to take time for her to trust us, but hopefully, if we’re quiet enough and appear less threatening to her, she’ll come by for a closer inspection.”

Later, Oliphant told me that the bigger sharks are generally the ones least likely to have human interaction—it’s as if they have realized that interactions with our species will eventually prove to be a fatal mistake.

After about 10 minutes, the tiger disappeared.

Before long, all seven of the Galapagos sharks returned, and we continued swimming with them.

 

 

Eventually, as time was called, we clambered onto the boat abuzz with excitement.

This had been a turbocharged version of my previous shark encounters, which included South Africa and the Galapagos Islands. The clarity of the water, the number—and size—of sharks, and Ramsey and Oliphant’s expertise had made it a truly special day.

We returned to shore after one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Ramsey and Oliphant are on a mission to change the perception of sharks and their role in the proper function of our planet. In today’s world, perhaps a little love for those most misunderstood is exactly what we need.
 
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Photo:  Juan Oliphant

 

Follow Ocean Ramsey: @OceanicRamsey.  Follow Juan Oliphant: @JuanSharks.
Learn more about One Ocean Diving.  Follow One Ocean Diving: @oneoceandiving & @oneoceanresearch