Often portrayed as the bad guys in coastal horror flicks, the sleek power and grace of sharks is something to appreciate when you intentionally meet one in real life. Whether it is to face a fear or fulfill an exciting bucket list item, divers are more interested than ever in coming face to fin with sharks. We would like to share with you our experiences on charter, and not only how you can experience sharks in different environments in Maui nui waters, but how your actions can also help protect the species.
A little background
Even though sharks can be found in every marine environment, from tropical Maui reefs to cold deep oceans, their numbers are declining globally. The journal Nature stated this year that, since 1970, the global abundance of oceanic sharks and rays has declined by 71%, mostly due to overfishing. Shark finning and pollution are also problems. It is estimated that 100 million sharks are killed each year. These apex predators are at the top of the food chain, and losing them has serious consequences. Decline impacts trickle down to all marine life, and humans that rely on the sea for sustenance.
Shark tourism protects sharks and marine environments
Renewed interest in shark tourism, observing sharks, learning about them and why conservation is important has begun to turn the tide on the siege on sharks. In areas like Fiji, the Bahamas and Palau, native fishermen were convinced to give up areas to marine preserves in exchange for a fee paid by shark tourism operators.
Revenues from dive operations also help fund conservation, while fulfilling an educational role, such as Lahaina Diver’s support of Project Aware.
The role of recreational diving
Industry experts believe that if divers are able to see sharks, they are more likely to have a better understanding and appreciation for them, which leads to shark conservation. Media coverage of threats and declining population numbers of sharks have also gotten more people talking and interested in diving with sharks.
By diving and learning about sharks, myths that portray sharks as senseless killers, like those inspired in the movie Jaws, are dispelled. But make no mistake, sharks are not benign creatures, they are wild animals. Like observing any such animal in the wild, it’s important to be informed and prepared to dive with sharks.
Make sure you’re comfortable with your skills before diving with sharks
Some dives where sharks are encountered are very challenging, The good news is, there is also an easy way to observe sharks. If you have less than 30 dives under your belt, consider observing some smaller sharks, such as the white tip reef shark on our Turtle Reef charter. The whitetip reef shark rests during the day, and can typically be found under the partially collapsed pier at this dive site. They are generally nonthreatening to humans.
A species of requiem shark, white tips grow to about 5 feet, and are the only requiem shark that do not have to move to pass water over their gills to breathe. At night, they hunt for fish, crustaceans and octopus by elongating their slender bodies to maneuver through caves and crevices along the reef.
Choose who you go diving with carefully
It’s a little off-putting to see “swimming with sharks” as a primary marketing message for some operators. For us, the experience is being in a natural marine environment and respectfully observing wildlife. We do go to places likely to see certain types of sharks, and are fortunate when we have encounters. We don’t feed, touch or aggressively chase sharks in their home.
Off the coast of Molokai is an area frequented by scalloped hammerhead sharks. It is a special, revered place that allows a rare glimpse of pelagic shark habitat for advanced divers on a blue water drift dive.
Scalloped Hammerhead sharks are also a species of requiem shark. They are interesting to look at, with a thick, wide head that looks like a double-headed hammer, with eyes and gills on the ends. Male scalloped hammerheads can grow to 6 feet, while females are typically larger, growing to up to 14 feet. They are nocturnal feeders, preferring warm, temperate waters around the world. Their relatively small mouth limits them to small fish like mackerel, herring and sardines, as well as cephalopods and the occasional sting ray.
At times, divers on a Lahaina Divers Hammerhead charter could be surrounded by several dozen scalloped hammerheads that swim up from the depths toward the reef. Other times one might see a few or no hammerheads, but may encounter or other blue water creatures, like a whale shark or rare Hawaiian monk seal. Scalloped Hammerhead sharks are fairly harmless to humans and they are usually quite shy.
Why there is no cage diving operations on Maui
Observing sharks in shark cages is a controversial topic. Some say there is a place for shark cages in education and research, but not tourism. The problem centers on disrupting the species natural behavior patterns because the only way to guarantee shark sightings it to “chum” or bait the water. According to researchers, this causes a learned behavior in sharks, associates humans with food, and can create dangerous situations for people using the ocean in ways not even related to shark cage activities. When sharks are displaced to go to a certain place at certain times, it can disrupt whole food chains elsewhere.
Chumming is illegal in Hawaii waters. There are some operators on Oahu that moved outside of state waters to avoid this ban. However, Maui is more conservation-oriented, and any moves to permit such activity here has been met with strong opposition. Maui County also banned keeping marine mammals in captivity. As intelligent and highly social animals, dolphins and whales need to be in their wild environment.
Shark’s significance to Hawaiian Culture
Culturally, Hawaiians hold sharks in high regard. Traditionally, sharks are often recognized as aumakua (family guardians), who are believed to be ancestors reincarnated as animals and sent to protect family members.
In practice, Hawaiians have also utilized sharks as a food source and material resource- from flesh for sustenance to skin and teeth for utilitarian or ceremonial purposes, no part of the shark went to waste.
Shark safety while diving
There are roughly 40 different species of shark in Hawaii, but only eight are considered to be commonly sighted. Among these, the most often viewed include the Reef Whitetip and Blacktip, Sandbar and Scalloped Hammerhead, which are fairly benign as far as humans go.
The others- Galapagos, Grey Reef Shark and Tiger Sharks- are more aggressive. However, it should be pointed out that shark incidents are extremely rare in the Hawaiian Islands overall, and there has never been a reported attack of a scuba diver in Hawaii. Our blue water dives are done in groups, during the day, away from prime feeding time. If you do see one of the more aggressive species of shark, stay calm, observe, stay with your group and dive buddy, and don’t approach. It is an experience in nature few others will achieve.
While we still regularly see sharks, there are noticeably less in Maui waters. Activities that are decimating shark populations globally are cause for great concern. By participating in shark tourism and shark advocacy here on Maui, we hope this helps bring awareness to visitors, and in turn they will spread what they have learned.
We’ll leave you with this thought from PADI about the seriousness of removing just one species of shark from the food chain: “Removing sharks from the sea is like killing the last dragon: a greater part of the ocean’s magic will be gone.”