WAILUKU, Hawaii --
Not everyone will jump at the chance to pay $190 to scuba dive in
an oversized fishbowl swarming with sharks. But for the rest of us,
the Maui Ocean Center has quite an offer.
20-foot-deep, 750,000-gallon tank with a couple dozen sharks and 60
other species of fish is thrilling, to be sure. When a whitetip
reef shark swims by right next to you, youre happy to know hes very
well fed and not looking for dessert.
Since the shark
dive program began last summer, about 100 scuba divers have taken
the plunge and have returned with all appendages.
Shark Dive Maui
also is educational. Did you know that a tiger sharks stripes arent
visible when he swims right over your head? Or that manta rays
(sharks cousins) can crush clam shells like M&Ms?
The population of
the tank varies from month to month, as individual animals are
brought in or re-released to local waters. Normally, four or five
species of shark call the tank home: whitetip and blacktip reefs,
gray reefs, sandbars -- and if youre
lucky, therell be a tiger in the tank.
Tiger sharks are
the alpha-predators of Hawaiian waters. Most attacks on us
four-tentacled types are thought to be by tigers, though such
attacks are so rare that, statistically, youre in far more danger
driving to and from the ocean than you are swimming in
tiger-in-residence is a 7-foot bad boy named Mana (Hawaiian for
Divine Power). He usually likes to swim near the surface, round and
round, his dorsal fin knifing the surface, apparently oblivious to
you and your bubbles as you kneel on the sandy bottom.
The other sharks
are not so standoffish. Theres nothing quite like turning your head
and suddenly having your field of vision filled by the gray, silky
mass of a sandbar shark two feet away.
Did you know that a
sharks pupil narrows vertically like a cats? From up close, those
eyes appear to be an instrument of ancient instinct, and you can
sense the species prehistoric origins. No wonder sharks are so
revered in Hawaiian myth and spiritual practice.
Divers learn about
this at the Maui Ocean Center before they get their feet wet by
watching a short video that features the centers Hawaiian cultural
advisor, Uncle Charlie Maxwell. He explains that legends describe
how the first voyagers to these islands were led here by a mano
(shark), and that, even today, many families, including Uncle
Charlies, claim the mano as their aumakua -- their protective
submerged and surrounded by the sharks swimming close, you can feel
their inscrutable, antediluvian nature. But its not all shark
seriousness in the ocean centers tank.
Enter Miss Piggy.
This big, beautiful, spotted eagle ray offers comic relief. Her
official name is Hihimanu (Flying Bird), but its easy to see why
shes been nicknamed Miss Piggy.
As soon as you
enter her domain, she sidles right up, flapping her great wings and
nuzzling you for a handout of clams.
Miss P. scoops them
from your palm, crushes the shells in her vice-grip jaws, gulps
down the rest and looks around for more. If the net-bag of shells
is left unattended on the sand, shell make off with it like a
diamond thief. Thats because, to Miss Piggy with the ever-so-soft
white belly, clam shells are a girls best friend.
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