Maui Ocean Center puts teeth in scuba adventure


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.

Sharing the 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 it.

The current 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 family god.

Once youre 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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