There's a great deal of open water in a submerged shark cage. So much of it, in fact, that I bet it's not uncommon for people swimming inside one to feel somewhat less protected than they might have originally hoped.
Having recently survived my first shark cage experience, I'll admit there were times when I felt a bit more exposed than I'd imagined. Much of that, though, was my own fault. There were plenty of bars and even two big sheets of Plexiglas, all properly spaced and strategically angled. But the moment you put your hand through those bars, or dangle a foot outside their limits, all that metal and reinforced acrylic isn't protecting you from anything.
The folks at North Shore Shark Adventures, of course, made it clear that sticking your hands and feet outside the cage was an awful idea, and the boat's captain was even quick to provide an illustrative analogy for those of us struggling with the concept.
"You don't reach into the big cats exhibit at the zoo and try to pet the lions, right?" he asked all of us.
That made a great deal of sense to me at the time, but later in the cage, wholly mesmerized by the half-dozen or so, 5-to-9-foot Galapagos sharks casually swimming inches from my face, I lost track of what my arms and legs were doing.
Fortunately for me, and everybody else who's been on a North Shore Shark Adventures tour in the past nine years, no one has ever been bitten. Joe Pavsek, the company's owner, actually started taking his friends out nearly 20 years ago, long before he ever considered having folks pay to swim in a cage, and insists no one has suffered so much as a shark-related scratch since.
"The sharks are Galapagos sharks and sandbar sharks that have never been known to bite a person," he said. "We don't attract tiger sharks. If I was doing this tour and it attracted tiger sharks, I just wouldn't do it."
Although extraordinarily rare, shark attacks on humans do happen from time to time in Hawaii, and tiger sharks are generally the species doing the biting. Pavsek is quick to point out, however, that even tiger sharks are victims of poor press.
"Sharks have been demonized for how long?" he said. "People call them man-eaters and everything else. That's bull. They don't eat us. If they do bite us, it's by mistake. ... And we do our best to try to teach people that during the tours."
North Shore Shark Adventures' exemplary safety record has made the company a popular excursion for visitors from all over the globe. The day I went out, four 20-somethings from Denmark joined me along with a pair of Midwestern honeymooners; a gentleman from Sao Paulo, Brazil; and a woman from Waikiki.
Pavsek said such diversity is common: "Anyone from 3-year-old kids to 97-year-old guys on their birthday to an entire Japanese baseball team that just won their [championship] series to Polish people to Austrians."
According to Pavsek, visitors joining the tours specifically to overcome their fear of sharks are also frequent patrons, which makes sense. The group I joined was extremely relaxed and pretty free of that adrenaline-seeker energy you sometimes run into on similar-themed adventures. The ride out was so pleasant and the scenery so stunning that I sort of forgot about the sharks until the boat slowed and several surprisingly large, silver silhouettes started circling below us.
In October the Honolulu City Council voted to defer action on legislation that would have banned shark tour operations on Oahu. Sponsored by City Councilman Charles Djou, representative for the southeastern Oahu districts of Hawaii Kai and Waikiki, Bill 67 would have made it illegal to maintain an office, collect money, market or conduct any other activity related to a shark tour on Oahu, penalizing violators with up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. The Maui City Council passed a similar bill earlier this year.
The Honolulu council's decision to defer on the bill appears to have effectively killed the measure, but there is talk of the Hawaii State Legislature taking up the issue again early next year.
When I spoke with Djou recently, he said he had introduced Bill 67 because constituents living and doing business within his district voiced a great deal of concern following a failed attempt to introduce a shark tour business off Oahu's southeast shore.
In recent months, Djou has made it clear that granting grandfather exemptions for two existing Oahu tour operators, North Shore Shark Adventures and Hawaii Shark Encounters, was a priority for him, thanks to their North Shore location and their many years of operation without a single shark-related accident.
"My belief, based on the evidence that was presented to the Honolulu City Council, is that the current two shark tour operations do not appear to be a hazard to ocean users on the North Shore," Djou said. "But were we to see an expansion of shark tour operations opening up on other parts of the island, it could pose a hazard to other ocean recreation users."
State law prohibits shark tours within three miles of shore. Pavsek's company and Hawaii Shark Encounters both operate beyond that distance, in waters reaching only 400 feet in depth.
"You cannot do this type of tour anywhere else in these islands, because of the fact that there has been white crab fishing out of Haleiwa for over 45 years," Pavsek said. Pavsek explained that the sharks have been conditioned to recognize the sound of a marine diesel engine and come in a hurry, hoping to feast on leftover bait from crab pots. "The crab fishermen are the ones who trained these sharks," he said.
While there was some fresh tuna thrown in the water during my tour, there was no extensive chumming like that often seen in Discovery Channel "Shark Week" programs.
The relatively shallow ocean depth is also, apparently, ideal for more docile species of shark. Pavsek said he understood why Djou's constituents were concerned about the prospect of a shark tour business operating three miles off the southern Oahu shoreline.
"They'd be in 1,700 feet of water out there," he said. "And there are bad boys out there. Big, bad boys."
North Shore Shark Adventures offers agents a minimum 20% commission. Tours are $96 for adults and $50 for children ages 3 to 13.