Meeting Hawaii’s “True Locals”

“Mommy, we all need to not be afraid of going in the ocean,” said a three-year-old to her mother at La Cañada Preschool. My goal as a traveling journalist and preschool teacher had been attained.

It was the month of May. I was a mother of a three-year-old myself, working two jobs and looking for that long-awaited break. The indescribable spirit of Aloha was calling me. And as a longtime surfer and sea spirit, there was a specific location dominating my mind—Haleiwa on the North Shore of Oahu. One of my close girlfriends, Sommer Davis, had lived there for five years. We had surfed together in Peru and Brazil, so I took her advice seriously. Haleiwa was the place to be.

The small, quaint, and peaceful town of Haleiwa is a close drive to the breathtaking Waimea Falls, crystal clear snorkeling waters of Shark’s Cove, and the lovely Turtle Bay Resort, where we danced to Michael Franti in concert next to Jack Johnson. In town, vegetarian hot spots included Sprout and Beet Box, the locals’ favorites. And most importantly, endless breaks that satisfy any surfer’s craving. There are also plenty of spots for the solo swimmer or family with children to enjoy calm, warm, and safe waters.

What drew me to Haleiwa was also the promise to live a rare opportunity—swimming with sharks. As a surfer of 12 years, I had witnessed countless whales and dolphins and had surfed near a Great White shark. Yet, I still longed to become one with the sharks under the surface, freely and up close and personal. I found a shark conservation, research, and diving group—ONE Ocean Diving—in Haleiwa Harbor, walking distance from my Airbnb. My heart beat strong with anticipation as I booked my spot online. (I’m not going to lie; I was impressed by their 100-percent safety record).

Finally, the day arrived to leave for Hawaii. The trip kicked off with a helpful hand from car rental company Lucky Owl. They are a best-kept secret. After a quick surf on Waikiki Beach, I was on my way, out of the city, and into paradise. Lush, green mountains greeted me on this easy drive into a world of wonder. The town was exactly how I had imagined. The decreased speed limit represented the journey. It was time to slow down. Take a deep breath and relax.

I headed to the North Shore Surf Shop and hit my first beach, Pua’ena Point. The ocean was breathtakingly beautiful with crystal blue and emerald green colors, shimmering amongst perfect head-high waves and a huge turtle swimming about, greeting my arrival. The surfers were friendly as well, and we took turns on some sweet rides. Next up was Chun’s Reef with larger waves that roll over a reef. Big waves and reef equates to expert-only surfers, not a place for beginners, unless the waves are small.

Standing on the beach of Chun’s, I stared out at the sea, wondering if I could handle its size and strength. I had Sommer’s words circling my mind. “The waves can grow larger in seconds in the waters of Hawaii. Take extra caution.” As I walked down the beach, a very kind lifeguard at Chun’s asked if I was going out. As it so happened, he was from my town back home. He gave me great advice to pass along to anyone going into the waters of Hawaii. Here are few pointers: Watch the water for about 30 minutes prior to swimming or surfing. Study the size of the waves, and wait to see how big the sets are, which appear every 15 minutes. These are the largest waves at that time. Ask the lifeguard about tides, strong currents, and any rip tides. Also inquire about the ocean floor, whether it has reefs, sand, or rocks. Find out how and where to safely enter and exit the water. Know your limit, trust your intuition, and “when in doubt, don’t go out!”

By trusting my intuition, I experienced safe surfing, swimming, and snorkeling. By feeling safe, I believe that one feels the true meaning of vacation. Snorkeling Shark’s Cove Beach was a treat, packed with huge, colorful fish that were fun to watch riding the currents underwater. Relaxing on the white sand beach of Waimea topped off the day and a delicious meal of seared ahi fish tacos at Luibuenos in Haleiwa on Kamehameha Highway closed the night.

On the day of the shark dive, I felt a ting of normal anxiety. This is only because I was part of the generation that grew up on the movie Jaws and its ride at Universal Studios. No wonder everyone my age is afraid of the ocean! Skydiving was quickly bumped down my “bucket list” spot as I eagerly approached the boat in the early morning. The founder of ONE Ocean Diving was a woman appropriately named “Ocean.” I was amazed that this woman who spoke very softly and sweetly swam with huge sharks daily. She and her helpful staff were most welcoming and taught us about the sharks, what species we may encounter, how to interact with them peacefully and appropriately, and how we should swim underwater with them. We were in their home, not the other way around.

Ocean Ramsey founded ONE Ocean Diving with Juan Oliphant, a shark specialist. They both grew up in the waters of Hawaii and she attributes the majority of shark research to him. Ramsey is the dive safety officer, head field researcher, and founder of the Pelagic Research and Animal Interaction Program or what many refer to as, “the snorkel with sharks without a cage” experience.

The first time Ramsey snorkeled with a shark, she was only eight years old. Since then, her heart belonged to leaders of the sea. She has worked with over 32 species of sharks worldwide. As a youth, she had no doubt of her true calling in life and quickly became a marine biologist and shark conservationist. From her Master’s research in ethology—animal behavior and psychology—she founded ONE Ocean Diving. She specifically studies sharks’ behavior, body language, how they interact with each other to establish hierarchy, and how they interact with other species.

“One of my studies is seeing how the sharks interact with humans,” Ramsey explained to Whole Life Times of her mission. “The practical application of my science is actually empowering people to realize that sharks do have a social hierarchy; they do communicate with one another. We can learn what their ecological role is, how they adapt with their behavior, and how we can adapt our behavior to their behavior. We should not ask the shark to change its behavior for us, we actually need them to do their ecological role.”

On the shark diving boat, we were taken out to a specific area in the ocean, where a group of sharks congregate. I decided to go on two dives, one during the start of my vacation, and one on my last morning in Hawaii. The species I encountered was the Galapagos shark. On my first dive, there were 50 sharks and on my second there were 27. Ramsey taught us how to swim with our snorkels amongst these amazing and peaceful creatures.

“What we do is we teach people what to do when they get in the water,” Ocean said of her teachings. “We show them what to do and what not to do, based upon the biology, physiology, behavior, and body language of the shark. It is great because we get people from all over the world out to Hawaii; they get to meet the true locals, who are the sharks. They have been here for millions of years. Sharks have been evolving for over 450 million years. Humans have been on the planet for only 200,000. So you figure, we are not a natural prey item, we are not something they recognize. It’s nice for people to see that themselves and get their faces in the water and see a shark eye to eye, face to face. The person then realizes, wow, these are massive apex predators; but wait, they are not trying to eat my arms and legs off.”

My first thought upon seeing the sharks underwater is that they are truly majestic. Meeting these magnificent creatures of the sea face to face really puts the world into perspective. Yes, they swam around me and right below me. No, they did not approach my body in any threatening way. Yes, my heart beat a little faster. But by the second dive, I was swimming calmly and confidently amongst them with respect. It felt as if they were speaking to me and saying, “Welcome to our home.” We swam calmly, sometimes in unison. And the moments I swam with a mother and juvenile, I felt truly honored and overwhelmed with joy. There was a moment when I swam directly over a 20-year-old female shark that the group studies.

In the water, I paid my respect and thanked them for letting me experience their world, and I promised them to spread this good news to others, to honor them, and to fight our hardest to stop killing them, especially for shark fin soup (which occurs at a current rate of two to three sharks per second). Once I reached land, I was on a natural high for the rest of the day, replaying what I considered now to be “addictive” moments in my mind. I decided to book another dive.

Once on land, Ramsey also advised others on how we can make a difference. Boycott any restaurants serving shark fin soup and teach our children, when they ask about the ocean and sharks, about their beauty and slow maturation. Avoid the film, Jaws. It just perpetuates fear. Also, do not eat fish caught on long-line fishing, meaning that one fish costs the lives of nine other animals such as turtles, whales, dolphins, or sharks.

“For the ones of us who have grown up with a mask and snorkel on our face our entire lives, each year we see fewer sharks and fish and more fishing lines and plastic in the ocean,” Ramsey said.

It is Ramsey’s goal to utilize media to change the world’s perception of sharks, what she calls “the most misunderstood animals on the planet.” She wishes to use her education and guidance as the keystone to saving the ocean and the planet.

“The ocean is what makes life possible,” Ramsey said in closing with a smile.

Visit oneoceandiving.com and oceanramsey.com  for more info. Watch Ocean’s TED Talk on sharks here:  https://youtu.be/UVuHuifQL8Q

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This article is a part of the June / July 2017 issue of Whole Life Times.