What It’s Really Like to Swim in Shark-infested Waters

What It’s Really Like to Swim in Shark-infested Waters
Jason Elias

I saw it right in front of me on my first scuba dive ever. Swimming freely 60′ down in the warm waters of the South Pacific, no cage surrounding me, I found myself face-to-face with one of the world’s most misunderstood predators: a shark. It was a 10-foot lemon shark, and it swam by to inspect me while 30 or more blacktip and whitetip sharks lurked in the background. Their eyes, small black slits in the center of dull, white circles, looked empty. Were they plotting their next meal? Like it or not, I was going to find out. Welcome to my shark week.

Before venturing off to the islands of French Polynesia, I had to get my diving certification. After only three classes—online reading followed by a test—I spent two days practicing in a heated pool, then two days in 44° water in Washington’s Hood Canal.

The accelerated learning was quickly followed by a two-hour flight from Portland, OR, to Los Angeles for an overnight stopover before an eight-hour flight to Tahiti. Once we landed, I was lei’d three times by greeters before reaching the hotel for a few hours’ sleep.

The next day I was on a 30′ dive boat, where for a week I joined horror-film director turned shark advocate Eli Roth (Grindhouse, Hostel, Cabin Fever) as he filmed dives in Tahiti’s shark-infested waters for his Discovery Channel show, Shark After Dark, to air during the network’s Shark Week.

Just 25 minutes from the island, we reached our dive location, known as the White Valley. Before our engines had even stopped running, the boat was surrounded by sharks. For weeks I’d imagined how many I’d see, how they’d act once I entered their world. Now the anticipation mounted as I waited, sweating in my wetsuit, steeling myself to jump from the 80° air into the 80° water.

For our first dive, the crew and I were placed on an expanse of seafloor made white by tiny bits of long-dead coral. We watched as Roth interacted with a frenzy of sharks and swarms of fish that immediately surrounded him. It was 60 minutes of sensory overload.

As I kicked back to the surface and began to climb onto the boat, I again felt the weight of the 15-L steel tank on my back and the 4.5-lb steel belt around my waist. The boat crew aimed their cameras at me and asked about my experience; unfortunately for them, I was near speechless. That empty look in the eyes of the sharks—I just wasn’t ready to describe it.

It’s crazy, diving with sharks, but not in the way you’d expect. Because, well, sharks simply don’t act the way you’d expect, especially when it comes to picking out their food.

Sharks have very acute senses of hearing and smell, which allow them to locate prey from half a mile away. Then, as they get to about 100′, their vision lets them lock tight on their target. For the last 25 to 30 feet, they hunt by electrosensory perception, picking up electric signals from their victim. In other words, they know what they’re looking for.

And it’s not us. The truth is, sharks have no more interest in people than dogs at a dog park do. Typically, as we found, after a quick approach to sniff, they take more carefree than before. In fact, most humans killed by sharks are victims of misidentification, as they splash near the surface or lurk near overshed waters, confusing sharks’ usually spot-on “radar.”

Statistics even further refute sharks’ reputation as man-eaters: Each year, on average, humans kill more than 100 million sharks, devastating their population by overfishing their habitats and hunting them for their oil and their fins (after which the de-finned shark is often thrown back into the ocean to bleed to death). And how many humans do sharks kill annually? About six.

So who should be afraid of whom?

After a lunch of one of Tahiti’s most succulent offerings, fresh poke with coconut milk, lime, and vegetables, I was back on the boat again, this time hoping that my nerves, the choppy seas, and the espresso shot I said yes to after lunch wouldn’t have me vomiting into my regulator and spewing a cloud of chum. (Regulators, I was told, are actually built to accommodate that, but I’m glad I didn’t have to find out for myself.)

The following day, we took a short flight to an even more remote place, Fakarava, the second-largest atoll in Tahiti (with an airport like a giant hay barn, with no security), then sailed a catamaran five hours south to the end of the atoll. For the next three nights, half the crew lived on the vessel, while the rest of us stayed at Fakarava’s Tetamanu Sauvage “resort” in huts built on stilts propped over the water’s edge.

Let this be clear: Fakarava isn’t a place of extravagant digs for billionaire vacationers. It’s known almost exclusively to the diving community as the home of Tumakohua Pass, aka the Wall of Sharks. A designated Unesco Biosphere Reservation, Fakarava has some of the world’s most vibrant coral and thriving marine habitats, not to mention an average of 600 sharks swimming in the water, far outnumbering any human tourists.

Diving here, we drifted with the current and passed giant groups of about 30 sharks every 10 minutes or so. In less than an hour, we had seen almost 200 sharks. None of them attacked any of the thousands of surrounding fish, though we did see one briefly tangle with an eagle ray.

Suddenly, a sense of peace came over me.

Though I wasn’t even halfway through the trip, I was struck by a revelation: Sharks aren’t at all what I’d thought. Going eye to eye with these supposed killers had turned into one of the most calming experiences I’d ever had. Sharks aren’t “human hunters”; they’re ocean keepers, picking off the weak and the dead, keeping our waters clean.

I came away from the trip alive and well, with a new respect for these magnificent creatures.

And I’ll never be afraid again.

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