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Hanging out with Sharks

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Jun 27, 2011

divers at tunnels in front of makana on kauai“If you come across a shark, don’t look it eye to eye and maybe it will hang around a while,” said Wayne, our dive master with Watersports Adventures. “Right, Justin?” Wayne pointed his chin in the direction of one of my dive buddies for the day, a young 23-year-old who grew up scuba diving with his dad. On a recent outing, Wayne and Justin had encountered a shark here—in this very same dive spot—and the three hung out “for a while.”

“Everyone ready?” Wayne asked. Masks strapped to our faces. Regulators clamped in our mouths. Fins cinched on our feet. Buoyancy control devices strapped on our banks. My group of six divers bobbed in the water off a Kauai north shore beach and gave Wayne the A-OK sign for “all good.” And we descended head first into a slot cavern in the reef at Kauai’s best summer shore dive—Tunnels.

The more-respectful Hawaiian name for this beach is Makua, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard it called that. Most people refer to it, simply, as “Tunnels.” That’s not the same for the commanding mountain standing guard above the beach. More and more people refer to the distinctive cutout range by its proper Hawaiian name, Makana, instead of its Hollywood name, Bali Hai, coined in the movie South Pacific. And with a rare waterfall streaking down its face and a rainbow arcing from summit to sea, both due to unseasonable evening and early morning rain showers, the name Makana makes much more sense when you understand its English translation: Gift. Don’t you agree?
swim through at tunnels with scuba diverBut let’s talk sharks, the much-feared creature of the sea. Sharks—and the idea of swimming with sharks—make some people’s heart rates rise, thanks to the movie Jaws and also the captivating super-slow-mo video of leaping and jaw-snapping Great whites aired every summer during Discovery Channel’s much-watched Shark Week--starting this summer on July 31.

I have a healthy respect of sharks. I admire them. I find them fascinating. Check this: Sharks can zero in on the source of a scent—yes, blood—from a quarter of a mile away. They can “hear” the vibrations of an injured animal from as much as a mile away. At close range, they can sense the weak electrical fields emitted by all living organisms. All, as in you and me.

But I am not enamored of sharks enough to jump into any ocean with Great whites whipping about. I am not enough of a thrill-seeker to sign up for the controversial shark-feeding dives, either. In fact, I find those operations wrong. Didn’t we learn the repercussions from feeding bears in national parks?

turtle swimming in open ocean at tunnels beach on kauaiThe most common shark you’ll see--if you’re lucky--hanging about Hawaii’s reefs is the White-tip reef shark.

Most sharks swim constantly, either because they will sink if they stop or suffocate without water continuously passing over their gills. But not White-tip reefies. They hunt at night by snagging fish and crustaceans from hiding places in coral, and they rest during the day, tucked under ledges and in the backs of caves.

Hmm. Ledges and caves? A dive site nicknamed “Tunnels?”

Wayne led us to the outer reef at Tunnels when he discovered he had a fairly advanced group of divers on his hands last Thursday morning. After we all emerged from our first swim-through, he wrote on his underwater slate, “Like that? Want more?”

We responded with the thumb-and-forefinger-A-OK sign. Yes, indeed. I followed Wayne through one tunnel after another, and at one point, something made me turn to my right. It’s not like we were swimming through smooth and straight straws of passageways. Formed from various lava flows, the volcanic rock through and around which we swam had eroded at different rates over the five-and-a-half million years since Kauai emerged from the sea, leaving alcoves and niches and detours and rooms along the way. In other words, great places for hiding. Or, if you’re a shark, perfect napping nooks.

turtle skull found while diving tunnels beach on kauaiI don’t know what made me look, because I didn’t see anything. No flash of color. No whip of a tail. No maw of teeth. Not then, at least.

We swam on, exhaling all the way, as Wayne had suggested, in order to economize our use of air.

Wayne hovered above a rock and wrote on his slate, “conger eel & cleaner shrimp.”

In Hawaiian tradition, it was believed the spirits of ancestors could embody the bodies of animals—called aumakua, and the two—animals and humans—lived in symbiotic relationships. There are many kinds of symbiotic relationships in nature. The conger eel provides protection and scraps of food to cleaner shrimp; whereas, in return, the shrimp cleans the eel—including its teeth—of parasites and dead tissue.

In Hawaiian lore, sharks are often considered a family’s aumakua. Family members would provide certain sharks food in exchange for their protection at sea. In other stories, sharks helped in the search for fish. In one story, however, it was the shark that provided the food to an aging couple.

Our dive lasted 53 minutes at a depth of 47 feet. We saw a Whitemouth and and Yellowmargin moray. A cloud of akule. A few spotted boxfish. Tiny yellow tang. Hawaiian domino damselfish. Hawaiian cleaner wrasse. Manybar goatfish. Eye-bar goby. Hawaiian white-spotted toby. Orange-mouth lizardfish. Bluestripe snapper. Orangespine unicorn fish. Lei triggerfish. Cornetfish. Bird wrasse. Plenty turtles. Even a turtle skull.

But no sharks. There’s a saying among divers. You may not have seen any sharks. But that doesn’t mean a shark didn’t see you.


Dennis | Jun 27, 2011 07:38 PM

Fun article! Too bad no sharks.

Susan | Jun 28, 2011 07:15 AM

Same with Mountain Lions. They see you long before (if ever) you see them. I strongly believe that you shouldn't go looking for any animal that doesn't want to be seen. I'm reading your suggestion (I think) Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell. Great writing, remarkable story. Just added your highly rated Mink River by Brian Doyle to my wait list at the library. Will pick up the "ready for pickup" Housekeeper and the Professor and One Thousand White Women today. Much more reading time needed. XOS

Andrea | Jun 28, 2011 08:08 AM

Love this! Would've been great to see a shark, but that turtle skull is awesome too! Must've been a great dive :)

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