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Generation Jaws

Helen Raine shares her exhilarating – if a tad terrifying – experience freediving with sharks.

As a member of generation Jaws, sharks have always inspired a fascination and a frisson of fear. My husband, however, is an out and out shark lover. He is also a Valentine’s baby, which is why, at 7am on Valentine’s Day, I found myself on the Haleiwa dock on Oahu Island, Hawaii, waiting for the One Ocean boat to take us freediving with sharks. I was shivering and it wasn’t entirely from the cold. Most girls get red roses on February 14 – I get an encounter with an apex predator.

The boat, when it arrived, was tiny (One Ocean take six people per trip, and places sell out fast). It was manned by Captain Forrest, who looked unnervingly young, and Kori, a marine biologist with a mega-watt American smile and a flamingo speckled swimsuit. Neither inspired much confidence that they’d be able to defend me if a shark went rogue although they did have an impressively large ‘trauma kit’ which they proudly showed us.

Captain Forrest announced that it “might be a bit rough”. This was something of an understatement – the north shore of Oahu has legendary surf due to the high swells that pile in from the Pacific. The little boat lurched into nausea-inducing troughs for about 15 minutes until we reached our dive site.

En route, Kori told us about the sharks we were most likely to see, mainly Sandbar and Galapagos sharks, although periodically Tiger sharks or Whale sharks appear. As the captain revved the engines to moor at the buoy, there was movement in the water and fins parted the cloud of air bubbles from the propeller. If you fail to get a shark sighting, One Ocean give you your money back – we were now $150 each the poorer.

In the sea, we clearly saw the sharks showing us respect but as a species, humans just can’t seem to reciprocate

Kori explained that the sharks have a hie­rarchy – the dominant animals swim on the surface and the rest remain further down the water column. We’d be on the top, exerting our authority – at least that was the theory. Signs that the sharks weren’t buying it included ‘playing chicken’ with us, ‘bumping’, ‘head shaking’ and ‘baring teeth’. If that happened, we’d be getting out of the water. No-one argued with that plan.

In groups of three, armed only with mask, snorkel, fins and a camera, we lowered ourselves cautiously into the water, minimising splashing and keeping our arms close to our body to avoid looking like prey. Even our Go-Pro had to go on an extra-long stick because sharks have an acute sense of electro-reception; the electrical impulses of the camera might tempt them to get a little closer than we’d like.

The water temperature was less of a shock than I expected, which is good because I was already dealing with a sharp intake of breath at seeing 14 Sandbar sharks in the water with me. The animals at the bottom were circling in the gloom, tens of metres below us, but Kori had instructed us to look slowly from side to side rather than just down; that revealed three animals just a couple of metres beneath the surface, swimming in large circles around us.

Sandbars are fairly small (they max out at around two metres) and have the sleek grace and power of dolphins, with particularly long dorsal fins.

They kept a wary distance, swimming just close enough for us to admire their shadowy colouring, pockmarked with black copepod parasites. They congregate at this site because the currents help to push water over their gills, meaning that they can reduce their energy expenditure after a night of hunting.

Just as we were getting comfortable in the water with these impressive predators, Kori dived deeply. The most dominant shark was exhibiting danger signs and she headed off his half-hearted charge with a firm hand on his flank; we exited shortly after.

Seeing these animals so at home in the water made those pictures of finned sharks washed up on beaches or dead sharks hanging in fish markets all the more depressing.

Sandbars are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN red list – they are targeted heavily, especially for shark fin soup, their fins hacked off and the rest of the body left to rot. Since they are long-lived and reproduce slowly, their population is declining rapidly.

In the sea, we clearly saw the sharks showing us respect but as a species, humans just can’t seem to reciprocate, unable to get past their ferocious reputation.

The reality, however, is that attacks on people are statistically incredibly rare and usually a case of mistaken identity in murky water (they see us as seals from beneath, especially on a surf board). When bites do occur, they are rarely fatal as the shark realises its error and leaves the area. You have more chance of being hit by lightning.

While the second group were face down in shark alley, the whales put on a show for us. Just as I was about to get into the water again, they executed a perfect double breach, two powering out of the water in perfect synchronicity, hanging in the air for a couple of seconds and then crashing down simultaneously with a terrific splash.

I was so transfixed, I forgot that I was holding the Go Pro, already running; all we got was some footage of the deck and an audio of me saying “Oh My Gooooooddddddddddd”.

Most girls get red roses on February 14 – I get an encounter with an apex predator

But the timing of our next dive was perfect. The whales were moving towards the boat as I got in.

I turned a slow 360° under the water, scanning the flickering expanse of blue – the visibility was great, but there was no sign of a 10-metre cetacean. I focused instead on the sharks circling calmly.

And then I got one of those feelings, the kind you get in the forest when something big is watching you in the gloom.

I turned… and less than 50 metres away, dwarfing the underside of our little boat, was a whale. Its grey-blue back was remarkably camouflaged in the water – it’s as if the human eye cannot compute the size of the creature – but the white edging on the gigantic fins gave the whale away.

It cruised for a couple of seconds, then with the most languid movement of its tail, propelled itself into the impenetrable ocean, way beyond.

I hung clumsily in the water, awestruck, for minutes after it had gone. I had been in the presence of greatness.

It was a challenge not to rave about the whale to the second group, who were excited to be rotating back into the water with the sharks but had missed three seconds of pure magic. We waited until they were below the waves to frantically skip through the photos on the underwater camera.

Had we caught it on film? Had we even seen it? The encounter already felt like an out-of-body, underwater hallucination. Kori confirmed that such sightings were incredibly rare – she got barely one a year.

My husband was blasé about the whales. For him, the sharks were the prize and he thrilled with the Sandbars but a little disappointed that he’d missed the bigger and more powerful Galapagos sharks.

I had also developed a fresh appreciation for these much maligned fish, targeted so relentless by humans. Over 11,000 sharks are killed every hour. One Ocean are challenging us to redefine our relationship with sharks, based on science instead of fear; it’s down to us participants to inspire others in our turn.

Sharks are incredible – they evolved before dinosaurs and have been adapting ever since, becoming more efficient and a critical part of our ecosystem. Seeing them in the wild is a good way to understand how important it is to stop killing them.

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