What I Learned By Swimming With Sharks

March 27, 2015

This time last year, I was in Hawaii. Not for the white-sand beaches, surfing, or the hauntingly beautiful mountains. I went there specifically to swim with sharks.

Flickr by Vic DeLeon

It was a strange situation. In the preceding months I was in a long-distance relationship, and unhappy with it. I decided that it was best for both of us to end it.

Unfortunately, I’d already bought a plane ticket to South America to visit him for a week in March. I wasn’t interested in going to Colombia by myself. Nor could I get a refund. I could, however, cancel my tickets and get airline credit. I had already requested the time off from work, I was heartbroken and in need of a proper vacation.

It was a moment in my life when I was really motivated to start taking care of me, and do things that made me feel good about myself. I decided to sit down and make a list of all of the things I wanted to do before I die, and pick one of them for this spring break adventure. After only a few days of contemplation, I decided to buy my ticket to Hawaii. I committed myself to a week-long, solo vacation–around meeting sharks.

Swimming with sharks had been on my bucket list for years. I’ve always been drawn to them. I thought the 20th century “Jaws” phenomenon was deeply fascinating. Why are people so terrified of these animals? I watched documentaries about sharks to learn more about them, and the more I learned, the more I started to appreciate them.

In reality, sharks should be infinitely more afraid of humans than humans should be afraid of sharks. The shark-finning business is out of control. For the sake of a shark fin soup, fishermen will pull sharks out of the water, slice off their fins, and throw them back into the ocean. The sharks, unable to swim, but still alive, die at the bottom of the ocean. If you’re interested in learning more about this, you should watch “Sharkwater,” a 2006 Canadian documentary about how humans are decimating the shark population..

When I finally got to Hawaii, I was desperate for some sunshine. I spent three days in Waikiki, playing the tourist. I spent every day, alone, walking along the beach and reading. It was magnificent and relaxing–and definitely what my broken heart needed at the time. Solo traveling is a great way to find a personal sense of peace.

When the day came for me to go swim with sharks, I was beyond excited. I had to wake up extremely early to catch a bus in time to get to the north shore at 8:30 am. Sharks are apparently most active early in the morning, so the shark tours started at 6:30, 8:30, and 10:30. The earlier you go, the more sharks you will see!

I got off the bus in a tiny town called Haleiwa. Unfortunately, it was pouring down rain! The weather was horrible, and the wind was pretty rough. When I got to the tiny dock, the previous shark swimmers were coming in at the end of their tour. The boat was drenched.

The boat driver told us that he wasn’t 100% comfortable taking us out into this kind of weather, and that if we wanted our money back, he’d be more than happy to refund us. If we still wanted to go out and swim with sharks, we were also welcome. It was up to us.

All eight of us decided that we wanted to swim with sharks, no matter what the weather was like.

So we all piled into a boat, and learned a little about shark conservation while the captain barreled into the sea. The wind and waves were crazy! I loved it. It seemed incredibly appropriate that the day I swam with sharks was dark and stormy. It gave the whole experience that nice horror-movie feel!

We got to a point where we could barely see land anymore. The driver stopped the boat and pulled up to a shark cage attached to a buoy. The cage was almost completely submerged in the water, with only about a foot of metal jutting out of the waves.

We grabbed snorkels and masks, and the boat drivers told us to jump on in.

The scariest part of the whole experience was getting into the cage. You had to jump into the water, since the cage wasn’t attached to the boat. Meanwhile, shark fins circle the boat! Shark fins are infinitely scarier than actual sharks!

Once in the water, all eight of us grabbed a spot against the cage. We submerged ourselves into the ocean and watched these eight-foot-long sharks circle us, curiously peering into the cage.

Underwater, everything is nearly silent. Watching sharks with only the sound of the humming boat engine was almost magical. There were probably six or seven sharks regularly circling us, and they seemed so regal. I wasn’t scared at all. They were almost like timid dogs, sneaking closer and closer to us to check out what was inside this weird cage.

I could have spent hours in the cage, but we obviously had to leave at some point. On the boat ride back, I was so genuinely happy that I’d chosen to do this.

It was one of those moments when I realized that I’d made something happen for myself, by myself, and it was amazing. I had chosen to do something that I’d always wanted to do. That act, on it’s own, gives you an awesome feeling. And when you have a great time doing it? That’s even better.

Sometimes, when life hands you lemons, you really do have to make lemonade.

Make lemonade, or swim with sharks.

My blurry picture of a shark in the ocean's distance.

My blurry picture of a shark in the ocean’s distance.

My blurry picture my toes resting on the side of the shark cage.

my toes resting on the side of the shark cage.

My blurry picture of two sharks, swimming by!

More in Voices: On Stretch Marks – Learning to Love Body “Imperfection”

The Night Wolf Is Silent – Remembering Fathers

The Importance of Forgiving Yourself


Photo: Vic De Leon via flickr; Abbie Zulock


More Stories

Abbie Zulock is a writer based out of Seattle, WA, currently traveling throughout Europe, working on organic farms and exploring vegan delicacies around the continent. Abbie is also an experienced professional tarot card reader and when she's not writing or traveling the globe, she can be found hanging out with her black lab, Jackson!


always stay inspired!