Out of all the activities you can do in Hawaii, a pelagic dive with sharks is my absolute favorite. No other adventure compares to the thrill of submerging yourself into an apex predator’s territory. Coming face to face with a shark is life-changing, and you’ll come out of the experience with an entirely different perspective of these misunderstood creatures.
The backstory to my personal obsession
To be honest, I am completely biased when it comes to sharks. I’ve been obsessed with them since I was a little kid! I watched Jaws on repeat with fascination instead of fear. I had shark toys and wore shark-themed clothes. I used to watch a DVD of a filmed cage dive dreaming about when it would be my turn to see them in real life. Basically…diving with sharks has been the #1 thing on my bucket list for as long as I could remember!
I finally got the chance to dive with sharks during my first-ever visit to Oahu in 2016. Since then, I have been on multiple pelagic dives all over the world. Even though my infatuation with sharks is not shared (or understood) by many people, I still encourage everyone visiting Oahu, Hawaii to try a shark dive at least once! It is an unforgettable, exhilarating experience that will change the way you feel about sharks.
The Scary Truth About Sharks
Movies and the media have portrayed sharks as villainous, man-eating monsters, but in reality, you are more likely to be killed by a falling coconut than by a shark. Instead of having a fear of sharks, you should really be fearing for them.
Shark conservation is more important than ever due to threats from things like climate change, overfishing, and shark finning. Sharks play a critical role in the ecosystem, so their vulnerability is something we should all care about. Unfortunately, the fear associated with sharks has perpetuated a damaging and misleading stereotype that exists to this day. This reputation makes it even harder for organizations like the Shark Conservation Fund and Hawaii-based research and dive operator, One Ocean, to convince a wary public that they should care about a creature they are terrified of.
If you’re still uneasy at the thought of intentionally getting into the water with sharks, then you’re not alone. In fact, even though 73% of people believe sharks should be protected from being hunted or killed unless absolutely necessary, over 51% claim to be terrified of sharks and 38% say they are afraid to go into the ocean.
The best way to overcome your fear is to educate yourself and experience a supervised encounter like the ones listed further below in this post!
Which tour to choose:
There are multiple ways to experience a shark encounter with tour options that accommodate all ages and adventure levels.
- Inside of a cage
- Outside of a cage
- As a ride-along passenger stays on the boat
If you choose to get in the water, you will be provided with a mask (goggles) and a snorkel in addition to flippers in your specific size. No diving experience necessary! You don’t even need to know how to swim to take a cage diving tour since they have bars to hold onto.
I have taken a tour with almost every company that operates out of Haleiwa on Oahu’s North Shore and have had a great experience with them all, with and without a cage.
For the best deals, I recommend booking with Viator – a TripAdvisor company. I like that you can read TripAdvisor reviews, compare tours & prices and even get exclusive discounts. They also have a Lowest Price Guarantee and a flexible cancellation policy for most tours.
Tip: Viator has offered a 10% off promo code for new email subscribers in the past. After you choose the perfect tour for you, look to see if this offer is still available so you can apply the code when you checkout.
CAGE-FREE SNORKEL TOURS
If you’re looking for the most thrilling and natural shark encounter, you’ll want to go with a cage-free experience that allows you to swim in the open ocean amongst the sharks. Don’t worry — a trained safety diver will be supervising and monitoring the sharks’ behavior the entire time!
The best cage-free tours are One Ocean Diving and Islandview Hawaii. I have used both companies and had the best experiences! They both offer photo packages for an additional fee, which was totally worth it. Not having to worry about taking your own pictures allows you to simply be in the moment and enjoy yourself.
CAGE DIVING TOURS
If you feel more comfortable observing the sharks from inside a cage, check out Hawaii Shark Encounters or North Shore Shark Adventures. The cage is tethered to the boat and floats. You’ll get in and out of the cage using a ladder on the side of the boat. You’ll have a snorkel and mask so you can stay right beneath the ocean surface and watch the sharks gracefully glide by.
MY #1 PICK: ONE OCEAN DIVING
One Ocean is also a conservation and research organization, so their team is extremely knowledgeable about sharks and their behavior. They give a fantastic educational briefing while you are en route to the dive site. Their briefing is the most thorough of all the tours I’ve been on and really helps divers learn more about the species before jumping into their habitat.
If you are looking to purchase a photography package, One Ocean’s is top-notch and definitely worth the additional fee. The photos they took on their tour are the best quality out of all the tours I’ve been on. It did take a few days to receive them since they edit them as well! I really love when tours offer a photo package since it takes the pressure off of having to capture memories yourself.
When to book your Shark Dive tour:
Activities like Shark Dive tours can be impacted or even canceled by bad weather. I highly recommend booking your tour for the first half of your trip (within the first few days) so you have time to reschedule if needed.
Plan ahead and get your must-do activities booked ASAP since tour availability fills up quickly. Booking early also allows you to choose from the most date and time options available, so you have more flexibility.
Another great thing about Viator is you can book your spot with the option to change or cancel later since most experiences are eligible for a 100% refund if you cancel up to 24 hours before your booked date. Make sure to check the cancellation policy for the specific tour you’re interested in for more information!
Tip: I always set a reminder in my phone for the last day or time I am able to cancel a reservation and still receive a full refund just in case!
What to Expect
All tours leave from Haleiwa Harbor on Oahu’s North Shore.
Once you board the boat, the crew will give you a safety briefing and hand out the snorkel gear. While cruising out to the shark diving area, you may even see dolphins, turtles, and possibly humpback whales during the winter season! Check out the video below to hear the whale sounds in the background of my most recent shark dive (February 2021)
When you arrive at the pelagic zone, you’ll see a few dark grey silhouettes gliding just underneath the surface. You might see a few fins too! Tours are not legally allowed to bait the waters to attract sharks, so they are investigating the boat and cage out of curiosity.
One you enter the water, you’ll be amazed at the water clarity. The most common species you’ll see are galapagos sharks (up to 11 feet long) and sandbar sharks (~6 feet). If you’re lucky, you may encounter a tiger shark (up to 18 feet) or a hammerhead shark (up to 20 feet).
Sharks are curious creatures. When something catches their eye or stimulates their senses, they may bump into it with their noses. This is not an act of aggression — they are just investigating! One of my favorite Oahu shark diving experiences was when a shark booped my GoPro camera:
Most tours allow 40-60 minutes in the water, depending on how many people are in your tour group. Once your adventure is over, you’ll have an entirely different perception of these amazing creatures.
Most tours have a minimum age of 5 to dive, but North Shore Shark Adventure has a minimum age of 3 for their cage dive experience. I recommend double-checking with the company you choose prior to booking to confirm their specific policies.
You will feel completely safe whether you choose to dive in a cage or go cage-free. The cage protects divers from sharks, but something that has stuck with me since my first dive is that “the sharks don’t see the cage as a barrier between you and them, so if they wanted to attack you they would be attacking the cage but they don’t!”
For cage-free dives, a safety diver will be in the water with you at all times to monitor shark behavior and keep you safe.
I suffer from terrible sea sickness and don’t let it stop me from being out on the water! I suggest taking a motion sickness medicine (like over-the-counter brands such as Dramamine or Bonine) the night before your tour and again 2 hours before boarding the boat. I have also had a lot of success with a prescription for Scopolamine patches. Talk with your doctor before your trip to find a solution that works for you if you are worried about motion sickness affecting your experiences.
If you start to feel sea-sick while on the boat, it can help to look at the horizon and stand in the center of the boat where it is least rockiest. Bring water, crackers, or ginger chews with you. You can also try wearing acupressure wristbands to relieve nausea. Try to avoid swallowing any salt water while you’re in the ocean — this always makes it worse for me.
Worst case scenario, you get sick over the side of the boat. You won’t be the first person this has happened to and you certainly won’t be the last!
YES! If you are interested in having photos and videos, then I highly recommend opting for photo packages if offered. This allows you to be completely in the moment and takes the pressure off of trying to capture everything on your own camera. Both One Ocean Diving and Islandview Hawaii take great photos.
Here are the camera rules for each of the tours mentioned in this post:
One Ocean Diving (Cage-Free)
- Offers photo package for additional fee
- You can bring your own GoPro camera in the water only if they are mounted on a dark colored pole at least 6 inches in length.
Islandview Hawaii (Cage-Free)
- Offers photo package (inquire ahead to see if this will be an additional fee)
- Islandview no longer allow GoPros or other underwater cameras/housings on their tours, so your only option is to have them take photos/videos for you.
Hawaii Shark Encounters (Cage Dive)
- They offer a video package but you must call ahead to let them know you would like a personalized video.
- They also have GoPro video cameras on board for rent with preloaded images and clips to add into your own video edit
North Shore Shark Adventures (Cage Dive)
- Guests are encouraged to bring their own equipment as long as it doesn’t interfere with others in the cage. They also offer high-definition video service — I would recommend calling ahead to inquire about that add-on!
Most people are comfortable in just their swimsuit no matter what time of year you go. If you get cold easily, you can bring your own wetsuit. You can also wear or borrow a rashguard from most tour companies.
- Reef-safe sunscreen
- Sunglasses for the boat ride to and from the dive site
- Towels to dry off after
- I always keep a brush and detangling spray in my beach bag because snorkel masks tangle my hair so badly. I sometimes put a deep conditioner in my hair right after and rinse it out in the shower when I get home
- I recommend bringing drinking water to rinse your mouth out if you swallow salt water
- Any medicine or gear you need to combat seasickness
- A waterproof camera (like a GoPro plus a pole) if your tour allows you to take your own photos (or you can opt for a photo/video package)
- Cash to tip the tour crew
Have you been on a shark dive? I would love to hear about your experience in the comments below!
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