Once we picked the date we would be leaving Hawai’i and going back to Texas, my seemingly infinite time on the island turned into a few months, I felt an overwhelming urge to pack everything I could do into the days that remained to me and not waste a moment. There was so much I wanted to do and so many beaches I still had to see.
Knowing that I wanted to see more sea creatures and experience island-hopping, I started searching online. While looking at some of the activities that you could do on different islands, I came across swimming with sharks on O’ahu, which appealed to me. There were options to snorkel in a cage and snorkle with no cage. The pictures with no cage looked better. It was only a few dollars more so I booked some time with the sharks with a car, hotel, and flight and waited.
A while back, my son had made a friend with a neighborhood kid and in turn, we made friends with the kid’s parents. They have a truck and on the weekends we all pack in and go to different beaches on our island.
While at Anini beach, the husband (also named Sam) and I snorkeled far out. The beach is very shallow with a reef that extends out for maybe a quarter-mile. We surfaced and I said, “hey let’s go to the end of the reef where it drops off.” So then we kept on snorkeling. After reaching the edge we skirted along the side and then I saw a large white-tipped reef shark. Seeing a shark for the first time in the wild was a little nuts. It is a beast made of muscles and teeth. I knew that type of shark was not aggressive, but still, it took me aback.
It dawned on me that I had just paid to swim with these things.
A few days later I landed in Honolulu. After picking up my rental car, I headed to my hotel. It was strange driving after having been either in the backseat of my friend’s truck or riding the bus the last few months. The hotel I stayed in was the cheapest I could find without being a hostel. I was only planning on sleeping a few hours there, so I didn’t expect much. But it was still pretty rough.
I chucked my backpack in the room and walked the streets of Waikiki. It felt a lot like Las Vegas. Packed with people and stores I did not desire to enter. Not going to lie, I was not into it. I headed to the beach but it was teeming with people and I felt claustrophobic. I dipped my toes in to say I did, and a wave drenched me to my thigh. I longed to be back on peaceful Kaua’i.
Afterward, I went to get something to eat and since it was dark when I finished, I headed back to the hotel.
Taking the Long Cut
One of my good friends spent a few years in O’ahu when she was younger and I had asked her what I shouldn’t miss while I was there. She said “Eat lots of Spam” and “Head north on the east side while the sun rises.” So I checked out at 5 in the morning and hit the road, taking the long way to my destination in Haleʻiwa.
After being so grossed out by Waikiki, the rural road I took restored me. The early morning light hitting the mountains was beautiful and seeing the sunrise off the tiny bits of island jutting out in the bay was beautiful.
Though it added maybe 45 minutes to my trip, the sightseeing was well worth it.
Shark School in Session
I pulled into the harbor and parked, found the boat labeled Island View, and checked in. They told us that we would usually see Galapagos sharks, but there might be sand sharks and rarely we would see hammerheads which keep their distance, and tiger sharks which are a lot more… confident.
These sharks are attracted to the boat because they know crabbing boats are a good place to get a free meal. The captain (oddly enough, also named Sam) told us not to worry if we are bleeding or any preconceptions we had about sharks. Just keep calm, keep your face in the water since that is where the sharks are, do unto the shark as you would have them do to you and you will be fine.
Meeting the Sharks
The boat went three miles out to sea where the bottom was 400 feet down. Then the guide and photographer got in the water. They sat down and rolled in with minimal splashing and asked me to do the same. Once I was in the water I thought, “Okay, time to look at these sharks, let me put my face in the water and see them.”
But I couldn’t.
I knew there was a shark beneath me and I shared the tour operator’s confidence that it was safe. But every time I put my face in the water I would start to hyperventilate. When my face was above the water I could breathe just fine. It was a struggle, but I took a few deep breaths and closed my eyes, put my face in the water, and opened them to see a ten-foot shark a few feet away from me.
With every pass of the sharks, I relaxed further and began to enjoy the experience. Eventually, there were four of the Galapagos sharks circling us anywhere from 100 feet to 5 feet away. The water was calm and the water was incredibly blue. The rays of light beaming down through the ocean were mesmerizing.
Then I felt a tightness on the tip of my finger. I looked down and saw a red blob and was horrified. My terror was instantly renewed. Looking around for an oncoming shark and then back at my finger I noticed it wasn’t blood but something else. A closer inspection revealed it was a baby octopus, maybe an inch long that had wrapped its tentacles around the tip of my index finger and was hitching a ride.
Even if the octopus was slowly eating me, I thought it was so cute I had to let it stay. We both swam amongst the sharks and whenever the sharks were further away, I would study the octopus. At one point the octopus started to swim away but I gently cupped my hand over it and it latched back on.
All good things must come to an end, and soon we were herded back on the boat. I went to show the other guests my octopus and when I announced it the captain said, “Oh you got a little Tako? We’ll throw him back to the sharks.” I had really hoped to take a photo. That was the only bad part of the whole thing.
Back to Shore
Once we arrived back at the harbor, I overheard someone ask the captain what place he recommends for breakfast. He rattled off a few places and after I changed out of my swim trunks, I headed over to his first suggestion, Farm to Barn.
Swimming with sharks and being slowly eaten by an octopus is hungry work, so I went with a big breakfast burrito, a pineapple-apple-mint juice, and some poi banana bread.
Not knowing what to do next but having a few hours before my flight, I googled what were the best beaches on O’ahu. I saw Lanikai on the other side of the island was at the top of the list. Asking Google Maps to lead the way, I headed out.
My travels took me a different route than I had taken that morning and I was amazed by the fantastic mountain views with the road nestled between the peaks. Just when I thought I was headed straight into the side of this mountain I zoomed down into a well-lit underground tunnel. Exiting the tunnel I was treated to glimpses of a beautiful beach through the mountains
As I got closer to the beach I started looking for parking but even before noon on a weekday, it was packed. Cars were parked on all the neighborhood streets filling every spot. The area was set up with a one-way street going in and another going out. I thought maybe a spot had opened up on the way out but was sorely disappointed. I went much deeper into the neighborhood and then turned around and found a parking spot on the side of the road where there were no cars. I decided to risk it and soon found signs stating beach access. Going to the end of the sandy trail I was presented with the clearest teal blue water reaching out further than I had ever seen before.
In my heart, I have always held a place for the top beach. When I was fourteen, I attended a wedding at Punta Leona in Costa Rica. I was body surfing with my cousins and some french girls got topless. This was the beach I compared all others to for many years.
This beach was replaced by Casa Marina Beach in the Dominican Republic where the woman who became my wife got topless and we floated in the crystal clear water together for what felt like forever.
But all these beaches were dwarfed by the beauty of Lanikai.
Even though I didn’t see anyone topless, I couldn’t wait to get in the water. There was no place to change into my swimming trunks so I grabbed my snorkeling gear and bounded in with what I was wearing.
After snorkeling for a while I found a sea turtle chilling at the bottom. Any time I see a sea turtle in the wild, living its best life, it feels like a good day.
Eventually, I packed it all in and still a little wet, headed to the airport.
At the airport, I had a pineapple pizza and a beer then hopped on the plane home. When island hopping the flights are so fast you don’t have time to think. I filmed the takeoff and then the flight attendant asked if I wanted juice or water. After drinking the juice and throwing away the trash, it was time to fasten the seatbelts and land.
I arrived back on Kaua’i still shedding the sands of Lanikai from my sandals. Jumping on the bus and heading home I was happy to be back but very ecstatic about having experienced more of these beautiful islands.