A Great White Named Schatzi
Owner and Captain Jimmy Hall attracted worldwide attention with an incredible encounter with a giant great white shark on December 28th, 2005. This rare event was the only great white ever filmed in Hawaii. News stations and newspapers all over Hawaii featured this encounter on their daily news and front pages. The response was overwhelmingly positive as the story was reported with great enthusiasm and a positive attitude. Something very rare in the world of sensational media coverage!
Major national networks showed the footage and interviewed Jimmy on live television with millions of viewers... a fact that Jimmy found much scarier than diving with a 20 ft Great White Shark.
If you are interested in reading the whole story, click here!
Great White Shark Encounter in Hawaii
To watch the video, click here.
Good days on the ocean are not uncommon for me. As the name of my business, Hawaii Shark Encounters, implies, I have a pretty fun and interesting job. Every day, (weather permitting) we take people out of Haleiwa to view sharks from a shark cage. December 28th, 2005 was looking to be an ideal day. The weather was absolutely perfect, sunny and windless. Not a ripple marred the surface of the water and the visibility was as good as it gets. We had plenty of sharks and because of the holiday season, plenty of people wanting to see them.
At about 1:00 PM, four of our guests were enjoying their turn in the cage. A mix of about 20 Galapagos and sandbar sharks were swimming around the cage and putting on a great show. The ocean was like glass and the bright sun seemed to penetrate hundreds of feet down into the blue water. It was a perfect day that was about to become the best day of my life.
One of the deckhands, and I were standing on the swim step watching the sharks when one of the people in the cage raised his head above the water and shouted about a giant shark. The last time this had happened the shark was a whale shark and I had a great encounter with a 30 footer. Hoping for a repeat, I peered into the water to see what was coming. Right away a massive shape rose up towards the surface. The lack of a square head showed that it was no whale shark. The animal was so massive that I believed a small humpback whale was paying us a visit. The "whale" kept swimming closer to the boat. When it was about 20 feet away the deckhand yelled "it's a white!" I thought to myself "a white what?" It was so big that I could not believe that this was actually a shark. Moments later, I too realized that we were looking and an absolutely enormous great white shark!
The people in the cage were understandably worried. When you are in the cage, it is not tied to the side of the boat. We need to pull the cage closer for people to get out. But that was not what we were doing. Instead, they saw the captain exclaim "Holy shit it's a great white!" and run away. What they did not know was that I was running for my camera. They thought I was running in fear and that they were doomed!
With video camera in hand, I jumped in the cage. The size of the shark was unbelievable. Just two months before I had been to Guadauple Island and spent three days filming great whites. This shark dwarfed all of the sharks we had seen at Guadalupe. Right away the shark rubbed her belly against the cage and we could put our hands through the bars and rub the sharks underside. The shark then swam to the boat and rubbed against the hull. We quickly identified her as a female and do to her incredible size wondered if she was pregnant. The shark seemed very curios, investigating the boat and cage but never eating anything. Maybe we didn't have any food large enough to interest her but she ignored anything we put in front of her. She rubbed the bottom of the boat so many times that she had blue bottom pain on the her nose, dorsal fin, and pectoral fins.
Our shark cage has a small door that I opened so I could hang out and film. As the shark made passes around the boat and cage. After just a few minutes, the low battery indicator in my video camera started flashing. The next ten minutes were a chaotic mess of battery and camera changes as I did my best to record this awesome shark. At one point I was on the boat and the shark swam to the surface and very slowly stuck her head above the water, opened her mouth and leaned against the cage. The people in the cage were getting the thrill of a lifetime. And so was I!
After ten minutes of frantically rushing around, it appeared that the shark was not leaving. I took the time to put on my wetsuit, find my least depleted camera battery, and prepare for the greatest moment of my life. I slipped into the water, outside of the cage, and swam out into the blue. Right away the great white swam slowly towards me. I hung motionless in the water filming her approach. The distance between us got smaller and smaller until only a couple feet of water separated her nose and the port of my camera housing. With an almost imperceptible change of direction, she altered course and passed by me. It was like the side of a bus was going by, so close that I was able to reach out and put my hand on her side.
I cannot explain what it was like to be in such close proximity to what is undoubtedly the most impressive animal, of any kind, I have ever seen, other than it was the greatest experience of my life. Even though I was completely unprotected and armed with nothing other than my video camera, I was not that scared. Of course adrenaline was rushing through me, but I think most of the emotion I was feeling was not fear but the thrill of knowing what sort of images I was getting and just how fortunate I was. Not only was I seeing a great white in Hawaii, but it was one so big that even if you were in a GWS hot spot like South Africa, Guadalupe, or the Farallons you would be lucky to see one that big. Add to that the absolutely perfect ocean and weather conditions and it was like winning the lottery. No, it was better!
It was not long before my video batteries were dead. I had 20 shots on a roll of slide film in a Nikonos and two disposable cameras we have for our guests. Juan was shooting from the door in the shark cage. He would hang all the way out of the cage with just his toes inside. Later he would say he was like a turtle, able to pull himself back in his shell if he ever felt threatened!
For some 45 minutes the shark stayed with us. All of our guests were able to see her from inside the cage and from the boat. We exhausted all our batteries and film and had nothing left. But the shark was still there. We had another tour to do and we knew people were waiting for us at the dock. But that was not why we left. If I had been better prepared (which I usually am) we would have stayed as long as the shark did. We rushed into the harbor and back out, reloaded with fresh guests, batteries, and additional camera equipment but we never saw the shark again.
Word about the encounter quickly spread. We developed the film from the disposable cameras immediately and processed the slide film the next day. I did a rough edit of the footage that night. At 6:00 AM the next morning Hanalei Adric showed up to jump on the boat in hopes of another encounter. All day people were stopping by to see the photos and ask if we had seen the shark again. There was a serious buzz and people wanted to know about the shark.
Great white sharks are known to come to Hawaii. Their visits do not appear to be common but there have been several reliable accounts and a few photographs. A large male named Tipfin was tagged at the Farallon Islands near San Francisco and tracked via satellite to Kahoolawe. Another photo was taken by a deep sea submersible at a depth of 1463 feet near Oahu. On a previous occasion the same submersible shot a very short video clip on a deep dive (1150 feet) of what probably was a great white. A scuba diver at Molokini shot a photo of a 15 foot white shark. One month after our encounter, a female white shark (not the one we saw) was photographed off of Kona. Our footage is the only ever shot of a great white in Hawaii and the photographs are the most descriptive.
This was a very historic event and the pinnacle moment of a life in and on the ocean. Yet I was hesitant to show this to the media. Due to a great misunderstanding of sharks and their undeserved image as indiscriminant killers, our business is, at times, controversial. Many people incorrectly believe that what we do either teaches sharks that humans are a source for food or that we are bringing the sharks close to shore. This belief is not shared by shark experts or by anyone who has ever been on our tour. As preposterous as it may seem, I knew some people would say that we had attracted this great white shark to Hawaii.
The day after we saw the white shark, not only did we not see her again, but we saw very few of our normal sharks. In fact, for the following four days the number of sharks dwindled until we saw none at all. Although the shark action was slow, the talk around the harbor was not. Everyone knew about the shark and wanted to see the photos. It was obvious that the news would soon get word of this so I called Ron Mizutani at KHON. Ron had worked with us before and I knew he would not try and sensationalize the story. The main reason sharks have such a bad rap is that on the rare occasions when some one does get bitten by a shark, the news frenzy puts a shark frenzy to shame! Sharks are being devastated by over fishing and trophy hunting and because of the bad image the media gives them, not many people care. I wanted to not only try and limit the hype and the "man eater" sensationalism that would likely come but possibly get some much needed positive exposure for sharks.
Ron's report on KHON was excellent and portrayed the event exactly for what it was: an incredibly fortunate encounter with one of the most awesome animals on earth. As soon as the first report aired, everyone wanted it. The next day the shark was front page on both papers and the lead story on all the news stations. Ron's story seemed to set the tone and the stories were mostly accurate and positive.
I could not believe how much interest there was in this and I was truly blown away when I got a call from the Today Show. They wanted a live interview! Now that was scarier than any shark! After that I did an interview with Inside Edition. Entertainment Tonight also picked up the story. The national programs really tried to push it as a "reckless stunt with man eating beast" but I did my best to get the truth out.
When the news started to lose interest, the more important work began. Shark researchers around the world were sent the photos and footage. This shark had very characteristic scars and markings and if she had been photographed elsewhere, matching her would not be hard. So far a match has not been made. There is some speculation as to why white sharks come to Hawaii but the sightings have been so few that no theories are even close to being proven. From the fact that some old Hawaiian weapons use teeth from great whites it is known that they have been coming here for a long time. Hopefully if future sightings are documented we may learn more as to why they come to Hawaii.
So many things came together that day I cannot get over how fortunate I was. That day I was not even supposed to be on the boat but my partner was on vacation. Then the shark came to our boat when she could have easily gone right by just out of sight. The weather could not have been more perfect. Our guests were awesome. I had two deckhands (usually there is just one) who were both captains so our guests were always in good hands. I could have been a little more prepared but I did have both video and still cameras ready to go. The shark was so huge yet very mellow. I know of several other divers who have had amazing free swims with whites but I have never heard of one in such absolutely perfect conditions with a shark of such size. I believe that not only was this the greatest ocean encounter of my life, I think it may be one of the best ever. I am by no means saying that I am the only one that would do this, I know plenty others who would. I am just saying that I was the luckiest diver on earth that day. Or was I?
A few days after seeing the shark I was telling the story to a friend and again emphasizing the fact that I was so incredibly lucky. He told me it wasn't luck. He said "You have been on the ocean your whole life. You love the ocean and it loves you. It was not luck. It was Karma."
I like the sound of that...
But I still feel pretty damn lucky!