HONOLULU (KHON) — Imagine you’re swimming at one of Hawaii’s beaches and you turn around to see a shark headed in your direction. What should you do in this situation? Swim away as fast as you can? Stay as still as possible? Make wild gestures to try to scare it away?
One diver who lives in Kona gives people a close look at shark encounters, so you don’t have to imagine it. She also offers tips on what to do if you do find yourself face-to-face with one.
“They aren’t looking at you and thinking that we are their prey. It’s actually surprising how shy sharks can be,” said Kayleigh Grant, who owns and operates Kaimana Ocean Safari, a tour company that takes people out to experience the ocean and teach them about marine life.
Most of the time, making eye contact is enough to spook sharks and have them maintain a respectful distance, according to Grant. With approximately 1.2 million followers on TikTok, Grant shows people with her videos how they can stay safe around sharks.
“The best way to do that is stay calm, don’t splash, maintain eye contact, and if one comes up to you, try putting your fins or camera between you and them,” she explained. “Don’t surf or swim in murky waters or after big rainfall, don’t swim near someone actively fishing or harbor mouths, and swim and surf in groups.”
On Saturday, Sept. 3, Maui County closed several beaches and posted shark warning signs after a 51-year-old woman visiting from France was hospitalized in critical condition. According to witnesses, she had reportedly been snorkeling in murky water about 100 yards offshore before she was bitten by the shark.
One misconception Grant wants to settle is that sharks are attracted to our blood. While their sense of smell is unparalleled, sharks aren’t interested in human blood.
“When you dive for a living, you definitely enter the ocean with plenty of cuts and scrapes, and I’ve been around sharks while bleeding a bit and there is no reaction,” said Grant. “We don’t smell or taste like their natural food source which is fish!”
Grant has been scuba diving since she moved to the islands about 10 years ago and quickly fell in love with being able to hold her breath underwater, eventually becoming FII freediving certified. In 2020, she and her husband started Kaimana Ocean Safari to offer tours that allow nature to deliver great experiences.
“No two days are ever the same, and the search far and wide is part of the thrill,” said Grant. “You never know what you’ll see or experience out on the ocean.”
At this point, Grant said she must have swam with thousands of sharks, and despite that, she doesn’t have any example to give that would be considered a “close call,” even the time she encountered a great white shark feeding off a dead sperm whale in 2019, just 12 miles off the coast of Oahu.
“It was incredible to see sharks doing what they are here to do. It was amazing how powerful that shark was but also incredibly peaceful at the same time,” said Grant. “There were even some rough toothed dolphins there swimming alongside this massive shark, which showed how chill and gentle she was! It’s something that still feels like a dream every day.”
Grant remembers her first encounter with a shark off North Shore, her heart beating hard at first.
“Swimming with sharks was nothing like I’d imagined it to be or had seen in movies,” she said. “It was thrilling of course, but you spend more time in awe of their beauty and movements versus being scared and worried. Sharks are definitely not the man-eaters you’d see in ‘Jaws.’ Being in the ocean and especially around sharks, you feel very present. It’s a place to forget the stress of the world and you’re certainly not concerned about emails and deadlines. I crave this feeling now, and it’s become a part of my daily practice to find that sense of peace it gives me.”
As someone with years of experience with sharks, Grant is able to read their behavior and body language. If she determines that it’s no longer a good idea to be in the water, she hops out.
“These guys aren’t man-eating monsters that actively try to hunt humans, but they are apex predators and should be respected and treated as such! It’s important to always have that humility when diving with sharks,” she said. “Know that it’s their ocean and we are the visitors. You do take a risk anytime you enter the ocean as it’s a force greater than ourselves and these are still wild animals.”
As she becomes more popular on TikTok and more people discover her videos, Grant is always surprised at how many people still don’t understand sharks or continue to believe what the movies portray. While some might think she’s crazy to be interacting with sharks, she hopes that by showing their true nature, people will see a new side and learn to love them.
“We only protect what we love,” said Grant, “so our aim is to get people loving the ocean.”