It’s dawn in Haleiwa, a small town on the North Shore of Oahu, and the tradewinds are already blowing, cool but heavy with humidity. It’s quiet, save for a few locals walking their dogs, heading out for a morning surf, or opening up shop for the day. Last night’s rain has left puddles on the road, reflecting a sky dotted with lazy, low-hanging clouds.
At the edge of town, I pull into Haleiwa Boat Harbor and see Kaiwi Berry, broad-shouldered and browned by long days out on the water, leaping barefoot onto the dock from the deck of his boat, the Moʻo. He has a tattoo of fish scales running down the length of one of his forearms. He flashes a smile as I hobble over to him with my dive gear in hand. “Throw your stuff onboard and we’ll get going as soon as my phone charges,” he says. I’m taken aback: Shouldn’t there be a little more fanfare, some kind of basic training involved in swimming with the ocean’s most infamous predators?
In Berry’s opinion, no.
A waterman by heritage and lifeguard by profession, Berry spends most mornings living out your worst fear. Whenever conditions allow, the young kanaka maoli—Native Hawaiian—dives into the Pacific equipped with nothing but a mask and snorkel, to swim among dozens of silver-skinned sharks. From just below the water’s surface, he studies their behavior as they emerge silently from the depths and vie for dominance at the surface, a choreography few people ever have the opportunity to witness firsthand.
Berry has invited me to join him on one of these dives to see firsthand just how much there is to learn from these predators. On any given day, Haleiwa’s population of 4,000 people nearly triples with a flood of tourists seeking pre-packaged paradise and a taste of idyllic Hawaii. As tourism booms across the Islands, development pressures weigh heavily on towns like this one, taking a toll on the environment and the local community. For Berry, this pressure is symptomatic of a growing disregard for the Hawaiian way of life.
“People come here and don’t understand how sacred these islands are,” he says. “As locals, when we see people grabbing turtles or stepping on reefs we want to blow up. But then where do they go to learn about this stuff?” Berry believes that getting people in the water with sharks and challenging their preconceptions about these predators is key to changing their relationship to the land and waters of Hawaii.
I got to know the sharks so well that I would name them
According to Hawaiian tradition, some sharks are ‘aumakua, deified ancestors in animal form. An individual’s relationship with an ʻaumakua begins at birth, and their genealogical connection to that family member can last for generations if properly maintained. If a fisherman traces his ʻaumakua to a particular manō, or shark, he may feed it part of his catch, knowing that it will provide him with guidance and protection in return. The role of sharks as ʻaumakua reflects a vastly different relationship between humans and the natural world, a complex understanding of the role that predators play within delicate ecosystems.
When Captain Cook arrived in the clear waters of Kealakekua Bay in 1778, his crew described in awe the ease with which Hawaiians swam alongside massive sharks, nudging the predators away by their noses when they got too close. But the missionaries that soon followed were not impressed, believing that this closeness to the natural world was primitive, pagan, and sinful. As Hawaiians died of introduced disease by the thousands, the missionaries set about trying to save them by other means, introducing Hawaiians to the Christian god, and condemning traditional practices as sinful.
In the tumult of colonization and catastrophic epidemics, many kanaka maoli families lost their relationship to their ‘aumakua. Though sharks continue to be revered in modern Hawaiian culture, that reverence is tempered by the same Jaws-inspired fear and misinformation that is now common throughout the world. Manō may still be honored, but his power to serve as a direct genealogical link between humans and the natural world has been widely forgotten.
Though his family does not practice the ‘aumakua tradition, Berry’s connection to manō is familial in a different way. Berry traces his lineage back to the island of Maui, but his family has called the North Shore home for four generations. He grew up in the waters just beyond the harbor, going out to sea with his grandfather, legendary black coral diver, Harold Blomfield. By the time Berry was born, Blomfield was working out of Haleiwa as a crab fisherman. “He was my babysitter,” says Berry, “I was on his boat everyday since I was a baby.”
Each day, Blomfield would collect the crab traps he’d laid the night before, and as he threw the old bait overboard, sharks would gather for a free meal. “I got to know them so well that I would name them.” By the time he was ten, Berry was swimming with the sharks, hanging on to their fins as they towed him across the waters’ surface.