There’s something taboo about sharks, even among Hawaiians, according to Kaiwi Berry. But the Oahu native is eager to change up perceptions about these creatures—by taking both locals and visitors to swim freely among sharks in Oahu’s Haleiwa Harbor.
If it sounds crazy, well, consider that Berry has been doing so since he was a kid. Read on to find out how he developed the passion, water resume, and confidence to lead sharks tours—and what you can expect from the experience yourself.
This is the third of our three-part series of interviews with ambassadors of OluKai, whose Hawaiian-inspired footwear spreads the spirit of Aloha. Read about Hawaiian designer, Michelle Jaime, here.
Tell us about your background. What sparked your interest in sharks?
It starts from when I was born. My grandfather was a black coral diver in Lahaina in the 1960s. When he moved back to the North Shore of Oahu, he became a commercial crab fisherman. My grandma and my parents had full time jobs, so my grandfather would pick me up from school, and I’d spend most of my days with him on the boat. From being an infant sleeping on the dashboard of the boat until when I was 13 and he passed away, I spent a lot of time on the boat.
When we’d pull and replace the traps, sharks would come up to get a free meal and eat the extra bait we’d toss overboard. Over time, they began associating the sound of the motor when getting fed. I’d feed them and grab onto their tails, and it just seemed normal to me. The sharks were like our pets, I would name them, I’d see the markings on them, and we’d have a relationship.
When did you first begin diving among sharks without a safety cage? What does the experience feel like?
By the time I was 10, I was already free swimming with sharks. I was relying on my instincts and my grandfather—he can make you believe you can do anything. I trusted him so much and I watched how he swam and I took it from there.
Everyday that I go out, whether I see a school of 100 or 30 or one shark, the experience is never the same. It doesn’t get old; I’m the first one in and the last one out! It sounds odd, the idea of swimming with sharks, but once you do it, it’s an eye opener, and we do it safely and naturally.
What inspired you to launch Island View Hawai’i, your shark tour company?
When I finished high school, I began lifeguarding and building my resume of water time—diving, spear fishing, and studying the reefs. I wanted to use those learnings to share how beautiful this island and to hopefully spark an interest among those who live here and tourists that it needs to be taken care of and respected.
It took me a long time to save up to buy a boat hull, and it needed to be a specific type—a radon, like my grandpa’s, which is perfect for Hawaiian waters.
Why should people embrace the idea of swimming freely among sharks?
We’re doing it naturally. It’s weird to think that you’d put out a metal cage—that is putting on a show and antagonizing sharks. Us, we go out on the six-passenger Mo’o, and whatever swims up, swims up. Ninety percent of the time we do see sharks, but sometimes we don’t, and those are cool days too, because it shows that the sharks ultimately have the say in what they do.
We don’t control the sharks, we control the people—we give them some insight, we show how to swim, what to do and not do, and quickly earn their trust.
What do you find that people take away from the experience?
I think they’re uplifted; they’re pretty psyched. It’s an experience that they’ll hold on to for the rest of their lives. It can be a confidence builder, and it’s beautiful and peaceful. There are so many answers to that question—people can take whatever they want from the experience.
What are some misconceptions about sharks?
That they’re going to come up and eat us!
And what about Hawaiians’ relationship with sharks?
There’s been a fear of sharks for generations, even—and maybe more so—among Hawaiians. There’s a whole idea about sharks that is such taboo.
Before our company, there weren’t people doing free swimming with sharks, and we faced skepticism. But come out with us, and we’ll blow your mind. We aren’t cocky, but we are confident in ourselves and our actions.
About half our participants are locals and half tourists. Once you learn about things, it gives you pride, and you can move mountains with pride.
How does the Hawaiian-inspired footwear brand OluKai come into play?
I started working with OluKai about a year ago. We have a good community around us, and they wanted to tell my story and others and to shed light on what people are doing. OluKai has been supportive of our crew; currently, we all are wearing testing products and giving feedback as we test in the ocean elements.