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Photo essay: How to swim safely with sharks

Ocean Ramsey wants you to know that sharks are vastly misunderstood. They’re scavengers, and rarely confrontational, said the biologist and scuba instructor, who has studied the animals for 15 years and leads cageless shark diving expeditions off the coast of Oahu. The ocean region is home to Sandbar, Galapagos, silky and tiger sharks, and scalloped hammerheads.

A tourist swims with a sandbar shark on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

A tourist swims with a sandbar shark on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

The expeditions, run by the organization One Ocean Diving, are a form of eco-tourism. On the water, Ramsey educates each three-person team of tourists on conservation efforts, shark behavior and safe swimming procedures. Before swim fins touch water, the swimmers must know how to read basic shark body language and how to behave in a way that’s non-threatening to the sometimes-dangerous animals.

Sharks, she said, are not particularly interested in human blood — they’re drawn more to dying or wounded fish. But instructors never get complacent with the wild sea animals.

Sandbar sharks swim around during a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Sandbar sharks swim around during a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

She also describes the personalities of individual sharks, many of whom she knows well. Bully, for example, a sandbar shark, is known for pushing around the other sandbars. Ramsey describes him as endearing, and a bit of a camera hog.

“We know all of the sharks by distinguishable markings, ID numbers and nicknames,” Ramsey said. “So it’s kind of cool to talk about their individual characters with people.”

Shark ecologist Ocean Ramsey gives a pre-dive briefing before taking tourist on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Dive instructor Ocean Ramsey gives a pre-dive briefing before taking tourist on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Key to their efforts is conservation, as the shark population has taken a nosedive in the region. Conservationists estimate that roughly 100 million sharks are being killed each year for shark finning – a rate unsustainable for a species with a slow growth and reproductive cycle. One of the main culprits of this phenomenon is shark fin soup, a popular Chinese elitist dish often served at weddings or special events.

Sharks play a vital role in the ecosystem, and losing them could upset its delicate balance. They consume weak, dying and injured fish, slowing the spread of disease, Ramsey said.

Shark ecologist Ocean Ramsey surfaces after swimming with sharks on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Safety diver and shark behavior expert Ocean Ramsey surfaces after swimming with sharks on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

“Even a decade ago, I used to see three times more sharks than I see now,” Ramsey said.
Shark ecologist Ocean Ramsey guides tourists on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Shark ecologist Ocean Ramsey guides tourists on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Sandbar sharks swim around during a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Sandbar sharks swim around during a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Shark ecologist Ocean Ramsey, center, guides tourists on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Dive instructor Ocean Ramsey guides tourists on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Shark ecologist and boat captain Juan Oliphant signals to tourists that a lot of sharks are approaching them on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Shark ecologist and boat captain Juan Oliphant signals to tourists that a lot of sharks are approaching them on a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Sandbar sharks swim around during a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

Sandbar sharks swim around during a cageless shark dive tour in Haleiwa, Hawaii February 16, 2015. Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

GoPro footage of the cageless shark dive shot by Juan Oliphant

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