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Travel: Swimming with sharks isn't so scary

Sandbar sharks like to gather here after feeding, so it's a prime place and time to observe them and know they aren't at all interested in eating a human.

Stealthily, the three-metre-long sandbar shark glides by.

He's close enough that I peer directly into his eerie, slit-pupil eyes.

The apex predator stares right back.

Since he's only mildly interested in what I'm doing, he's gone as quickly as he appeared, with a gentle flick of his tail and sway of his pectoral fins.

“That was Pizza,” guide Juan Oliphant tells me when I exit the water.

“He gets his name from the wedge-shaped scar on his body.”

Rather than this shark encounter causing terror, or even angst, it was idyllic with a touch of exhilaration.

After all, the snorkellers on the boat had been primed with a sharks-are-nothing-to-fear discussion before entering the ocean and once in the water the dozens of sharks proved calm and mesmerizing.

This is the One Ocean Diving and Research swim-with-sharks excursion off the North Shore of the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

One Ocean is famous, not just for letting tourists free-dive with sharks, but for husband-and-wife founders, Oliphant and Ocean Ramsey (yes, that's her real name).

Oliphant and Ramsey are rock stars of the shark-conservation world and recently released the award-winning documentary Saving Jaws, which chronicles their travels around the world fostering love for this misunderstood species.

“Just by doing what we did today changes the perception of everyone in this boat,” says Oliphant.

“Sharks are essential for a healthy ocean and healthy world and we can co-exist with them safely. Mankind has to stop killing 100 million of them every year because we fear them or for shark-fin soup, supplements, make up and dog food.”

While a One Ocean excursion (US$150 for a two-hour outing) is educational, it's also a bucket-list experience.

My family and I boarded the Mano Kai boat (mano is the Hawaiian word for shark) with 10 other tourists and motored five kilometres off the shore from Haleiwa.

Sandbar sharks like to gather here after feeding, so it's a prime place and time to observe them and know they aren't at all interested in eating a human.

First, we hold onto lines in the water along the idle boat, looking through our snorkel masks at a swarm of 49 (yes, someone counted all of them) sharks below.

Each of us also takes turns freediving five metres down to get a closer look.

Two of the sharks, the aforementioned Pizza, and Bully, so named because he's aggressive with other sharks, not people, come up to the surface to check out the group, providing our close encounters with this magical species.

My wife, Kerry, our kids, Alex and Grace, and I continue an animal-theme throughout our vacation on the North Shore.

We hook up with former professional surfer Rocky Canon of Hawaii Surf Dogs and his pooches Kahuna and Hina.

Canon is the only one in the world to offer tourists the opportunity to go stand-up paddleboarding and-or surfing with a dog right on the board with you.

We opt for 'SUP with pups' and launch in calm Kawela Bay with Kahuna and Hina taking turns deftly hopping on and off our boards to a symphony of barking and yelping.

The North Shore is only 60 kilometres from metropolis Honolulu and the spectacle that is Waikiki Beach.

So, it's handy to get to with Air Canada already flying three times weekly between Vancouver and Honolulu.

Air Canada is launching new three-times-weekly flights between Calgary and Honolulu starting Dec. 18, Montreal-Honolulu on Dec. 12 and Toronto-Honolulu on Dec. 17.

Yet, the North Shore seems a world away from Honolulu's hustle and bustle with its laid-back, surfer's-and-beach-paradise vibe.

In fact, there's only two hotels on the beach-studded North Shore, and we stay at both of them.

Turtle Bay Resort is a luxury destination with two beaches, pool complex, golf course and seven restaurants (you have to have the fish tacos at The Point while watching the sunset).

The Courtyard by Marriott in Laie is more affordable, has a beautiful pool and is ideally located beside the Polynesian Cultural Centre and close for beach hopping to Laniloa, Pounders, Mokuaula and Hauula.

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If you go...

Starting mid-December, to avoid the 10-day quarantine, Canadians arriving in Hawaii by air need to have a negative COVID-19 result from a test taken within 72 hours of travel from a lab sanctioned by Air Canada or WestJet.