The Time Machine's own MATTHEW BURGER is also a staff writer for The Maui News in which he reported the following story:
WAILUKU – Even though shark-related incidents in Maui waters are off to a busy start this year, experts and ocean users say it’s not reason enough to stay out of the water.
The number of recent shark incidents probably is due to more people in the ocean than anything else, they say. Still some ocean users contend there are more coastal sharks in Maui waters, with one biologist suggesting the number of tiger sharks is up.
“I would suspect they are slowly reproducing,” said National Marine Fisheries Service biologist John Naughton, who stresses that sharks are an important part of the ocean. “It’s part of the natural ecosystem.”
Some ocean users agree with Naughton’s assessment.
“Last year had more sharks than anything else,” said West Maui akule fisherman Felimon Sadang, saying it was tiger sharks that he’d seen.
Last year, there were five confirmed shark incidents statewide, according to the state Division of Aquatic Resources. This year already has seen four reported shark-related incidents, including three on Maui and one March 5 off Makaha on Oahu.
But there is no hard evidence their numbers are growing, said Nick Whitney, a specialist with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island on Oahu.
Indeed, spikes in shark-people incidents have been seen in the past, but usually the numbers drop off “with no logical explanation,” he said.
“Spikes of shark activity are seen internationally,” said Randy Honebrink, a spokesman for the state’s Shark Task Force. “There’s no way to explain it. Then they fall off again.”
In any event, one experienced diver offers this advice: Use good old common sense before heading out. For instance, don’t go out when the water’s dirty and be aware of what a shark can do.
“There’s always sharks in the water,” observed Kahului business owner, boater and diver Paul Hanada with a laugh. He’s been diving for 40-plus years and has noticed more sharks in certain areas, but doesn’t think it’s anything out of the ordinary.
“The ocean is dynamic, it’s always changing.”
One thing is clear to state officials: Whenever a shark incident is in the news, it’s on people’s minds.
“They pay more attention, and begin seeing more of them,” said Honebrink.
Or people think they see more of them. The state set up a shark hot line in the early 1990s for the public to report shark sightings, but “it turned out that the information was pretty useless,” Honebrink said.
Reports turned out to be “obvious hoaxes” or people mistaking large fish for sharks.
“The one thing we did notice, as soon as sharks were in the media, the number of calls went up dramatically,” he noted. “That’s part of it.”
Sadang, who’s been fishing Maui waters for 40 years, says not only are there more tiger sharks now, but that their behavior has changed.
“Sharks usually eat at night,” he said. “Now you work with them at sunrise, sunset and beyond.
“Every time we take the boat out, there’s two or three tigers. Sometimes it’s the same ones . . . but now we’re seeing different ones.”
Akule travel in large schools as they move among the islands, he noted, bringing predators with them in their travels. The school, he said, “comes in a package.”
The sharks Sadang has seen are smart, even figuring out how to push the floater lines down to get into the net and at the akule.
“Never underestimate your opponent,” Sadang said, adding that one shark can eat up to 200 pounds of akule.
While admitting that the sharks know when he’s around by the sound of his gear, Sadang can’t offer up a good reason why he’s noticed more of them.
“Last year was the most I ever seen,” he said. “I really would like to know why.”
Another akule fisherman, Robert McGrath, said in general he sees more sharks when he’s spotting from the air. He also hears more stories now from other fishermen about shark encounters.
“We didn’t have the problem with sharks and fishing six years ago,” McGrath said.
He said it’s hard to really say for sure why sharks have become a bigger issue when fishing. But he has noticed an increase in tiger shark prey, including green sea turtles.
“More turtles definitely bring more sharks in,” he said.
Other ocean goers think more shark sightings are a matter of numbers – on the people side.
“There’s more people in the water, and they’re less educated about when to be swimming,” said longtime Maui surfer Kevin Ozee, referring to the common no-nos, such as swimming in the early evening or in murky water.
Sharks “have always been there,” said Ozee, who manages the Neil Pryde Maui surf shop in Kahului. Running into one is simply “being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Another Maui surfer, Dustin Tester, said in her 25 years of surfing on Maui, she’s never seen a shark.
“And I’m on the ocean every day,” she said, running her surf school, Maui Surfer Girls, mainly on the west side.
She said she always tries to be informed, and never surfs in the early morning or at dusk or at river mouths. If there are more incidents, she thinks, “It’s more due towards ecological shifts in their environment,” from activities like overfishing.
According to the Division of Aquatic Resources, which keeps a list of recent confirmed shark incidents at its online site, the number of statewide encounters hit a high of eight in 2002, and a low of zero in 1998. The list, which goes back to 1990, also shows five incidents in 2005, the same as for 1999 and 1992.
Historically, October, November and March have shown more shark incidents, according to data from 1950 to last year.
Data from 1970 to 2005 clearly show peaks and valleys in the number of incidents, with encounters steadily rising over time. The Aquatic Resources Web site – www.hawaii.gov/dlnr/dar/ – provides information about sharks in Hawaii, including a list of suggestions for avoiding shark encounters.
“Many shark encounters probably went unreported in the past,” said Whitney. “But the advent of inexpensive digital cameras and more news coverage means that when there’s a shark encounter today, it gets a lot more attention than it would have just a few years ago.”
While the state’s human population has grown steadily, no one really knows how the shark population has fared.
“We don’t know how many sharks are out there,” said Honebrink, a state aquatics specialist. But, he said that “tigers are one of the two most abundant.”
Whitney, who’s studied sharks off South Maui, adds that sharks’ movements over long distances make it extremely difficult to determine their population.
“We know that tiger sharks move between islands on a regular basis, and individual sharks may leave the islands altogether for long periods,” he said. “With that much movement, the number of sharks around any given island could fluctuate quite a bit over the course of the year.”
The green sea turtle theory that more turtles have brought in more sharks “hasn’t been established,” said Honebrink.
“(Tigers) have a lot of prey, certainly easier prey,” he said, noting that it takes the shark quite a bit of time to get through the turtle’s tough shell.
Brad Varney, who operates B&B Scuba, said he hasn’t really seen a difference in shark activity over the 18 years he’s been diving off Maui.
Varney, who dives regularly off Big Beach in Makena where a Kihei teen was bitten in the leg on Feb. 27, and off Makena Landing where the shark-bitten remains of a diver were recovered Feb. 25, said he’s “seen nothing out of the ordinary.”
The third confirmed incident this year was on Feb. 1, when a large shark bumped against a kayak off Makena while a Maui Dive Shop crew observed the encounter.
Hanada said it’s important that ocean users remember the water is the shark’s territory.
“The ocean is so huge,” he said. And the “uncomfortable part is most people can’t see what’s in there.”
Diving over the years, Hanada said he’s developed a sense for the animal.
“A lot times, I know the shark is there, but I can’t see him.”
He’s also had encounters with them.
“Speared fish, they don’t die instantly, and the sharks pick up on that,” he said. “Sometimes they’re hungry and they get into this different mode, they keep coming around.
“If you show weakness, if you show strength, they know. I’ve had to show aggression in some instances.”
Ultimately, he said, “you have to respect the animal for who he is,” he said. “Be aware of what he can do.”
Hanada said he also is finding fewer fish over his years spearfishing. He blames irresponsible gill netters. “It affects the balance.”
Honebrink noted that tiger sharks have ample opportunities to bite people but don’t probably because humans are not their normal prey.
“They know we’re here, they leave us alone. We can’t really explain why they bite,” he added. “When they do, most of the time they realize it’s a mistake.”
He cited an incident in Aug. 15, 2000, when a French windsurfer was bitten in the leg off Kanaha Beach Park.
“He was out there for 45 minutes bleeding after the bite” before help arrived, Honebrink said. “The shark never came back.”
For those worried about sharks, scuba diver Brad Varney offers basic advice:
“Stick your finger in the water, and if it tastes like saltwater, there’s probably sharks in there.”Matt Burger also reported the story below for The Maui News.Great white spotted off Molokini in 2005
By MATTHEW BURGER, Staff Writer
Two scuba divers who noticed a huge shape heading toward them in 40 feet of water off Molokini last year also had a camera, which allowed them to document their encounter with one of the most feared animals in the sea.
“At first, I thought it was a baby whale” because it was so large, said diving guide Blesi Varney.
As it got closer, Varney said, “I knew it was a big shark but wasn’t sure what kind. The great white was never on my mind ’cause they don’t come here.”
It turned out the encounter on Jan. 4, 2005, would become the third confirmed sighting of a great white shark in Hawaii waters since 1985, while setting the stage for two more sightings since the Molokini incident.
A great white in Hawaii is “very rare,” said marine biologist John Naughton. “Generally, large sharks here are tigers.”
At the time, Varney and customer Jon Chakerian were wrapping up their dive at the reef’s end mooring at Molokini and were about 50 feet from their boat. When the animal appeared from the depths below, Varney said Chakerian, who had the camera, started taking pictures as both divers went to the bottom while keeping an eye on the shark.
“He hovered over us for two or three seconds, 15 feet above us, which is a plenty long time,” Varney said. “Jon was going to take more pictures but then decided to wait to see what the shark would do.”
It then turned around and swam away into the open ocean.
Afterward, it took researchers in California and Australia to confirm the animal was, indeed, a great white, one of the biggest and most feared of sharks.
“The state was skeptical at first” that it was a great white, said Brad Varney, who together with his wife, Blesi, owns B&B Scuba. State fisheries biologists suggested at first it might be a long-fin mako, a species that grows up to 14 feet and is considered rare in Hawaii.
“They obviously wanted to err on the side of caution,” Brad Varney said.
Naughton said since the Molokini encounter, there have been two more confirmed sightings in Hawaii with photographs and/or video – one Dec. 28 off Haleiwa on Oahu and the other Jan. 27 off North Kona.
The earlier sightings were in very deep water by a University of Hawaii research sub in 2002 and in 2004.
Naughton, who works with the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said it’s commonly known that great whites visit Hawaii from December to late summer.
“We’ve known they’ve been coming out here,” he said, adding that he’s tracked since 2000 about nine good sightings from reliable sources.
For comparison’s sake, the NOAA reported in 2005 that from 1926 to 1985, there were only eight confirmed great white sightings in Hawaii. Since 1985, there have been five (a confirmed sighting means a positive identification was made through either photos or teeth).
Naughton said the recent uptick in sightings is most likely a combination of more people in the water with cameras and a slowly growing great white population. The animal now is protected in many parts of the world.
“White sharks were decimated before,” he said. “We realize now they’re just a valuable resource.”
Naughton stressed that people have nothing to fear from great whites, since they stay mostly in deeper water. He advised simply following the basic rules – like not swimming at dawn or dusk and with open wounds.
“Great whites are just a magnificent, big animal.”