The Facts Behind Shark Attacks in Hawaii

The Facts Behind Shark Attacks in Hawaii

Tiger Shark
Tiger Shark. Wikipedia/Albert Kok

Shark attacks make headlines in the news. What are the facts behind shark attacks in Hawaii, and what can you do to reduce the risk of being attacked?

The April 29, 2015 news of a fatal shark attack off of Makena on the island of Maui brought attention to shark attacks across the globe and in Hawaii. The victim was a 65-year-old woman whose body was found approximately 200 yards off-shore.

News of shark attacks tends to make headlines in many major newspapers and in the broadcast media. Any negative publicity is a concern to Hawaii's tourist industry, which is so dependent on visitors for its economic health. Let's take a brief look at the facts about shark attacks in Hawaii and learn what you can do to reduce the risk of being attacked.

Question: What is the likelihood of being attacked by a shark in the waters of Hawaii?
Answer: Unlikely. As of June 30, 2016, there have been just four attacks in Hawaii with only three injuries. In 2015, almost 8-million visitors came to the islands and there were ten shark attacks with only eight resulting in injury. In 2014, there were 6 reported attacks with only three injuries.

Question: Are the number of shark attacks increasing?
Answer: Not really. Since 1990 the recorded number of shark attacks has ranged from one to fourteen. Since World War II, the number of visitors to Hawaii has steadily increased each decade. More visitors mean more people in the water, which increases the possibility of attacks.

Question: What is the historical data on shark attacks in Hawaii?
Answer: From 1828 to June 2016 there have been 150 total unprovoked shark attacks in Hawaii. Ten of these were fatal attacks. (source - International Shark Attack File, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida)

Question: Are shark attacks the greatest risk in the waters of Hawaii?
Answer: Definitely not. Far more people die each year of drowning than are injured as a result of a shark attack. The waters of Hawaii are very unpredictable. Currents and wave heights vary from day to day. An average of 60 people die each year by drowning in the waters of Hawaii.
(Source-State of Hawaii Department of Health Injury Prevention and Control Program)

Question: Why do sharks attack humans?
Answer: There are several possible explanations. First, there are forty species of sharks found in the waters of Hawaii. This is their natural environment. Of these eight are commonly seen near shore, including the Sandbar, Reef Whitetip. Scalloped Hammerhead and Tiger Shark. The waters of Hawaii are home to many of the prey of various shark species, such as monk seals, sea turtles and baby humpback whales. Humans are not a natural prey of sharks. It is likely that when an attack occurs, the human is mistaken for another prey.

Sharks are also attracted to waters frequented by fishing boats, which often trail fish remains and blood.
(source - Hawaiian Lifeguard Association)

Question: What can one do to reduce the risk of being attacked by a shark?
Answer: By learning more about sharks, and using a little common sense, the risk of injury can be greatly reduced. The State of Hawaii Shark Task Force recommends the following measures to reduce the risk of being bitten by a shark:

  • Don't swim alone.
  • Swim in guarded areas.
  • Avoid swimming at dusk.
  • Don't swim with bleeding wounds.
  • Avoid murky water.
  • Don't wear bright jewelry or high contrasting colors.
  • Refrain from excessive splashing.
  • Don't swim if sharks are known to be present.
  • Be alert if turtles and fish are fleeing the area.
  • Remove speared fish from the water.

(Source - State of Hawaii Shark Task Force)

Recommended Reading

Sharks & Rays of Hawaii
by Gerald L. Crow and Jennifer Crites
Sharks and Rays of Hawaii goes beyond the common misconceptions to examine the habits, habitats, and histories of these graceful creatures.

Shark Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance
by Thomas B. Allen, The Lyons Press
The shark is so well adapted to its element that its existence on the planet actually predates trees. When people enter that element in increasing numbers, as they have in recent years, the results can be tragic and seemingly arbitrary. Author Tom Allen has carefully researched all known shark incidents from all over the world.

Sharks of Hawaii: Their Biology and Cultural Significance
by Leighton Taylor, University of Hawaii Press
A look at sharks in general and, in particular, the species inhabiting waters of Hawaii. The author provides a scientific account of individual species and sheds light on their role and significance in Hawaiian culture.

Tigers of the Sea: Hawaii's Deadly Sharks
by Jim Borg, Mutual Publishing
The author looks at tiger sharks - Hawaii's most dangerous near-shore species, from the perspective of surfers, scientists, government leaders and native Hawaiians.