June 18, 2024

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Why Maui has the most shark attacks in Hawaii

Why Maui has the most shark attacks in Hawaii

Beachgoers at Keawakapu Beach, Kihei, Maui, Hawaii. Taken May 14, 2014.

Beachgoers at Keawakapu Beach, Kihei, Maui, Hawaii. Taken May 14, 2014.

Joseph DeSantis/Moment Editorial/Getty Images

Shark bites are rare in Hawaii — and fatal shark attacks even more rare — but the risk is not zero. There are about 7 to 8 shark incidences in Hawaii per year, based on the past 10 years’ data.

Out of all the Islands, Maui sees the majority of shark incidents, with twice as many shark encounters as Oahu, according to the Hawaii State Department of Land and Natural Resources. From 1995 to 2022, Maui had 62 incidents, while Oahu, the most populated island, had 32.

Most recently, last December, a woman went missing after a shark attack that took place off Kihei, South Maui. The 60-year-old visitor from Washington was snorkeling with her husband when a shark appeared. Witnesses onshore said there was a red cloud in the water. The account was later classified as a fatal shark attack.

The South Maui coastline, including the towns of Kihei and Wailea, is known for its beach parks, resorts and water activities, but it’s also where the biggest of Hawaii’s tiger sharks, the females, live. Tiger sharks are one of the most common species in Hawaii and considered the most dangerous.

“We know from our telemetry that you’re probably never very far from a shark when you’re in those areas,” says Carl Meyer, associate researcher at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. He co-authored a study on the geographic locations of Hawaii’s tiger sharks in 2018.

“The adult females live right next to the areas that people are using heavily for ocean recreation at Southwest Maui on a daily basis,” he says. “That is probably playing an important role in the relatively high frequency of shark bites in waters around Maui compared to the other main Hawaiian Islands.”

The island of Maui offers optimal conditions for sharks, too. “Tiger sharks in Hawaii like a particular zone of coastal habitat, the insular shelf, which is the area between the beach and the shelf break,” Meyer explains, “… so it has all the resources that those type of sharks typically need.”

Maui Nui, the collection of islands of Maui, Molokai, Kahoolawe and Lanai, sits on an expansive shelf that provides an ideal environment for the sharks. The environment seemingly satisfies the sharks so much that most of the tracked sharks that live off Maui stay in the area, while some sharks from Oahu tend to go to Maui during the winter.

Female tiger sharks reach a length of about 18 feet, while males reach about 12 feet. They are considered one of the most dangerous shark species. 

Female tiger sharks reach a length of about 18 feet, while males reach about 12 feet. They are considered one of the most dangerous shark species. 

Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty

The winter months are also when there are a greater number of unprovoked shark incidents, particularly October through December. “Early Hawaiians recognized this, and cautioned against going in the water at that time,” states DLNR’s incident report. “Although fewer people are in the water from Nov-Dec, some of Hawaii’s most serious shark attacks took place during those months.”

The winter months coincide with tiger shark mating. It’s also the time when Maui hosts the largest number of whales, which migrate from Alaska to give birth to their young. Meyer says research is being done to determine whether the whales are driving more tiger sharks to Maui seasonally, or if it’s a combination of factors.

“It may be that the whales are seasonally important to the tiger sharks there,” says Meyer. “We suspect that the placenta falls are being consumed by sharks, and if there’s a sick calf or still born, again, there’s a potential windfall for tiger sharks.”

Meyer says sharks are not taught how to hunt from their mothers like other animals — they have no parental care — and so their skills are learned through trial and error.

When a shark bites a human, it’s often described as mistaken identity; for instance, where the shark mistook the human for a turtle or a seal. But Meyer says this perspective is a fallacy.

“Most shark bites happen in relatively clear waters where sharks are able to see what they’re looking at,” Meyer says, “and also, even when they’re not using their visual system, they have a suite of other senses, each of which would be able to discriminate between potentially being something like a turtle and a person.”

Still, the chances of being bitten by a shark are “less than one in a million,” according to DLNR, and the chances of being seriously injured are less than that.

“When you enter the ocean, you enter a wilderness area and so you should have that mindset that it’s not a sanitized playground for humans, and that there are risks associated with the fun that you want to have,” says Meyer. “What people shouldn’t do is assume that the Pacific Ocean is an extension of the hotel swimming pool, because if you want zero risk of being bit by a shark, that’s where you should be swimming.”