The State of Aloha

“Shark Week” on the Discovery channel is coming to its end. For a week you could have gorged yourself on 24 hours a day of television devoted to the most predatory creature in the ocean. You can find sharks in every ocean at a variety of depths and sizes.

Perhaps the most preposterous program featured champion Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps’ “race” with a shark simulation. Yes, he plunged into frigid waters off of South Africa and attempted to beat the calculated time of a great white shark. (Phelps lost, but wants a rematch in warmer water.) That the Discovery Channel has had this annual shark deluge since 1988 proves that folks are fascinated with sharks.

Hawaii is no different. In fact, we have a special relationship with the animal. Sharks have been in the waters around our islands for centuries. Native Hawaiians certainly knew about them and quickly developed a relationship with them. The indigenous religion and spirituality reveres sharks and has multiple references to them. For some, sharks are aumakua — that is, ancestral spirits or gods that are associated with a particular family.

I recall hearing stories from time to time about sharks guiding particular people to safety when they are out at sea. Sometimes they may even assist in gathering fish. Hawaiian mythology also tells of gods that would take the form of sharks and interact with chiefs, commoners and other islanders. There are temples devoted to them on every island.

We have all kinds of sharks here. That shouldn’t be a surprise. The Pacific Ocean is a vast place full of different species. We have even discovered rare kinds of sharks. In addition to the alarmingly normal sightings of tiger sharks and reef sharks, Hawaii is known for the first documented attack from the small and vicious cookie cutter, a shark that attacked a long-distance swimmer between Maui and the Big Island in 2009.

At the other end of the shark spectrum is the monstrous megamouth. In 1976, the U.S. Navy hauled up from the deep waters off Oahu’s North Shore a massive shark weighing 1,500 pounds with a mouth that was 3 feet wide. It was the discovery of a new species of basking shark, and it took another eight years before another one was discovered off of Catalina Island in California.

Sharks also make news here. Maui has seen an uptick in “incidents between humans and sharks,” better known as shark attacks. Back in 2012, Hawaii reported a measly eight shark attacks. In 2013, the number doubled to 16 and two were fatal. The numbers have increased steadily. By 2015, there were reports of tiger shark attacks in water as shallow as 4 feet. Even the Department of Land and Natural Resources issued statements to be careful when going out.

The University of Hawaii’s Institute of Marine Biology got in on the act and has started tagging and tracking sharks throughout the area. You can see them for yourself on its website at www.pacioos.hawaii.edu/projects/

sharks/. It’s a spooky site. Little fins or dots cluster around the relatively shallow waters between Maui, Lanai and Kahoolawe.

Researchers are trying to figure out why there’s been an upswing in shark attacks. Everyone’s got a theory. My favorite is the blame-it-on-the-honu theory. The Hawaiian Sea Turtle has been protected by the Endangered Species Act since 1978. Its numbers are thriving. But sharks — especially the predatory tiger shark — don’t read legislation and do eat turtles. Could it be that sharks confuse bodysurfers with fins and surfers for turtles? Perhaps, but the reasons are still unclear.

Another hypothesis is the blame-it-on-active-people theory. Thousands go in the waters off Hawaii every day. And yet, the actual numbers of shark attacks remain low. For some, the rise in shark attacks isn’t due to a change in the animals’ behavior, but in our behavior. More and more people are getting out and away from the shore with stand-up paddleboards, kayaks and small boating crafts. The uptick in shark bites is only proportional to the uptick in people in the water.

Despite the reasons behind the increase, many in the tourism industry hate seeing it in the news. Just like the mayor in “Jaws” said, in his town, “We need summer dollars. Now, if the people can’t swim here, they’ll be glad to swim” elsewhere.

Hawaii isn’t all that different. Shark attacks scare people out of the water, and people visit Hawaii for the water. Sharks just aren’t good for tourism.

The state has listed tips to minimize your chances of getting attacked by a shark. Swim in groups, stay close to the shore, avoid murky water, and if you’re bleeding from a cut, stay out. If you’re dead set on seeing a shark, tune in to Shark Week on the Discovery Channel next year.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”

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