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Kula man and son describe Tuesday’s shark encounter off Ukumehame

'Like the movies'

Daniel Sullivan and his 15-year-old son, Tristan, of Kula recounted their experience with a shark in waters off West Maui on Tuesday.

A father and son “did everything right to save themselves” when a shark bit their kayak and flipped them into the water off Ukumehame on Tuesday afternoon, a shark researcher said.

“They’re both alive and unscathed,” Carl Meyer, shark researcher with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii, said at a virtual news conference Wednesday. “It showed a lot of presence of mind to keep the shark at bay with a paddle, stay together, calmly make their way back to shore.

“They did everything right to save themselves from that situation. I don’t think there’s anything more you could do.”

Based on the father’s descriptions of the gray-and-white shark’s pointed snout and triangular teeth, “the evidence suggests it was a white shark,” Meyer said.

He said tiger sharks have a blunt snout and “complicated” teeth.

Shark bite marks can be seen on the Sullivan family’s kayak following an encounter with a shark Tuesday. State Department of Land and Natural Resources photo

The shark species could be confirmed if DNA is obtained from the kayak for testing, Meyer said.

At the news conference, Kula resident Daniel Sullivan, 45, and his 15-year-old son, Tristan, recounted their close encounter with the shark.

The two were about a mile offshore and facing Kahoolawe while watching a group of whales, including a baby, from the two-man kayak at about 12:40 p.m. Tuesday, Daniel Sullivan said.

“We had a huge impact come up from the bottom of the boat,” he said. “I saw the shark. The whole mouth bit into the side, pushed the entire boat up and pulled us back down into the water.”

Sullivan said he pushed the shark away with his paddle and father and son got back into the kayak, only to be tipped over again. “We could see the bottom of the boat and the bite marks,” he said. “We could see the water coming in.”

With the kayak sinking, “We knew we would have to swim,” Sullivan said.

He said he grabbed his keys and phone and tried to call 911, but the phone wouldn’t swipe because it was wet.

“Our adrenaline was really going. We just wanted to get out of the area where the shark was,” he said. “As we were leaving the kayak, we heard (the shark) knock into the kayak a couple of times.”

After about 15 minutes of swimming, Sullivan said he tried to hail a fishing boat that passed close to father and son. “It saw us, but it kept going, which was pretty disheartening,” he said.

Swimming 10 strokes at a time, he said it took the pair about 35 minutes to make it to shore.

“We feel really lucky to be alive and grateful that we survived,” he said.

Added his son: “We’re just happy to be here. It was very scary, especially when we had to swim back. There’s nothing below you, and knowing it’s right behind you.”

While Tristan Sullivan said he didn’t see the shark, Daniel Sullivan said he “got a really good look at the shark because it bit very close to my leg.”

“When it rose up out of the water, I saw white, a big gray and white, and then these huge teeth,” he said. “It was like the movies.”

Sullivan, a professional photographer, said he and his home-schooled son often spend time in the water and were kayaking in the same area two weeks ago.

“I’ve seen sharks before that have never been aggressive,” he said. “I think this was a rare thing that happened to us, and it’s very scary for us. But also, in the same respect, it shouldn’t be made out that all sharks are vicious or aggressive.”

Adam Wong, education specialist at the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources, said lifeguards found the kayak that washed up on the pali a little farther away from the attack location.

The bite mark on the bottom of the kayak was measured at 16 inches by 23 inches, according to a news release from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Wong said he would take DNA samples from the kayak to send to the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology for testing to determine the shark species.

After being closed Tuesday afternoon, beaches from the Pali Lookout to Lone Pine in Olowalu were reopened at noon Wednesday.

“These incidents are rare, they’re not unprecedented,” Meyer said.

“White sharks are routinely present in Hawaii waters year round, albeit in low numbers,” Meyer said. “There is some evidence to suggest the numbers may be higher during winter months for white sharks.

“There’s some speculation that white sharks may be coming to Hawaii more often during the winter months because there’s an opportunity to feed on marine animals, but we don’t know for sure.”

Over decades, the number of interactions between sharks and humans have increased, probably because more people participate in ocean recreation, Meyer said.

He said both white sharks and tiger sharks “routinely take prey at the surface.”

“They also investigate floating objects that might be prey,” he said. “Sometimes sharks bite boats and kayaks and surfboards.

“Most of the time, sharks will figure out that kayaks and surfboards are not worth biting.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.

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