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ANALYSIS: What’s With All The Shark Attacks?

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   December 6th, 2012 · 41 Disqus Comments ·
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WARNING: A graphic photo of a recent shark bite on a victim’s leg accompanies this article  – do not scroll down this page if you are susceptible to such images. An alternate link without the photo is posted here.

By David Kvasnicka

tiger-shark-james-sapara

Tiger shark – the species most likely to attack humans in Hawaii. Photo by James Sapara.

The seven shark attacks in Maui County waters this year have many asking if there’s an increased danger of getting in the ocean right now.

Theories, ranging from an increased green sea turtle population, to the beginning of whale season, to “it’s one rogue shark,” have been implicated as possibilities for the increase in attacks.

The prevailing theory at the moment is that female tiger sharks migrate from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands region to the main islands at this time of year presumably to pup (give birth), including in shallow waters where people swim. Whether it’s the pupping that leads to more aggressive behavior, or just that an increased presence of sharks lead to a higher likelihood of attacks, is unclear.

That theory’s origins come from a recent study by Carl Meyer, assistant researcher with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. Over 100 tiger sharks have been tagged and tracked over two decades, leading to the findings.

Tiger shark - Tonic Immobility

To electronically tag tiger sharks, they are tied by tail and then turned upside down, inducing what is known as “tonic immobility.” UH photo.

Meyer’s theory seems to coincide with data recorded by the state Division of Aquatic Resources. Historically, there is a clear increase in attacks September through November, while the least amount of attacks occur in the summer (despite more people being in the ocean), according to the DAR’s Maui-based Education Specialist Russell Sparks.

It doesn’t explain the higher number of attacks this year compared to other years though, despite what is being widely reported in other media. Meyer says the statistical link between the migration period and the attacks is hard to determine, due to factors such as the low number of attacks comparatively (e.g. three last year versus nine this year) and that tiger sharks were not positively identified as the attackers in every case.

But the state’s data does beg the question of exactly how much more dangerous it is being in the water now (fall to winter) rather than other times. Of Hawaii’s nine attacks, five of them happened in Maui waters this fall in a 90-day window.

The nine shark incidents so far in 2012 in Hawaii is the highest since the 1980s (the next closest is 2002 with eight), according to state data. (Note: Meyer counts 12 attacks this year Meyer has since concurred with the DAR’s figure of nine unprovoked attacks as the total).

shark bite board photo

The SUP board after the Kanaha Beach shark attack on 10/18/12. If there are no injuries in an attack such as this one, it still counts as an incident to the Division of Aquatic Resources. Photo by Deb Lynch.

It’s worth noting the DAR’s criteria for registering an incident — it has to be “unprovoked,” which means an attack on a live human in the ocean who is not engaged in an activity which typically attracts sharks. The November 4 attack on spear-fisherman Marc Riglos near Waiehu was only considered unprovoked because no fish had been speared before the attack. Also, if an attack results in no injury – like if a surfboard is bitten – it is still registered among the incidents.

There has been one shark attack that resulted in death in the past decade in Hawaii. That was Willis McInnis, 57, a Maui surfer who suffered a severe bite in his right thigh in 2004 and died before he could be brought to shore. The previous fatality was almost 12 years before that.

The Institute pegs the average number of people in Hawaiian waters each day to be in the thousands. The consensus between state officials employed to monitor the situation, and marine scientists such as Carl Meyer, is that the likelihood of attack is still incredibly low even in the fall (or “migration” months in Meyer’s theory).

As for the suggestion that the same tiger shark is involved in all the recent attacks on Maui, the evidence leads away from this “rogue shark” theory. Tiger sharks are typically long-range sporadic travelers rather than territorial, according to scientists. Decades of tracking studies initiated by Kim Holland in the ‘90s appear to dispel the assumption that tiger sharks are “site attached” to home coastal ranges — instead they arrive, hunt and leave. And again, not every attacker was positively identified as a tiger shark.

Sparks, the man tasked with tracking the attacks on Maui, says that despite the current upswing in shark incidents, a simple look at the data suggests statistical insignificance.

“Some years there are more than others, but there’s no discernible difference over the years.”

Meyer also says the current spike may be due to natural variability, or “simply due to chance.”

The result of a tiger shark attack on the leg of Marc Riglos while heading to a spear-fishing expedition near Waiehu (11/4/2012). The shark was reportedly 15 feet long. Courtesy photo.

As for shark attack avoidance: Surfing is the number one risk, mainly because of the crashing waves creating murky water. But other factors associated with surfing increase the risk, such as surfers seeking isolation to keep the waves for themselves. Theories like how the bottom of a board might look to a shark is speculative, says Sparks.

But whatever you’re doing in the water, Sparks stresses that you will greatly diminish the odds of being attacked by staying away from murky water, as tiger sharks hunt in the murkiness to gain the element of surprise over their prey.

And despite the many warnings about swimming at dawn, dusk or night, Meyer points out that 60% of shark bites occur between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m, and that tiger sharks don’t adhere to the day-night cycle and will feed at any time.

The state’s data also reveals some other interesting facts about attacks, like that a shark bite appears to be most likely to happen to a leg or foot. This may be a small comfort for some, as there is less risk to vital organs contained in the torso, less-protected arteries in the head and neck, or cosmetic damage to the face.

Personally, Sparks admits he does think about a shark attack while he’s swimming in the ocean, despite knowing the odds — particularly since he has to study the graphic photos of shark attack victims as part of his work.

“But we get in our cars and get on the highway every day to go work like it’s nothing, when there’s actually a more realistic chance of getting killed that way. I think it’s just the idea of it mostly; a shark is a predator and we’re vulnerable in the water. It’s the fear that makes this issue bigger than it really is.”

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  • Cirilo

    Ba-Dang!!!! That is a mean nibble on that ankle! Aren’t there any Capt. Quinn’s out there like that guy in the first ‘Jaws’ movie? Hunt dem bugga’s down, now! Uh uh, it just ain’t safe yet to go back in the water……..fo’ real.

    • Peace

      hunt them down? it’s their water more than it is ours!

      • Cirilo

        Hmmmmmmmmmmmm…………ooooooookaaaaaaaaaaay.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1664780233 Christa Handorf Atwood

          If there is a rouge or sick shark they can prove is doing it, it would make sense. We have to remember though, that when we are in the water, we are IN their element and OUT of ours. There really are a lot of things you can do to limit the possibility of a bite. Paying attention to the time of day and area you are swimming/surfing is the most important. Those on TOP of the water are the ones attacked, so if you would like to take up a water sport, consider scuba. All in all, attacks are MINIMAL.

          • Harry

            Oooooooookaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay already. It’s not like we all haven’t heard the same thing from all you intellects, “It’s their domain, not ours”, yada yada. Just go and tell that to those who have actually gotten bitten or the families of those who’ve died because they’ve gotten attacked. Maybe you’ll bring comfort to them with your incredible knowledge. I’m guessing that all those with this same thinking probably don’t eat anything from the ocean because you KNOW better, or rather you do eat but let others risk their own arse’s instead of your own. Dang “scientists” and “experts” KNOW all kinds of s_ _ t, yeah right!

  • Lola

    Weird… Attacks suddenly increased in Reunion Island too, in areas free of attacks before (West coast). Tiger and bulldog sharks are involved. We are still trying to understand what is going on there. Why so suddenly? We have no clue. The latest attacks on surfers happened while respecting the “right conditions”. Many died.

  • No Can

    That is a NASTY bite . . . as for what’s happening, dey hungry. On another note, I wonder if anyone has invented ankle protectors to shield your legs from shark bites. I’d make a killing right now selling those to the tourists.

  • brokenbutcher

    its cyclical. try wait before going back in. Follow the cycles and pay attention.

  • locopelli

    Coexist,Shark hunting has doubled in two years and just to cut off the fin for shark fin soup. The shark is thrown back in the ocean to die.We aren’t on top of the food chain when we get in the ocean and we hate that.

  • Geoy

    Sharks/sea creatures are being aggrivated by the increased earthquake activity which disruptes the tides, currents, and general sanctity of the ocean… make them wanna nom nom… bad!

  • BodyByJake

    Okay, okay. How dis theory? Get so much homeless bunking near da ocean nowdays and taking a dump in the water, stay making all da sharks come moa close insai.

    • BodyByCollege

      Or maybe sharks are attracted to the stench of illiterate, uneducated pidgin speakers on Maui. God knows there are enough of them.

      • NotFromMauiYet

        Hey..! I like the pidgin (HCE). ..and I don’t think sharks are into being big linguistic snobs, so that’s probably not it. Just sayin’.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1664780233 Christa Handorf Atwood

          Geez! Where is the Aloha! RELAX and enjoy life.

          • NotFromMauiYet

            It’s hard to ha’awi lots of aloha when I’m “NotFromMauiYet”. When comes time to be “FromMauiNow”, THEN I’ll have WAY more aloha to (fo?) ha’awi. But I do agree with you. Gon try ha’awi aku loa au i ke aloha. It’ll make me feel better. :) {I probably butchered the olelo REAL good, eh?}

      • BodyByJake

        Oh wow, lau lau. At least I not one a_ _hole like you. If you stay tink that one bugga’s language is one indacation of intalleck, den you one sorry pr_ ck. Fo fo infomation, get plenna who talk like dey stay smart but akchooley friggin stupid. I tink you inkalooded. Moa werse, da stench of yo heart is stinkah den anyting. Anytime, bah, anytime.

      • Maui Mike

        I think their attracted to all the ignorant people from the mainland who wants all of the locals to live their life style. Instead of hiding behind a screen come up to some of us and say it to our face punk! Computer screen warriors are the biggest p_ssys that hide behind a computer and talk sh_t and can’t back them selfs up!

      • No Can

        Ho wow brah, why you stay all mento jus cuz local people talk pidgin? Some of us do dat automatikally and den when we rite we gotta spell some words like how we would pronounce dem. Then again, if we want we can speak your language, spell everything perfectly and sound like the rest of the Continental U.S., or mainland residents, we can do that too. But consider the fact that the US is a place full of “pidgin” speakers. Accents abound from Creole in Louisiana to accents in New York and Boston, not to mention Southern accents and the Minnesota accent, otherwise known as the Great Lakes accent which is spoken by about 12 million people in the Upper Midwest and northern portion of the central United States bordering Canada. Are we all illiterate and uneducated then by your definition? It is possible that you are from a part of our country that is “accent neutral” I suppose. If so, congratulations? I guess. Strange thing to feel superior about but who am I to judge? Aloha.

      • BodyByJake

        You are an idiot, “BodyByCollege”. You have not only offended me, but also all of the good people of this beautiful island, many who, like my parents and grandparents before me, have worked hard all of their lives with honesty and integrity, never stooping to the lower levels of discrimination and close-mindedness as you have shown as yourself to be in your two-lined, snobby response. Those “illiterate, uneducated pidgin speakers” that you refer had been able to provide for and enable those like me to attend college (yes, you’ve read it correctly), earn a degree in post-graduate education, and have a professional level career. For me, I have not forgotten my roots and continue to use the language that I grew up with, and am able to change back and forth between “pidgin” and “standard English” as I chose. An so, bah, wen all iz sed an pau, you da sad case, cos you stay still yet one stink a _ _hole, with all pilau insai. An da big fish wid da teet, he no keya what he stay eat. I tink he would even bite one a_ _hole like you………………….but den spit you back out cuz he no like da beetah tase in da mout.

        • NotFromMauiYet

          I expect to pay for “learning” pidgin (by using it “carefully”) when I get to Maui, by getting “cuffed around” a bit by the big “darker than me” fellas (I’m one puny irish guy), but hey, that’s the way “enculturation” works, eh? :) Mahalos gangies..!

          • Horn

            You’re a fairy, aren’t ya, laddy? Sure, I’ll knock ya around a bit, then ya can do me!

      • Born&Raised

        I have to agree. When people speak pidgin they sound retarded. We wont let our daughter speak that trash in our home. My parents did the same when we were kids. We either speak our native tongue (Japanese) or English. That’s it.

        • AlsoBorn&RaisedbutOpenMinded

          I must beg to differ with both you and BodyByCollege. It all depends on the context of where the language is being spoken and who it is being spoken to (or who hears it being spoken). To illustrate, your native tongue Japanese in other parts of the U.S. will sound retarded (it really does). To many here, scholars from the Philippines, for example, also appear to be stupid, added to the fact that many Filipinos with heavy accents work blue collars jobs. But don’t forget, you have doctors, attorneys, and judges who also have different accents or speak Pidgin. A Southern drawl automatically labels a “country hick” of lesser intelligence. And so, the both of you seem to be very close-minded, which is your prerogative. When you think about it, your attitude and position on this really also makes you lesser, snotty, inferior people than those who you look down upon. So, from da way you stay write yo stuffs, you guys stay onay stupid, dumbs_ _ts. Sleep on dat, brahs!!!

          • NotFromMauiYet

            Hmmm,.. anybody you know in the mood to hanai (“adopt”-kinda thing) a fishbelly-white irish boy so said fishbelly-white irish boy can learn from the “real deal” kanaka maoli and sorta-kinda have a local ohana to call upon? Just curious…

          • Dakine

            you sound desperate.

          • NotFromMauiYet

            Heh heh.. :) The irish are by definition “always desperate”, ‘cuz nobody really likes us, even the “maoli-irish (the “real ones”) on the little green island in that other ocean”, so, yeah, desperate,.. and moderately paranoid t’boot. But that combo DOES keep us on our toes, and makes us useful as “watch pomeranian yappy-yappy dogs”. Anybody in Pa’ia need a yappy-yappy watch doggy?

          • BlackJack

            Definitely weird.

          • NotFromMauiYet

            Yeah. True. (I’m) Kinda weird. Anyway, back to sharks… I blame it on “(Man-made) Quantum Global Shark Warming”, whereby the mere act of overheated humans observing sharks causes the probability of attacks BY those observed sharks to increase. The observing humans (“Scientists”) are “overheated” due to being paid (aka: “exothermically motivated” via monetary remuneration) to “observe sharks”, which naturally results in the dreaded “Shark Week” syndrome. QED.

          • Kaz

            Weird with red shoes and pink undies…………..

          • No Can

            By the way, does anyone realize that we’re SO far removed from the original conversation about sharks? Just sayin

        • what a panty

          BullSH_T!!!!!!!!!!!!

        • u not so smart

          Heres one for your native tongue… anata no baka desu ne???? ” ZAKENAIYO IDIOT!!!!!!”

          • Maui Mike

            Nice Japanese. Im sure your pidgin is even worse. :)

          • BodyByJake

            Oh ho ho ho yeah!!! THAT he/she is suppost to unnahstan! But you stay kinda being nice still yet. I like write summo mo pilau stuffs but gurans da Moddaraytah going stoppum. Das one nuttah story, da Moddaraytah.

        • usbworks

          I speak Japanese too. “Don’t touch a my mustache”. I understand Pidgin better though.

      • you dumb!

        Eh try shut up! Can? k thanx ah!? We sorry yah we no speak as perfect you! We speak pidgin but we get respect for each other here. You on the other hand, talk a lot of TRASH! Shows you illiterate and uneducated. Your mom never tell you NO TALK if you have nothing nice to say?! UNEDUCATED I TELL YA! God knows YOU IS RETARTED!

      • usbworks

        Be careful shark bait, there may come a time when you get in trouble on this beautiful island or in the ocean and the only help you get might be from one of those illiterate, uneducated pidgin speakers.

  • Jean Michel

    @lola :all wrong ! One occured on winter swell pumping,water was thick,one week before ,urban problems (flooding water ) had the near beach closed.The other one occured at sunset,guy was surfing Alone. Sharks are there and attack when we don’t see them.That was the case in ALL shark attacks in réunion Island.No attack occured on clear water and people around;wich CAN happen with the whitey.Being realist can help us save our own lives.

    • NotFromMauiYet

      Dang blinded sharks! I must remember.. wear super-bright strobing LED’s when swimming in the ocean. Check! It’s GOOD to be immune to shark attacks. Yay for technology!

  • brokenbutcher

    bodybycollege, go back to Starbucks and play with your lap top.. if you are so smart, why do you live amongst those you criticize.?? nothing worse than someone who bitch’s about their own choices..A sign of weakness…

  • Davadino

    I was at Kanaha windsurfing 50 yards from shore down in the water because the wind had died near the shoreline. So I have this 12′ tiger shark between me and the beach – it was sureal, many people on the beach waving and hollering at me to warn me. The turtle got up on the beach with massive injuries – I was not touched – but this made me worried for the first time since I am in the ocean often, having one so close made my mojo wilter. That was a few months back. Fast forward to last week – I had a freak accident windsurfing on the outer reef at Kanaha straight out from the tower, I got separated from my board and was in a bad ass rip with not a soul in sight. The rip took me further out to sea – I had no flotation and was already worn out swimming like crazy trying to get to my board. The wind was side-off at approx 35 – 40ish. The wind/current had taken my board so far away I could not see it, it was up to me the swim in or die trying/ I was sure I would drown and figured I may be able to swim a few hours but knew about the tiger shark activity and figured I would get that big slam from underneath at any moment – I prayed for courage, strength etc – soon I was swimming like a navy seal and had not a care in the world about any shark, I knew they had no interest in me and my stride was so strong that if anything I would be the one scaring them – hehe. Took about hour and 40 minutes to make it to lowers and get helped out by a windsurfer. The lifeguards told me how lucky I was to not get bitten or killed by a tiger shark – I told them that was silly since drowning is a million times more likely. i am convinced the fins worn to swim, snorkel, bogey board with look like a fish to the shark and the attacks are pure mistakes,


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