Monday, July 2, 2001

This recent photo shows a "Jaws"-eye view of Michael
Garris handling an ono, which he both eats and uses as bait.

Big ‘Jaws’ sighting
off Oahu

A federal biologist says a
spear fisher's description
matches a great white shark

By B.J. Reyes

As an avid free diver and spear fisherman, Michael Garris isn't exactly a stranger to sharks. But nothing quite prepared him for an encounter he had last month.

While fishing in waters about a half-mile off Yokohama Beach Park, Garris came face to face with a great white shark.

"I thought it was a whale shark," Garris said of the June 9 encounter. "Then I knew immediately what it was because nothing looked like this thing, and clearly it had a jagged line separating the dark skin on top and the white underbelly. There was no mistaking what it was."

Great white sharks are rare in Hawaiian waters, but they do appear, said John Naughton, a marine biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Honolulu.

"It's something very unusual in Hawaiian waters, but that was definitely what this gentleman saw," said Naughton.

Great whites primarily are found in coastal waters off southern Africa, southern Australia and northern California, in cooler waters with large populations of seals and sea lions, their primary diet, Naughton said.

They sometimes stray from their natural habitats if attracted by a source of food, a dead whale or other large mammal, he said.

Often times in Hawaii, people who report great white sightings have simply spotted a large tiger shark, but after speaking with Garris, Naughton was convinced that the great white sighting was legitimate.

Aside from the white underbelly, Garris' description of the shark's size, conical nose, black eyes, distinctive tail and aggressive behavior were enough to convince Naughton.

"He's a very good observer," Naughton said. "In a nutshell, he saw a great white shark -- no question. It couldn't be anything else at that size."

Garris, 38, said he had been in the water out of his kayak for roughly 15 minutes when he spotted the shark -- about 15 to 17 feet long and roughly 5 feet wide -- swimming at him from about 100 yards away.

Great Whites

>> They average 14 to 18 feet long and roughly 1,500 to 4,000 pounds.
>> They are the largest predatory shark.
>> They inhabit temperate waters worldwide, primarily along coastlines. Though not abundant, they are most frequently sighted off the coasts of northern California, southern Australia and South Africa.
>> Anyone who believes they might have spotted a great white is encouraged to report the sighting to the National Marine Fisheries Service at (808) 973-2935, ext. 211, or the state Shark Task Force, (808) 587-0100.
Source: and the National Marine Fisheries Service

"I decided to swim directly at the shark," he said. "I do this sometimes with aggressive sharks, and it tends to confuse them ... because it's an aggressive posture, and it sometimes will turn the shark off from its direct assault."

Not this time. Garris said he stopped swimming because it was having no effect and the shark just kept coming, eventually getting as close as 12 inches to the tip of his spear gun.

"For whatever reason I didn't pull the trigger," he said. "I didn't want to kill a shark I didn't have to."

Furthermore, "If I shoot a shark this big, I don't know what's going to happen. It may not hurt it; it may make it angry.

"Luckily, at the very last moment, it sort of paused in front of me and took a left turn directly in front of me and glided by very slowly," he said. "It took a hard left turn again and dove very deep and with a very strong and swift tail movement."

Garris didn't stick around to find out what the shark was up to.

After the shark dove, he managed to make it back to his kayak and paddle away. It wasn't until then that he realized what had attracted the shark -- a few pounds of ono (wahoo) on his dive belt that he had been using as chum to attract game fish.

"When it first swam toward me, I forgot about it," Garris said. "No wonder the thing swam right up to me. Clearly it must've smelled it, tasted it, whatever.

"I suspect it wanted to bump me and that way gain some information if I was edible."

The encounter isn't enough to scare Garris out of the water. In fact, after he regained his composure -- and ditched the fish from his dive belt -- Garris climbed back into the water.

"It's just what I like to do," he said. "It's really a passion to be out in an environment where it is unpredictable. It's wild, and in that moment I was part of the food chain. That's not why I'm going -- I'm going to get fish.

"I understand the risk and I accept it," he added. "My eyes might just be a little bit bigger the next time I get in the water."

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