Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Friday, September 14, 2001

Sightings of great whites
rare but do happen in isles

In June of this year, a free-diver off the Waianae Coast spotted a great white shark. The shark swam within a few feet of the spear fisherman but did not attack. The man escaped without injury.

In two separate incidents in August, sharks were seen attacking spinner dolphins in the same area. No one saw what type of sharks they were, but given the previous sighting, people wondered if the great white might be hanging around.

This discussion of great white sharks prompted reader James Louie to write: "I am a transplant living in Washington state. I read a news brief regarding a large shark sighted off the Waianae coast, and it made mention that it may have been a great white. ... Are they mistaking the mako for the white? ... It was my understanding that white sharks preferred cooler temperatures. ... As one who grew up surfing in Hawaii, I am curious if white sharks inhabit those waters."

Yes, mako sharks have similarities to great whites, but this was not a mistaken identity. The experienced diver's detailed description left no doubt among shark specialists here: The shark was a great white.

Biologists also agree that no one knows what species of shark attacked the dolphins. Tiger sharks, common off the Waianae Coast, are capable of killing dolphins.

Therefore, the only certain great white shark sighting in Hawaii this summer was the one in June.

And it was a rarity. Only about 10 confirmed sightings of great white sharks have been recorded in Hawaii waters. This doesn't mean only 10 great whites ever showed up here, because people don't always report sightings. It does mean, however, that visits from great whites are uncommon.

But this isn't because they prefer colder water. Rather, they prefer water with abundant food, meaning seals and sea lions. Those marine mammals are far more plentiful in cold waters than tropical, so their predators are, as well.

Great white sharks have been wandering in and out of Hawaii waters for centuries. During his visit here, Capt. Cook collected Hawaiian weapons made with the inch-wide triangular teeth of great whites.

In more recent history, fishermen caught a 12.5-foot-long great white off Kahuku in 1926. Its stomach contained human remains.

Fishermen also landed a great white off Honolulu Harbor in 1961. At the time, a "sharkquarium" called Marineland in Kewalo Basin was open for the public's entertainment. The great white lived for two days there before it died.

In 1969 a great white shark attacked a Makaha surfer's board, leaving distinct bite marks and embedded tooth fragments. The lucky surfer swam away uninjured. Biologists identified the shark from the recovered surfboard.

So although it's rare, great whites do swim in Hawaiian waters. And as we know from recent sightings, so do tiger sharks, blacktips and other species.

What does this mean for oceangoers? Not much, because it's nothing new. People and sharks have been sharing the water here for centuries.

The real issue is how each of us feels about this information. We swimmers, surfers and anglers must weigh fact against fiction and pleasure against fear, then make our own decisions about the meaning of shark sightings.

I know this suggestion doesn't calm many fears. But when it comes to sharks, there are no easy answers.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears weekly in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at

E-mail to City Desk

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