Hawai‘i Shark Facts: What a Local Wants You to Know

Posted in: Environment, Things to Do

By Kent Coules, Publisher

selachophobia: Noun. An irrational fear or dislike of sharks.

If you’re coming to Hawai‘i, want to snorkel with family and friends but are terrified of sharks, then this story is for you.

I’ve looked at a ton of stories online about sharks, and sharks in Hawai‘i, but there’s something missing when it comes to these articles. They’ll talk about the 40 or so shark species in Hawaiian waters, the four most common species, and the astronomical odds against being a victim of an attack. What’s missing is the local swimmer’s point of view.

Let’s start by saying you are not alone. 51% of Americans admit to being “absolutely terrified” of sharks and 38% report they are afraid to swim in the ocean because of sharks. And yet, the odds of being attacked by a shark in the United States is one in 11.5 million, while the odds of an attack being fatal are one in 264.5 million. Compare that to the odds of dying in a car crash (one in 114), a fall (one in 127) or an accidental drowning (one in 1,188).

So with odds like that, why is it that the majority of Americans are afraid of sharks? According to David Ropeik, the answer is pretty simple. People are terrified of sharks because getting eaten by a shark would be a really crummy way to die. Roppeik is an instructor of risk communication at Harvard, and author of the book "How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don¹t Always Match the Facts."

"We're not just afraid of things because of the likelihood that they'll happen, but because of the nature of them if they do happen," Ropeik said in an interview with Live Science. "So it may be unlikely that you'll be attacked by a shark, but it would suck if you did." 

So now that you understand your fear of being attacked by a shark despite the odds being in your favor, let’s talk about what’s out the water.

There are four shark species common in Hawai‘i. They are the white reef tip, black reef tip, sandbar and scalloped hammerhead shark. My wife, who has snorkeled several times a week since moving here in 2013, has seen approximately 10 sharks in total, all of the reef tip variety. She has seen them in Lanikai in Kailua and right off the shelf at Ala Moana Beach Park. That’s more a function of where she normally snorkels than either place being a hot bed for shark sightings. She has seen them as close to 40 yards from shore (as have I), napping in the coral to as far out as 300 yards. Reef tips are considered docile sharks when it comes to human interaction.

Whitetip Reef Shark
Whitetip reef shark in Hawai‘i's waters [Photo by John Burns/NOAA, 2017]

Occasionally there are tiger shark sightings. Tiger sharks are considered aggressive to humans. Tiger sharks are much more common off of Maui. A University of Hawai‘i study tracked tagged “Oahu” sharks that went to Maui (believed to be for breeding purposes) and “Maui” sharks that did not migrate. So the tiger shark population is much larger off of Maui than the other main islands. This is due to a large ocean shelf that is home to an abundance of prey fish sharks feed on. As a result, there are more shark attacks off Maui than any other (sorry Maui visitors!).

My wife follows one cautionary rule: she will not snorkel in murky, or brackish, water. Brackish water is the confluence of fresh water meeting the ocean water. Brackish water is an ideal environment for many species of prey fish, making it a very popular shark hunting ground. What makes it dangerous for humans is that brackish water has poor visibility, making accidental attacks on humans much more likely.

I say “accidental” because with the possible exception of highly aggressive sharks like great whites, makos, bulls and tigers, the vast majority of sharks do not see humans as prey (we’re much too bony and thin!), which is why the highest percentage of shark attacks on humans are called “hit and runs,” where the shark bites once and does not return. This happens most often in dark or murky water. It’s thought that the shark’s bite is to identify whether the victim is prey or not. This type of attack, while the most common, also has the lowest rate of fatality. Bottom line is that if you can see a shark, they can see you and your risk factor is much lower.

Another observation my wife has taught me that I haven’t read anywhere else is that when sharks are nearby, reef fish are scared. By that, she means that they’re often frozen in place when sharks or other large predator fish are present. That’s because sharks are equipped with sensory organs that detect the electricity generated by muscle movement. One time she located a shark so I could see it by looking for reef fish that weren’t moving. Once we saw the “frozen” fish, we knew were close. Sure enough, on the other side of that coral reef bed, we saw a napping reef tip shark.

For those looking for the “list,” here are some universally accepted suggestions for avoiding an unpleasant shark encounter:

1. Always swim in a group. Sharks most often attack lone individuals.

2. Don’t wander too far from shore. Doing so isolates you and places you away from assistance.

3. Avoid the water at night, dawn, or dusk. Many sharks are most active at these times and are better able to find you than you are to see them.

4. Don’t enter the water if bleeding. Sharks can smell and taste blood, and trace it back to its source. Research has shown that urine can have the same effect.

5. Don’t wear shiny jewelry. The reflected light looks like shining fish scales.

6. Don’t go into waters containing sewage. Sewage attracts bait fish, which in turn attract sharks.

7. Avoid waters being fished and those with lots of bait fish. Diving seabirds are good indicators of such activities.

8. Don’t enter the water if sharks are present. Leave immediately if sharks are seen.

9. Avoid an uneven tan and brightly colored clothing. Sharks see contrast particularly well, so use extra caution when waters are cloudy.

10. Don’t splash a lot. Also, keep pets out of the water. Erratic movements can attract sharks.

11. Use care near sandbars or steep drop-offs. These are favorite hangouts for sharks.

12. Don’t relax just because dolphins are nearby. Sightings of dolphins do not indicate the absence of sharks. Both often eat the same foods.

Follow this advice and you should leave Hawai‘i shark bite-free. (And even if you don’t, you’re probably going to be okay.)

One final word of advice: Don’t watch “Jaws” between now and your arrival!

Hopefully, I've helped with your selachophobia. Happy snorkeling!


Whitetip reef shark in Hawai‘i's waters [Photo by: John Burns/NOAA, 2017]


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