Why So Many Shark Attacks On Maui? Scientists May Have An Answer

May 19, 2016

A screenshot from a DLNR video showing one of 41 tagged sharks off Maui.
Credit DLNR
Credit University of Hawaii / Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology

Scientists are getting a better idea of how sharks behave and why so many attacks have occurred off Maui. The study, commissioned by the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources monitored more than 40 tagged sharks in waters off Maui and Oahu. HPR’s Molly Solomon shares their findings.

Carl Meyer is used to getting up close and personal with one of Hawai‘i’s apex predators. He’s spent the past two years tagging tiger sharks in Hawai‘i to study their behavior. He cues up a video from a camera he attached to a shark off Maui in January, peak mating season for tiger sharks.

“You can see that initially the tiger shark is swimming fairly steadily, just above the reef,” said Meyer pointing to the video screen.

A second later, the shark spots something off camera and speeds ahead, circling whatever it found.

“You’re going to see it go into a series of tight turns and suddenly another tiger shark comes into view. It’s a brief flirtation,” Meyer explained. “You can see how this camera technology allows us to get a sharks-eye-view of what they’re actually doing.”

Credit University of Hawaii / Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology

The sharks-eye-view camera was just one of many tools Meyer and his team use to study shark behavior in the Hawaiian Islands. The new research shows tiger sharks prefer swimming in waters off Maui. Part of that is due to the island’s larger shelf, or habitat below the shoreline.

“Maui nui [the islands of Maui, Lāna‘i, Moloka‘i, and Kaho‘olawe] has more of this insular shelf habitat than all of the other main Hawaiian islands combined,” said Meyer. “And this Maui nui shelf is a highly productive habitat that contains a wide variety of organisms that are natural prey items for tiger sharks.”

Prime shark hot spots were also close to popular beaches and recreation sites along Maui’s coast. And while Hawai‘i saw a spike of shark attacks in 2012 through 2014, Meyer stressed the likelihood of getting bit is still rare.

“The visits by individual sharks are infrequent and brief,” he said. “There are thousands of people in the water, and despite the near daily presence of these animals passing through, the risk of being bitten by a shark around Maui remains low.”

“Shark behavior doesn’t seem to be changing over time, but people’s behavior is changing,” said Bruce Anderson, an administrator for the DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources. He says these days, kayaking, spearfishing and standup board paddling has placed people in waters farther off shore.

“There are more people in the water now than there were before,” said Anderson. “The opportunity for interactions with sharks is increasing.”

Suggestions for steering clear of sharks include avoiding murky water, swimming in groups, and staying close to shore.