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Exploring the Sharks of Hawaii

Mark Twain described Hawaii as "that peaceful land, that beautiful land ... the climate, one long delicious summer day." On a peaceful, beautiful, delicious summer day in an island paradise surrounded by some of the most pristine waters in the world, it's almost sacrilege not to dive right in. Ah, but it's the ocean and the oceans are full of sharks, right? Maybe. But maybe sharks aren't as bad as their reputations make them out to be. Of the many sharks of Hawaii, almost all of them will leave you alone and the rest probably won't bother you unless you bother them first.

Discover Hawaii (official tourism site): Hawaii Geography & Maps

Earth Observatory / NASA: Hawaiian Islands as seen from Space

State of Hawaii / Hawaii Sharks: Shark Quiz

Forty Species

No other state has suffered the loss of a higher percentage of native species than Hawaii, where there are more species on the federal list of endangered species than in any other state. As in every state, the plants and animals of the water are vitally important to the region's overall ecological health. The same goes in Hawaii, where forty species of shark live year round or include the islands in their annual migration

ECOCEAN: Whale Shark Photo-Identification Library

National Marine Sanctuaries Shark Encyclopedia

Top-Level Carnivores

Apex feeders are top-level carnivores, the species that isn't eaten by any other native to a given habitat. Like wolves in the Arctic and lions in the jungle, the sharks of Hawaii have a diverse diet that includes smaller animals but nothing living in Hawaiian waters makes shark meat a regular part of its daily diet.

Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument: The Link Between Algae and Sharks on Healthy Coral Reefs

University of North Carolina-Charlotte: What Allows the Shark To Be Such an Effective Predator? (pdf)

Extraordinary Sensory Capabilities

Sharks represent one of the oldest species of animals on the planet so they've had a lot of evolutionary time to fine-tune their hunting and survival skills. Their eyesight isn't as keen as their sense of smell but they also rely on electrosensory signals that give them extraordinary sensory capabilities. Every animal gives off an electrical charge too small for humans to detect but sharks can pick up on it from distances that boggle the mind. The Earth is alive with magnetic signals and currents that sharks can read even though most species cannot. it's these extrasensory abilities that have helped make the shark the apex feeder it is today.

Hammerheads, most recently evolved shark, may have such a funny-looking head to enhance electrosensory abilities due to the possibility of more electrosensors in their bigger heads. The wide separation of naris (nostrils) and internal olfactory organs may give them an olfactory advantage over other sharks and their shared prey.

Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology / University of Hawaii at Manoa: The Shark Magnetic Sense

Oceana: Q&A with Shark Biologist Michelle McComb

Little Real Threat to Humans

What do falling coconuts and lightning storms have in common? If you're in Hawaii, you're more likely to be struck by the coconut or hit by the lightning than attacked by a shark, according to the state's Hawaii Sharks shark quiz (above).

National Geographic: Shark Attack Experiment

NBC News: Giant Basking Sharks Venture to Hawaii to Hang Out

Potential Danger

If the compelling theme song to a very popular movie about a wayward shark throbs through your brain every time you get near the beach, find a new tune. During a lifetime, one out of every five people will die from heart disease and most of those deaths are preventable. One in 84 will be killed in an auto accident. One in 1,134 will drown, probably with no shark in sight., while another one in 4,919 will suffer a fatal bicycle accident. Lightning? One in 79,746. Fireworks will kill one out of every 340,733 people. How many people can expect to die at the jaws of a shark? One in 3,748,067. That's right. One in three MILLION plus plus plus.

Census of Marine Life: 70% Shark Free

Ichthyology / Florida Museum of Natural History: Annual Risk of Death During One's Lifetime

Most Aggressive Species

Of the 40 species of shark living in Hawaii's waters, only four of them are considered potentially dangerous to humans -- the Galapagos shark, the grey reef shark, the scalloped hammerhead, and the tiger shark.

Galapagos Sharks tend to cluster around islands, as do people. That may be one reason they seem to be naturally more aggressive toward people than many other shark species. They prefer life near the sea bed but are inquisitive enough to rise to the surface to investigate things up there that intrigue them, including boats at anchor and the swimmers who may be diving from them.

Pacific Shark Research Center: Galapagos Shark

Grey Reef Sharks are territorial, never wandering far from the coral reef they call home. They will aggressively defend their habitat against any threats, including humans exhibiting invasive or threatening behaviors

Harvard University: Quantifying Movement Patterns for Shark Conservation at Remote Coral Atolls in the Indian Ocean

Scalloped hammerhead sharks raise their young in nurseries in shallow waters near shorelines, where young sharks may stay for more than a year before venturing out to sea. One of the gravest threats to any animal is a threat to the youngest offspring of the species and scalloped hammerhead sharks will defend their nurseries to the death.

Federal Register: Proposal to Include the scalloped hammerhead shark on the federal list of endangered and threatened wildlife

Tiger Sharks

Of all the sharks on the planet, only the great white claims more human lives every year than the tiger shark. Fortunately, great whites enjoy the deep waters of the open ocean and only rarely make an appearance near Hawaii's coastlines. Great whites are not a threat in Hawaii. Tiger sharks are.

Tiger sharks will defend themselves when they feel threatened and are dangerous in the midst of a feeding frenzy. They may mistake a swimmer or surfboard rider as a natural meal and attack, which is the case in many shark attacks. Tiger sharks don't need a frenzied situation to attack, though. They've been known to swim calmly by a perceived meal and take a bite without ever slowing down. Tiger sharks are always extremely dangerous.

NOAA Fisheries Fact Sheet: Tiger Shark

Shark Research Institute: Tiger Shark

People as Prey

Given half a chance, a shark would rather eat fish than eat a human, even a tiger shark. They were here for hundreds of millions of years before people arrived on Planet Earth. They watched the dinosaur come and go. Sharks diets and their taste preferences were very firmly developed long before people as prey became a menu option. Sharks are curious creatures, though, and sometimes humans in the water do things that attract their attention in ways that confuse or intrigue. In times like these, sharks may attack but it's usually more a matter of self defense than dinner.

In all reality, we are much more dangerous to sharks than they are to us. Many shark species have gone extinct or become endangered at the hands of human fishermen. Shark fin soup is a delicacy in many parts of the world and the harvest of just the one dorsal fin it takes to make the soup means death to the entire animal. People dine on their flesh and internal organs and use some of them as fetishes and objects of worship. Fashionistas around the world consider boots, belts, and purses made from shark skin leather must-have accessories.

When people have a painful encounter with a shark, it's usually a misunderstanding. When the shark is our victim, it's usually all in a day's work.

Biology of Sharks and Rays: Diving in the Company of Sharks

NOAA National Ocean Service: In General, Sharks Do Not Eat Humans

Shark Attacks in Hawaii

Confirmed, unprovoked shark attacks happen most often in waters of the US mainland than anywhere else on Earth. Australia's attack number comes second but more of them are fatal than anyplace else. New Smyrna Beach in Florida claims the world's record for most recorded shark attacks. Hawaii? Eight fatal attacks occurred in Hawaii in 2004. There were 116 attacks.

Global Shark Attack File: Incident Log (follow link to download the incident report in Microsoft Excel format)

International Shark Attack File: 1828-2012 Map of Hawaii's confirmed Unprovoked Shark Attacks

Other Hidden Dangers

"Never allow yourself to forget that the ocean itself is far more dangerous than any shark," says the ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research. In fact, more people drown in Hawaii while picking ‘opihi than get killed by sharks, suggesting these delicious little sea snails are more deadly than all the sharks in Hawaiian waters. Hawaii's waters are tricky, whether inland or in the sea. Deceptively calm surface waters may hide turbulent undercurrents or spawn rogue waves that wash a swimmer out to sea in a matter of seconds. Even beachcombers are at risk of death by rogue wave.

Honolulu Magazine: The Opihi Shellfish Story

NBC Bay Area: Hawaii's Dangerous Destinations Revealed

In a time before jaw-dropping movies about shark-infested waters flowing red with human blood, the sharks of Hawaii were revered as benevolent gods who cared for the people of Hawaii and were worshipped by the people in return.

Asia-Pacific Digital Library / Kapi-olani Community College: Traditions of O'ahu: Soties of an Ancient Land / Ka'ahupahau