Summer of the Shark

Series of shark attacks hit Hawaii

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Tiger sharks are thought to be responsible for each of the recent attacks. Photo: Alma

A recent string of shark attacks in Hawaii have left many surfers concerned, bewildered, and a little less amped for that solo session at dusk. Over the course of the past month alone, the Center for Shark Research has recorded five attacks in the islands, the most recent occurring Sunday afternoon when a 16-year-old male was attacked on the Big Island. The latest incident brought the year’s total to eight attacks.

In 2012, 10 attacks were recorded in the islands, more than double the average of three to four typically seen in Hawaii in a year. Shark experts in the islands aren’t pointing to a single factor that can be attributed to the increased number of incidences, but believe that the latest cluster of attacks are a coincidence. However, that’s not providing a lot of comfort for Hawaiian surfers.

“In the wake of all that’s been happening, I feel like people in the lineup are a little bit more paranoid when it comes to sharks,” said Oahu’s Race Skelton. “I’ve noticed that at my home break here in Honolulu, you don’t see as many people surfing until dark anymore. It’s not something that’s specifically talked about, but when the lineup starts to empty 45 minutes before sunset, you have a pretty good idea why.”

In Sunday’s attack on the Big Island, Jimmy Ulualoha “Ulu-boy” Napeahi, 16, an accomplished amateur surfer, sustained multiple lacerations and puncture wounds to his legs when he was bitten by what was presumed to be a tiger shark.

“I was surfing my home break on the Big Island at a spot called Dead Trees when I was attacked,” said Napeahi from the hospital. “I’d heard about all of the other attacks recently, but I never thought that there would be an attack over here. We’d never had anything like this happen here before.”

Napeahi recalls the moment when the shark attacked as being quick and ferocious. “I had just duck-dived a wave and was sitting on my board when I was attacked. It grabbed both my legs and pulled me under. Instantly, I knew it was a shark and threw a few punches. It was gnawing on me and pulling me under, but it eventually let me go and I was able to get to shore with the help of my friends. I was terrified. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. But the doctors said that I should heal up OK. I had 14 bite marks and 30 lacerations and more than 180 stitches, but it didn’t sever any nerves so with about eight months of rehab, I can be back in the water again.”

Just four days prior, a 20-year-old German tourist had her arm severed while she was snorkeling on Maui. The woman is currently on life support in a Maui hospital. The day before that incident, also on Maui, a shark bit a woman’s kiteboard. In late July, a surfer had his leg bitten on Oahu by what was estimated to be an 8- to 10-foot tiger shark.

In response to the spike of attacks over the last two years, the Department of Land and Natural Resources announced that they will be conducting a two-year long study on tiger sharks off the coast of Maui. It’s important to note that this announcement was not made as a specific response to the latest attacks.

“As we look at numbers of incidents per year over the last two decades or so, we see a lot of variation from year to year, including years with no incidents or just one incident,” said William Aila of the DLNR. “Recently, there’s been an average of about three or four incidents per year. But every few years there’s a little spike, and we’ve now seen an unprecedented spike.”

The study will be led by marine biologist Carl Mayer and will begin next month.

“Who knows if all these attacks were caused by a change in the ecosystem or if they were just a coincidence,” said Kirk Ziegler, a North Shore lifeguard. “I really don’t know and I can’t speculate, But with that in mind—and I can’t stress this enough—always surf and/or swim with a buddy. If the water looks murky and sketchy, go somewhere else. It’s not worth the risk…no matter how good the waves are.”

16-year-old Jimmy Ulualoha “Ulu-boy” Napeahi on the path to full recovery in a Maui hospital. Photo: @Uluboi
After the attack, 16-year-old Jimmy Ulualoha “Ulu-boy” Napeahi recovering in a Big Island hospital. Photo: @Uluboi