Shane Nelson
Shane Nelson

The island of Oahu received a great deal of global media attention early last week surrounding reports of two shark attacks on local residents, occurring only hours apart on Oct. 17 not far from two of the destination’s most popular beaches.

Many of those same news reports noted that the two Saturday attacks took place eight days after a local surfer sustained severe injuries during a shark attack on Oahu’s north shore, leading to the amputation of his left leg.  

Much of last week’s initial global media interest was no doubt fueled by early reports about one of the Oct. 17 shark attacks taking place not far from shore in Waikiki, the most popular visitor destination in Hawaii. The state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) has since confirmed, however, that the man injured there around dusk was not bitten by a shark.

“DLNR staff interviewed the victim, and the information he provided, along with photos of his injuries, were discussed with George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File in Florida,” DLNR officials reported in an Oct. 20 statement. “The details of the Saturday incident reinforced Burgess’ opinion that the animal involved was an eel, not a shark.

“To date there has never been a confirmed shark bite off Waikiki,” DLNR officials said. “Given the large number of ocean users in Waikiki waters, this suggests that the normal behavior of sharks is to avoid interactions with people.”

Still, sharks do attack people from time to time in Hawaii. The other Oct. 17 incident has since been attributed to a shark that bit a man swimming less than 100 yards off Lanikai beach on windward Oahu. That is the sixth shark attack in the Hawaiian Islands this year, including one fatality in April when a man was bitten by a shark while snorkeling 200 yards off Maui’s southern coast.

According to DLNR data, there were another six shark attacks on people across Hawaii in 2014 and 12 incidents in 2013, the highest annual total in nearly 35 years. Prior to 2013, Hawaii averaged somewhere between three and six confirmed, unprovoked shark attacks a year with a total of only six shark-related fatalities since 1980.

“The incidents that occurred over the weekend are very isolated,” said George Szigeti, the president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA). “[But] as an island state, Hawaii is surrounded by the ocean, so it is important that both our visitors and residents take precaution to understand ocean safety and when entering the water.”

The HTA chief suggested travelers visit www.travelsmarthawaii.com for a range of advice about safety in Hawaii, including information and links to ocean safety specifics for each of the state’s four major islands along with tips about everything from sun protection to coral reef education and box jellyfish suggestions. Szigeti also mentioned oceansafety.soest.hawaii.edu, which has real-time ocean condition information for many popular Aloha State beaches, provided by the Hawaii Lifeguard Association.  

Agents with clients interested in minimizing shark-related risk while in Hawaii may want to send travelers to the DLNR’s dedicated Web page. The site features everything from information about the species of sharks you’ll find in Hawaii and cultural background or ancient shark legends along with comprehensive data about shark attacks in the state reaching back for decades. The page also provides 10 shark safety tips, including advice such as not to swim in murky waters and not to enter the sea at dawn and dusk, when some sharks move closer to shore to hunt and feed.

The DLNR site also indicates that more people in the ocean doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in shark-related injuries. Since 1980, the Hawaiian Islands have seen 25 shark attacks in October, nearly double the confirmed incidents recorded for November, which generated the second-highest monthly total. March is third highest, with 10 incidents. October, November and March are typically shoulder periods for Hawaii’s tourism industry.

Additionally, the late fall season was traditionally a time when ancient Hawaiians were very cautious about entering the water because of concerns about more aggressive shark behavior, according to the DLNR site.

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