The Maui News - - TODAY’S PEOPLE -

WEEK” on the Dis­cov­ery chan­nel is coming to its end. For a week you could have gorged your­self on 24 hours a day of tele­vi­sion de­voted to the most preda­tory crea­ture in the ocean. You can find sharks in ev­ery ocean at a va­ri­ety of depths and sizes.

Per­haps the most pre­pos­ter­ous pro­gram fea­tured cham­pion Olympic swim­mer Michael Phelps’ “race” with a shark sim­u­la­tion. Yes, he plunged into frigid waters off of South Africa and at­tempted to beat the cal­cu­lated time of a great white shark. (Phelps lost, but wants a re­match in warmer wa­ter.) That the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel has had this an­nual shark del­uge since 1988 proves that folks are fas­ci­nated with sharks.

Hawaii is no dif­fer­ent. In fact, we have a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with the an­i­mal. Sharks have been in the waters around our is­lands for cen­turies. Na­tive Hawai­ians cer­tainly knew about them and quickly de­vel­oped a re­la­tion­ship with them. The indige­nous re­li­gion and spir­i­tu­al­ity reveres sharks and has mul­ti­ple ref­er­ences to them. For some, sharks are au­makua


— that is, an­ces­tral spir­its or gods that are as­so­ci­ated with a par­tic­u­lar fam­ily.

I re­call hear­ing sto­ries from time to time about sharks guiding par­tic­u­lar peo­ple to safety when they are out at sea. Some­times they may even as­sist in gathering fish. Hawai­ian mythol­ogy also tells of gods that would take the form of sharks and in­ter­act with chiefs, com­mon­ers and other is­landers. There are tem­ples de­voted to them on ev­ery is­land.

We have all kinds of sharks here. That shouldn’t be a sur­prise. The Pa­cific Ocean is a vast place full of dif­fer­ent species. We have even dis­cov­ered rare kinds of sharks. In ad­di­tion to the alarm­ingly nor­mal sight­ings of tiger sharks and reef sharks, Hawaii is known for the first doc­u­mented at­tack from the small and vi­cious cookie cut­ter, a shark that at­tacked a long-dis­tance swim­mer be­tween Maui and the Big Is­land in 2009.

At the other end of the shark spec­trum is the mon­strous meg­amouth. In 1976, the U.S.

Navy hauled up from the deep waters off Oahu’s North Shore a mas­sive shark weigh­ing 1,500 pounds with a mouth that was 3 feet wide. It was the dis­cov­ery of a new species of bask­ing shark, and it took an­other eight years be­fore an­other one was dis­cov­ered off of Catalina Is­land in California.

Sharks also make news here. Maui has seen an uptick in “in­ci­dents be­tween hu­mans and sharks,” bet­ter known as shark at­tacks. Back in 2012, Hawaii re­ported a measly eight shark at­tacks. In 2013, the num­ber dou­bled to 16 and two were fa­tal. The num­bers have in­creased steadily. By 2015, there were re­ports of tiger shark at­tacks in wa­ter as shal­low as 4 feet.

Even the Depart­ment of Land and Nat­u­ral Re­sources is­sued state­ments to be care­ful when go­ing out.

The Univer­sity of Hawaii’s In­sti­tute of Marine Bi­ol­ogy got in on the act and has started tag­ging and track­ing sharks through­out the area. You can see them for your­self on its website at www.pa­cioos.hawaii.edu/projects/ sharks/. It’s a spooky site. Lit­tle fins or dots clus­ter around the rel­a­tively shal­low waters be­tween Maui, Lanai and Ka­hoolawe.

Re­searchers are try­ing to fig­ure out why there’s been an up­swing in shark at­tacks. Every­one’s got a the­ory. My fa­vorite is the blame-it-on-the-honu the­ory. The Hawai­ian

Sea Turtle has been pro­tected by the En­dan­gered Species Act since 1978. Its num­bers are thriv­ing. But sharks — es­pe­cially the preda­tory tiger shark — don’t read leg­is­la­tion and do eat tur­tles. Could it be that sharks con­fuse body­surfers with fins and surfers for tur­tles? Per­haps, but the rea­sons are still un­clear.

An­other hy­poth­e­sis is the blame-it-on-ac­tive-peo­ple the­ory. Thou­sands go in the waters off Hawaii ev­ery day. And yet, the ac­tual num­bers of shark at­tacks re­main low. For some, the rise in shark at­tacks isn’t due to a change in the an­i­mals’ be­hav­ior, but in our be­hav­ior. More and more peo­ple are get­ting out and away from the shore with stand-up pad­dle­boards, kayaks and small boat­ing crafts. The uptick in shark bites is only pro­por­tional to the uptick in peo­ple in the wa­ter.

De­spite the rea­sons be­hind the in­crease, many in the tourism in­dus­try hate see­ing it in the news. Just like the mayor in “Jaws” said, in his town, “We need sum­mer dollars. Now, if the peo­ple can’t swim here, they’ll be glad to swim” else­where.

Hawaii isn’t all that dif­fer­ent. Shark at­tacks scare peo­ple out of the wa­ter, and peo­ple visit Hawaii for the wa­ter. Sharks just aren’t good for tourism.

The state has listed tips to min­i­mize your chances of get­ting at­tacked by a shark. Swim in groups, stay close to the shore, avoid murky wa­ter, and if you’re bleed­ing from a cut, stay out. If you’re dead set on see­ing a shark, tune in to Shark Week on the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel next year.

Ben Lowenthal is a trial and ap­pel­late lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is 808sta­te­o­faloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” al­ter­nates Fri­days with Sarah Rup­penthal’s “Neigh­bors.”

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