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Great White Sharks in Hawaii? More Likely Than You Think

Research reveals great white sharks’ swim patterns include the Hawaiian Islands.


Satellite-tracking technology reveals great white sharks wander as far as the Hawaiian Islands.


Tourists aren’t the only ones who choose Hawaii as a refuge for the winter. Satellite-tracking technology reveals warm Hawaiian waters are also a destination for great white sharks.

Great white shark sightings have always been rare in Hawaii. The NOAA has confirmed only eight sightings in a period of 60 years. However, satellite tags installed by scientists on the backs of great white sharks to track their movements show some are regular visitors.

Every winter, great white sharks travel from California’s coast to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, some wandering as far as the Hawaiian Islands. Come summer, they return to California’s central and northern coast to dine on seals, sea lions and other prey, says Michael Domeier, president of the Marine Conservation Science Institute.

 “In June, July, the males [in Hawaii] will turn around and go back to the Mainland,” says Domeier, who has been studying great white sharks for the past 14 years. “Females stay here until they are ready to give birth. You can find white sharks in Hawaiian waters year-round, but you will find more in winter.”

Researchers dubbed the remote area midway between Baja California, Mexico, and Hawaii as a “shared offshore foraging area (SOFA).” Above is the the migration pattern of female great white sharks.

OCEARCH is another organization that keeps tabs on more than three dozen great white sharks using satellite-tracking technology. One 10.3 feet long male shark traveled from Guadalupe Island to north of the Hawaiian Islands.

“There have certainly been several legitimate sightings and tag detections of white sharks in Hawaiian waters, and it’s not uncommon for them to visit the Islands from the eastern Pacific, but it’s an open question as to exactly why they do,” says OCEARCH scientist Nick Whitney in an email. “It’s been hypothesized that humpback whale calving season may provide an attractive food source, but many eastern Pacific white sharks are migrating to a place halfway between Hawaii and California on a regular basis, and some may just stray a little further.”

Great white sharks might be foraging for food near Hawaii, but don’t believe what you see in movies: Great white sharks aren’t ferocious “man eaters” as depicted in the film Jaws. However, they’ll occasionally cross paths with humans.

A few recently reported sightings include the 15-foot great white shark circling fishermen’s boat off Yokohama Bay near Kaena Point. The video went viral on YouTube.

And in 2005, Jimmy Hall of Hawaii Shark Encounters captured video footage of his swim with an 18- to 20-foot female white shark, the first time a great white appeared since his involvement in the shark diving business. 

“They are more commonly seen in other places like California,” says Kim Holland of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. “Even though, scientifically, we know white sharks do visit Hawaiian waters; they don’t typically put themselves in shallow waters where people see them.”

The "Expedition White Shark" app allows people to keep track of the tagged great white sharks around the world.

Instead, great whites prefer the deep ocean. Satellite-tracking technology reveals great white sharks spend many months in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Researchers dubbed the remote area midway between Baja, California, Mexico, and Hawaii as a “shared offshore foraging area.”­ It is known as a food hotspot for Californian and Mexican great white sharks — similar to the grocery store where humans frequent for food.

“One big, new question this tagging study has provided us is, what are they doing in the middle of the ocean, why are they there,” Domeier says.

Want to keep tabs on great white sharks whereabouts yourself? Download the “Expedition White Shark” iPhone or iPad app, or check out the global shark tracker online.

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Honolulu Magazine April 2018
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