Will Killing Sharks Finally Stop Hawai‘i’s Epidemic of Attacks?

Shark attacks spiked 56 percent over the past four years. Folks on O‘ahu and the Neighbor Islands are nervously asking why. HONOLULU dives deep to find out what’s going on, and what’s different, this time around.


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Colin Cook’s attack was the third serious incident of 2015 and the 36th in four years. By the time the year came to a close the tally would be up to 39, with eight in 2015, including a fatality on Maui and another attack on O‘ahu even more severe than Cook’s. The trend, beginning in 2012, has attacks up over 50 percent in the Islands; three of the 39 were fatalities. In the four years prior to 2012, there had been zero fatalities and only 11 attacks. Clearly, O‘ahu and Hawai‘i are on the sharp end of a spike in aggressive shark behavior. The first question is why. The second: Can anything be done about it? 

 

Colin Cook was saved when Keoni Bowthorpe risked his life to bring him to shore.
Photo: ELYSE BUTLER MALLAMS

Opinions are plentiful; when it comes to sharks, everyone’s an expert. It’s what makes Cook’s sense of being wronged by shark lore—“This wasn’t supposed to happen”—so poignant. We want to understand sharks. We study them. Many of us honor their place in the ecosystem. In return, we just want them to be predictable. And to leave us alone.

 

But consider the odds of a fatal attack (1 in 3,748,067), twice as high as dying from a falling vending machine. Shouldn’t we be worrying about much bigger threats, like heart disease (1 in 5) and cancer? Yes, of course. But we do live on an island, something statisticians never take into account. And shark attacks do make headlines. Human beings seem programmed biologically to fall for shark click-bait, leading to all sorts of reactions to shark sightings—from never setting foot in the ocean again to canceling vacations to launching shark-killing expeditions to show tourists we take their concerns seriously. 

 

In 1958, eight months before Hawai‘i became a state, a single fatality before Christmas, that of 15-year-old Billy Weaver, led to 17 years of state-sanctioned shark killing. 

 

“I was across the channel from this surfer,” says Keoni Bowthorpe, “when I thought I heard him say something. I turned around, and right then I saw the shark pull him under. I could see the dorsal fin and the tail fin breaking the surface. And the sounds that were happening—it could only be one thing.”

 

Six months before, Bowthorpe had started filming a documentary. Saving Jaws was to be about the tragedy of shark-finning, a practice that kills 100 million sharks a year, threatening an entire genus to make soup. The 33-year-old father of  “3 under 3” couldn’t believe what he was seeing, in light of his interviews with scientists and shark dive tour leaders. “This shark just did everything different from what I’ve ever been told, or experienced, while making the documentary.” The water was clear, Cook had been quietly waiting out a lull, not splashing or kicking. And the shark kept on attacking. 

 

Once alongside Cook, he pushed the shark away with the paddle. “I didn’t hit the shark or beat the shark. My goal was to divert it. One of the scientists I was filming had said that tiger sharks are built for power, not maneuvering. If you can make it miss, you’ve got 10 to 12 seconds before it turns to make another run.” Bowthorpe put himself between Cook and the shark, adopting a toreador’s position, paddle at the ready. The shark turned. “The speed it was coming at us, I was thinking, ‘I’ll be lucky to hit it at all.’”

 

He fended off several passes. “I’m going to pass out,” Cook called to Bowthorpe. “Tell my family I love them.”

 

When a 14-foot tiger investigated Juan Oliphant’s camera, “I simply pushed her nose back.”
Photo: juan oliphant

 

Bowthorpe was faced with an impossible choice. Fight off the shark and watch Cook die. Or—“I felt a terrifying wonder,” he recalls. “I thought of my three kids and would I ever see them again.” And then: “I said a prayer and tossed the paddle away.”

 

He lay down on his board. “Colin climbed on my back and we started to paddle in.” Their weight sank the board below the surface. The beach was still 100 yards away. Several times when he dug in his hands to make a stroke, “I felt the shark skin brush my arm, like fine-grain sandpaper.” Even more terrifying, “I could feel the water displacing us as the shark passed under. I could feel the power of the animal.” At any moment, “I knew this could be it.”

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