Did Honolulu Just Have Its First-Ever Shark Attack?
The incident off Diamond Head involved a surfer, a shark and one terrifying minute. But does it break the 150-year kapu that has kept the Waikīkī shores unbloodied?
PHOTO: JUAN OLIPHANT
On May 14, at 8:30 on a beautiful morning in the waters off Diamond Head, a media frenzy broke the surface at a surf break called Brown’s. As reported in various media and witnessed by surfer Jonah Kogen who was in the water nearby at the time, a surfer named Michael was rammed off his board by a shark that then crashed down on him.
With no blood drawn, the incident—which the Department of Land and Natural Resources said was not reported—is regarded as a “bumping,” which is not that unusual an experience for surfers, bodyboarders and stand-up paddlers, although understandably terrifying.
But bumping is how it sounds: a tap, a shove. The shark’s attitude described here would seem to merit a different rating. “I had no doubt in my mind it was going to take him,” said Kogen, according to a Hawai‘i News Now report. His description of the shark launching Michael into the air and then forcing him underwater and out of sight doesn’t comport with an inadvertent or exploratory contact, such as the one that took place between pro surfer Mick Fanning in South Africa in the middle of a contest.
There, a very large great white was seen to approach the unaware Fanning from behind as he waited to take a wave in 2015. What followed was a violent thrashing as the two seemed to become entangled; but there was no biting. It seemed that Fanning’s surf leash had wrapped around the shark’s tail. The shark was perhaps as surprised as Fanning.
In the Diamond Head case there was little accidental in the behavior of the shark: a direct assault Kogen described as “explosive” with full contact. The presence of the board could have confused the shark as it closed in or perhaps Michael moved at the last second.
Tiger sharks account for most bites and more serious attacks in Hawai‘i. Kogen identified the shark in the negative—as not a tiger, which has distinctive stripes. Without a detailed description the DLNR usually defaults to a requiem shark, a catchall term for a mostly inshore shark species much less likely to attack humans. According to the DLNR Hawai‘i Sharks website, “examples of requiem sharks other than tiger sharks include gray reef, Galapagos, blacktip, blacktip reef, whitetip reef, and sandbar.” (Galapagos and other requiem sharks have reportedly attacked humans far offshore, in the case of shipwrecks, or in remote atoll lagoons.)
The explosive quality described, however, is typical of great whites attacking seals off the coast of Northern California and South Africa. And while great whites are not commonly seen in Hawaiian waters, the past year has seen a number of notable visits, many drawn by a whale carcass that lingered off the South Shore from December through February, when it showed up off Kāne’ohe and was repeatedly towed far out to sea.
So the question now is: Does this constitute a shark attack? One problem is the lack of a report. And this is where the requirements of data integrity meet the economic considerations of a beach-based tourist economy. It’s not an easy equation to master, as I found in researching our special cover story on shark attacks and their causes and suppression in 2016: “Will Killing Sharks Finally Stop Hawai‘i’s Epidemic of Attacks?” (which ran in the February print edition as “Shark! Why Have Attacks Spiked 50 Percent? The Real Answer”).
Part of the hypersensitivity about reporting shark attacks on O‘ahu’s South Shore is due to a myth that has grown up: Both anecdotal and seemingly data-based, it says that sharks don’t attack in the portion of Māmala Bay from Diamond Head to Sand Island. Despite the fact that shark attacks are not rare at the ‘Ewa end of Māmala Bay or in Maunalua Bay to the east, according to the DLNR’s shark incident list, no attacks off Waikīkī or Diamond Head are to be found going back to 1995. The closest is a 2002 incident at Kewalo Basin involving a surfer bitten on the foot.
a gap between diamond head and kewalo shows no recorded shark attacks from 1900-2015. but emergency rooms and responders are not required to report shark attacks, either. (Red dots are fatalities.) source: dlnr, isaf, gsaf
Records going farther back are notorious for relying on speculation and hearsay. Two commonly consulted clearinghouses are the International Shark Attack File, which no longer shares its historic records with the public, and SharkAttackData.com, which does (and relies on the same information as the ISAF did for its accounts of very old attacks). Both compile worldwide attack reports from a variety of sources. As of the research I was doing in 2016, both also published “confirmed” accounts that seemed sketchy. A disappearance while swimming might end up being called a shark attack because a shark caught in the area had human remains in its stomach. To some that’s proof, to others a case of scavenging.
Today, the SharkAttackData.com site has cleaned up the more dubious claims, the most entertaining of which, dating back to 1889, involved a balloonist, Joseph Lawrence, who ascended to honor the birthday of King Kalākaua. Blown offshore, he perished.Thanks to a single matter-of-fact sentence in a contemporary newspaper account, for years sharks got credit for his death, which was already spectacular enough. The attack is now not to be found on the SharkAttackData.com listing.
But it’s possible that some other shark attacks have gone unreported. In 2015, for instance, a teenage girl (and my family member) swimming in the Tongg’s channel in front of a Gold Coast condominium was bitten by what she was sure was a small shark. But when she went to the ER, the attendant making a report of the cause would not write down “shark attack.” Although the law mandates reporting dog bites and domestic and child abuse injuries, sharks are apparently off the hook. (Perhaps if she’d said “dogfish?”)
In the end, data is only as good as its source. But for that to remain true, the sources must remain unpolluted by considerations, economic or otherwise.