Details of attack point to tiger shark

The Honolulu Advertiser
Thursday, April 8, 2004

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau

Tiger sharks are blamed for most attacks on humans in Hawaiian waters, and yesterday's fatal attack seemed characteristic of those vicious encounters.

An attack near dawn.

Murky water.

Near a drainage channel.

A single, horrific lunge. A vicious, slashing bite.

And then nothing.

"There's only a few types of shark that could do that kind of damage, and there's a lot of tigers around," said Randy Honebrink, spokes-man for the state Shark Task Force.

But officials did not know for certain yesterday whether it was a tiger shark the same species suspected in the attack that cost Kaua'i surfer Bethany Hamilton her left arm. She suffered a single bite Oct. 31 at 7:30 a.m., not far from a stream mouth, although in clear water.

If the shark off Kahana, Maui, was a tiger, any attempt to catch or identify it will probably fail, said Kahu Charles Maxwell of Maui, a Hawaiian elder and member of the Shark Task Force.

"Tagging studies indicate that in an hour or two, it will be five miles down the coast, and in a day it can be on another island," Maxwell said.

Honebrink said he hopes a shark hunt does not become an issue.

"It just doesn't make sense. There is absolutely no reason to do that. You would be making things worse and be upsetting the balance of the ecosystem," he said.

Maxwell said humans must recognize that the ocean is a dangerous place.

"It's not a bathtub. There are things out there that can harm you. For surfers at this time of year, they put themselves at risk. But they don't pay attention to that. They only care about the waves," Maxwell said.

There frequently is little notice of a shark attack. Victims often never see, or only glimpse their attackers.

"A single bite. That's fairly typical of the way a tiger shark attacks. Bite, and then back off to let the prey bleed to death so they (the sharks) don't get injured," said Alan Everson, a fishery biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

But for all the publicity shark attacks get, there is no evidence that their number is increasing, even though there are many humans and a lot of sharks in the same water.

"The trend goes up and down. There have been years when there have been several attacks and years with just a couple," Everson said. "There are more people in the water, so the odds of an incident would seem to be higher, but there really hasn't been a trend."

Worldwide, according to a University of Florida study, the number of shark attacks on humans has dropped for three consecutive years. And Hawai'i continues to trail Florida as the state with the most shark attacks. Florida had 14 in 2003, compared with Hawai'i's four.

"We're averaging three or four a year," Honebrink said.

State and county officials in Hawai'i regularly post warning signs on nearby coastal areas for at least 24 hours after a shark attack, but only the Olowalu area of Maui, the site of multiple shark bites, has permanently posted signs warning of the danger.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 The Honolulu Advertiser, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.


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