By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Islands Editor
Four shark-related incidents in two months off the same South Maui coastline have some people wondering if it's safe to go into the water.
Shark experts say that while shark attacks sometimes occur in clusters, they remain largely random events, occurring off Hawai'i's windward and leeward coasts, in murky water and clear, in all seasons of the year.
Just three days after the gruesome discovery of a diver's shark-eaten remains at the "Five Graves" diving spot off Makena, 15-year-old Nicolette "Nikky" Raleigh was bitten on the lower right leg Monday while standing in 1 to 2 feet of water at Makena State Park.
On Feb. 1, a kayaker reported being bumped by a large shark, possibly a great white, about a mile off the same beach. Four miles north of Makena on Dec. 21, a San Diego man lost part of his left hand when he was bitten by a shark while swimming several hundred yards off Keawakapu Beach in Kihei.
"Obviously, people are going to want to question how two or three incidents can happen so closely together, but I don't see a connection," said Randy Honebrink of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources. Honebrink is a member of the state Shark Task Force, established after a fatal attack off Olowalu, Maui, in 1991 but now largely inactive.
Honebrink recalled two shark attacks in 1999 that happened less than two months apart off the Kona Coast of the Big Island. In 1994, there were three attacks off Kaua'i within six weeks.
"It's not like this sort of thing doesn't happen very often," he said.
THREE WORST MONTHS
Although shark bites have been reported year-round, statistics from the Division of Aquatic Resources indicate an increased risk during the months of October through December. This could be because rainy weather washes dead pigs, freshwater fish and other debris into the ocean, attracting scavenging tiger sharks to areas also frequented by surfers.
High winter surf also stirs up the ocean bottom, creating the kind of murky conditions that can lead sharks to mistake humans for their usual prey of seals and sea turtles.
"Early Hawaiians recognized this and cautioned against going in the water at that time," according to the Division of Aquatic Resources Web site.
"Hawaiians knew that if the ocean is rough, sharks are there. They surface a lot in murky water," said kahu Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. of the State Shark Task Force and a Hawaiian cultural adviser to the Maui Ocean Center aquarium.
Maxwell said there also were kapu, such as women entering the ocean during their menses.
"Hawaiians never stopped going into the ocean. Sharks are an intricate part of nature to the Hawaiians. They accepted it. It never stopped them from fishing," he said.
The late months also are when humpback whales return to Hawaiian waters from their summer feeding grounds in Alaska. Honebrink said there is some thought that great white sharks appear in Hawai'i the same time as the whales, perhaps to feast on placentas from whale births.
In the case of Monday's attack of a teenager frolicking in shallow water at Makena, Honebrink suspects one of three or four species of reef shark, such as a black-tip or a female sandbar shark.
"This sounds more along the lines of what happens along the Atlantic coast of Florida, where a shark is chasing something like a small baitfish and the fish hide behind a swimmer's legs," he said.
TIGERS BITE THE MOST
Shark researcher George Burgess agrees. He manages the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
"Most attacks in Hawai'i are the result of tiger sharks in deeper water on top of the reef at the surf break, or with swimmers in open water. If this had been a larger tiger shark, the consequences would have been a whole lot more severe."
Most shark attacks on the East Coast are "hit-and-run" affairs, Burgess said. The shark grabs the victim Ñ frequently a surfer in the surf zone Ñ quickly lets go and swims off. He said this is common behavior for smaller species such as the black-tip shark.
"Normally the sharks are going after smaller fish in the surf zone where there's high turbidity of water and the large physical forces of undertows and breaking waves," Burgess said. "The sharks make a quick decision in going after what they are interpreting as being normal prey items.
"The splashing of human appendages, and legs especially, approximates the activity of a school of fish. They go after what they think are moving fish in the water, and often the shark is just as surprised as the human, and it lets go and doesn't come back, realizing its mistake."
Burgess predicts more and more shark-human encounters as tourism in coastal states continues to expand.
Reach Christie Wilson at email@example.com.
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