Expert suspects tiger shark took 'investigatory bite'

The Maui News
Wednesday, March 01, 2006


MAKENA – A Hawaii shark researcher said Tuesday a shark that took a bite out of a swimmer's leg on Monday at Makena Beach likely was a tiger shark trying to determine if the teenager was something to eat. The fact that it left after the initial bite suggests that she was not, said Nick Whitney, a specialist with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island on Oahu.

The coastline from Makena Landing south to the Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve remained closed to the public Tuesday as a result of the attack just off Oneloa Beach on 15-year-old Nicolette "Nikky" Raleigh of Kihei.

The beach closure is standard procedure for shark incidents in island waters, said Randy Awo, Maui Branch chief of enforcement for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. He said the state automatically closes the beach a mile in each direction from any area where a shark incident occurs until at least noon the following day.

After the teen was bitten on her right calf in the attack about 4:40 p.m. Monday, Awo said the beach was evacuated, which took awhile given the size of the area.

"This is a busy place," he said. "The attack occurred in very shallow water. We want to exercise the proper amount of caution."

A roadblock kept all nonessential vehicles from going beyond the first entrance to the Makena State Beach Park, effectively shutting down the entire coast south of Makena.

"Part of it was logistics, and conserving manpower," said Awo. "Part of it was to cover an area that is heavily used."

Monday's attack occurred in about 2 feet of water off the popular beach. Whitney said all the reports about the attack indicate it was a tiger shark. Witnesses, including the victim, described the shark as about 8 feet long and gray.

"It's not surprising that the witnesses didn't see the typical tiger markings," Whitney said. "The markings would be easy to miss given how quickly the incident happened, and the fact that it took place late in the afternoon on a cloudy day would make it even harder to see the markings."

Whitney said it is unusual for an attack in such shallow water, since most sharks would hit bottom and risk being beached.

"But the swell may have played a role," he said.

The ocean bottom at Oneloa, commonly known as Big Beach, also may be a factor, since it drops off to 20 feet just a few yards from where the shore break hits the beach.

Witness descriptions were not consistent with black tipped reef sharks, or gray reef sharks, Whitney said.

"For any of these sharks to bite a person would be very rare.

"The area also has a lot of white tip reef sharks, Whitney said. "But these are very docile, and usually aren't interested in people."

Whitney, who's studied sharks for more than eight years, including in waters off Makena, said the girl's fairly large wound – about 10 inches across – is also consistent with a tiger.

"Whether the shark was 6 feet or 10 feet, it was certainly big enough to do much more damage if it wanted to," Whitney said.

"The fact that it did not is consistent with the idea that this was an investigatory bite, and the shark left the area presumably after realizing that this was not a normal prey item."

Awo said the beach could reopen this morning, after a site inspection at dawn by DLNR officers.

"If nothing happens, it will reopen around 7. We want to be sure to do a proper assessment."

That includes an aerial inspection by the Maui Fire Department's Air One helicopter, which was flying over the area Tuesday.

"We're looking for what may have attracted the shark to the area," explained Russell Sparks, an aquatics specialist with the DLNR's Division of Aquatics Resources.

Likely culprits might be things like injured whales, or a "large school of akule," Sparks said. Because of that, he said, "it's helpful to make sure the beach stays clear."

Sparks said later that after a couple of good passes by Air One, "as of now, we have not seen anything of concern."

Native Hawaiian cultural expert Charles K. Maxwell Sr. reminded beachgoers that caution must always be exercised, and ocean conditions observed. Maxwell said he had been told a riptide was developing off Makena.

"The bottom was becoming all stirred up. That's one of the things people got to watch out for," he said. "The water is not a swimming pool."

The shark, Maxwell said, "is attracted to many, many things. . . . Urine could be an attractant."

He also said ancient Hawaiians would never venture into the water under certain conditions – like stormy, muddy water – or early in the evening.

Maxwell, who sits on the state's Shark Task Force, said every family in Hawaii has an aumakua, or deity that watches over it. His family's happens to be the shark.

"If this is Hawaii, and our culture is still alive, be respectful to the cultural sensitivities.

"The shark's duty is to keep the ocean clean," Maxwell added.

Monday's incident and subsequent beach closures didn't keep beachgoers out of the water farther up the South Maui coast.

"We know sharks swim 100 miles a day," said Kihei resident Dan Brandt, who was in the water at Poolenalena Park in Makena. The shark involved "wasn't here anymore."

Besides, Brandt said, "it's a big ocean."

His girlfriend, Kamarae Baker, also of Kihei, was a little more cautious, even though she did get in the water.

"I haven't been to the beach in three months," she said.

Some were even a little more cautious.

"I'll go into the water up to my ankles," said Michael McKim, who with his friend, Douglas McCloud, originally tried to go to Little Beach, but was turned away at the roadblock.

McCloud, visiting with McKim from Toronto, decided on the safest route.

"I won't go in," he said.

Whitney stressed that shark attacks are still extremely rare.

"Considering how many people we have in the water, statistically, it's just a total fluke" he said.

Theories that increasing turtle populations have a hand in shark attacks is purely "anecdotal."

"The turtle population is up astronomically," Whitney said. That would suggest rapidly rising shark attacks, which isn't happening.

"It's just a freak occurrence in the first place. It's bizarre."

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