Understanding the ocean from the Hawaiian perspective

The Maui News
Friday, March 17, 2006


A March 13 letter about culling turtles and sharks is typical of a society that wants to kill everything around us that might cause us harm.

As the kanaka maoli member of the State Shark Task Force since 1991, I heard "kill all the sharks" after a fatal shark attack at Olowalu. I was completely against it and said at that time, "If the responsible shark is found that caused the attack, then hunt it down right away, with the proper prayers it could be killed and the skin be donated to a hula halau."

The other members of the Shark Task Force did not agree and promoted the killing of big tiger sharks by "great white hunters." I was completely upset and at a news conference held outside of the Shark Task Force meeting, I resigned. The story made national news.

I did not say it was all right to kill a shark if prayers were offered. Years later, I was asked to come back on the State Shark Task Force, which I did.

Jean Michel Cousteau, the French oceanic explorer came to Maui after Marti Morrell was attacked by a shark in Olowalu. Cousteau addressed members of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which was conducting shark hunts, and stated that whenever a large tiger shark is removed from the ocean, many smaller sharks with "many small bites" take its place.

If nature's balance is interrupted by removing large sharks, the entire food chain is affected. The tiger, being the top predator of the ocean, has evolved to eliminate the dead, dying and injured in the ocean, preventing it from being a cesspool.

A very interesting study was conducted by a member of the shark task force. Tim Holland, working from Oahu's Coconut Island, spent nine years tagging tiger sharks. He found that if a shark caused an attack, hours later it could be miles away. It could travel to the next island in a day. This proves that sharks, tigers at least, are not territorial and will not hang around after an attack.

In some cases, human victims are cases of mistaken identity. The splashing sound that people make in the water simulates a creature in distress, attracting the shark. After the first bite, the shark backs away, realizing it might not be prey or follows a normal habit of coming back back to check if the "prey" is dead. That explains why so many shark attacks are not fatal.

As for setting physical boundaries for any animal population that has grown too large, should this apply to humans because of our overpopulation? The ocean is not the natural element of humans; if it were, we would have been born with gills. Should man try to regulate the planet to suit his existence? That's outrageous, because man is only one species among many on this planet.

Living in Hawaii, we must think "island." We are surrounded by an ocean filled with creatures that have survived for millions of years, much longer than mankind. We must be aware of the ocean with its undertow, riptides, corals, poison shells, jellyfish and thousands of things that can harm humans.

If you worry about your grandkids, then the answer is simply teaching them now how to respect the ocean and make them realize at a young age that the ocean is not a bathtub. There are people at this moment who are 200 yards out in the ocean, no matter what the conditions are. The main thing is that they have to get their daily swim. They are an "accident" waiting to happen.

The following might be some life-saving points to remember when entering the ocean:

  • Never go into the ocean if the water is murky and you are not familiar with the currents.
  • Hawaiians teach children never to urinate in the ocean because sharks are attracted to urea and blood, of course. No matter what, women should never go into the ocean while in their menstrual period. For Hawaiians, it is a cultural insult to do so.
  • Sharks can attack even in perfect conditions because they might be feeding on nearby prey or are pregnant and very irritable during this time.

In ancient times, Hawaiians would look for wiliwili trees are in bloom. That would indicate that the sharks are biting. The problem today is that the trees are gone, replaced by progress.

Twenty-seven years ago, the state restricted the taking of turtles big mistake. What they should have done was stop the commercial taking of turtles and allow the taking for home consumption by Native Hawaiians. Yes, there is an overpopulation of turtles that might be attracting the sharks. Turtles are their No. 2 choice of food. Seals are No. 1. Humans are not on their menu, if it were there would be numerous attacks every day throughout Hawaii with the thousands of people in the water daily.

The question was asked, "What are the criteria for being an aumakua? If you have to ask that question, then you are not qualified to hear the answer.

All that said, enjoy the ocean, but be maka'ala (watchful).

Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. is a cultural adviser, kahu and the kanaka maoli member of the state Shark Task Force. He lives in Pukalani.

Copyright © 2005 The Maui News.

Original article URL: http://www.mauinews.com/story.aspx?id=17882

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