Sharks are actually a sign of a healthy ecosystem, so I wish there were more sharks here in Hawaii.
At Top Shot Spearfishing, we see sharks on maybe one in 30 dives, so contrary to what Jaws and Shark Week might have you believe, the waters around Hawaii aren’t exactly infested with sharks.
Most shark bites that involve humans happen in murky water, low visibility situations such as river mouths, surf breaks and storm runoff. Often someone is splashing around on the surface, completely unaware of what’s beneath them in the ocean. Of the 752 shark attacks recorded worldwide between 2010-2019, 544 were considered surface recreationists, such as surfers, body boarders or someone on a floating device.
The shark most likely swims around under the clumsy object that’s splashing on the surface, wondering “What is this strange thing?” Sharks don’t have arms or opposable thumbs to investigate the world around them, so the next best thing in their mind is to take a bite, or what’s commonly called a “hit and run,” or investigatory, bite. Obviously this doesn’t work out well for the person they’re investigating, but usually a shark will determine that the human is woefully low on fat content, and therefore not on his or her preferred menu, and let go of said human.
Only 24 attacks worldwide in the last 10 years were divers who were in the water with a mask on and able to see their surroundings.
When we’re in the water with a mask and snorkel, we are completely aware of our surroundings. We can see the shark, and the shark can see us. We’re able to see the shark’s movements and react accordingly. And conversely, the shark can see our reactions and determine that we are, in fact, not on its menu.
Sharks often exhibit body language that’s associated with specific behaviors. Swimming faster, arching their body and pointing their pectoral fins down, typically means the shark is agitated or displaying aggressive behaviors. When we’re in the water and can see these signs, we are able to make decisions to either carefully leave the area or stand our ground and fend off the shark. However, if a shark shows up and is simply curious, isn’t swimming with an increased speed or displaying aggressive body language, that’s when we simply enjoy the presence of an often misunderstood animal. This doesn’t mean sharks can’t change their behaviors quickly, so we always want to keep a close eye on them when they are present.
Often, perhaps ironically, we’ll opt for the latter—defending our catch by extending the speargun and allowing the shark to bump into the tip with its own force. A shark’s nose area has small, fluid filled sensory organs called ampullae of Lorenzini. These small sensory organs allow the shark to detect movement via electrical impulses that we and other animals create. The nose area of sharks are very sensitive, and a slight poke with the tip of the speargun is often all it takes to encourage a curious shark to leave the area.
Defend our catch against sharks you say? Indeed! If we allow a shark to snatch our catch off the dive float, we’re essentially yielding to them as a superior on the food chain. This “teaches” the shark association between divers, and perhaps the sound of a speargun firing, and fish floating on our dive float, with a free or easy lunch.
The last thing we want to do is train sharks to come swimming when they sense a speargun firing off.
All said, it’s still not often that we see any species of sharks when we’re diving from the shoreline in Hawaii. If we do encounter a shark, it’s most likely a white tip reef shark, which is a smaller species and quite docile. Mostly they’re just napping under a ledge or in a cave during the daytime.
The sharks that make the news are often tiger sharks, one of the largest species found in Hawaiian waters. In thousands of dives over many years here in Hawaii, I’ve seen about a dozen or so tiger sharks.
Often all it takes to encourage them to leave is a confident posture and slightly dominant approach to their curiosity. Maintaining eye contact, facing the shark, and even moving toward the shark in a dominant fashion will often result in even a 12-foot tiger shark shying away, not to be seen again, which can make for a slightly on-edge feeling for the remainder of the dive!
See you in the water, where we always see something cool and amazing, sometimes even sharks.