Great white sharks are no strangers to Hawaii

Honolulu Star Advertiser - January 19, 2019
Timothy Hurley

With the recent viral video of a massive great white shark off the South Shore of Oahu, it may be valuable to note that such sharks are routinely present in Hawaii waters and might visit here at any time of the year.

Carl Meyer, shark researcher with the University of Hawaii’s Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, said scientists don’t know why these apex predators make their way to the islands.

“Some individuals may perhaps be exploiting seasonal (winter) abundance of humpback whales, but white sharks also visit our waters during summer when humpback whales are absent,” Meyer said.

The video of tour guide and naturalist Ocean Ramsey swimming with a huge great white she described as Deep Blue exploded across the internet, appearing in social media and on media sites around the world, including the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

The sharks are feeding off a sperm whale carcass that was first spotted more than a week ago.

State officials towed the carcass 15 miles into open ocean Jan. 12 from the rocks at Sand Island State Recreation Area. Over the past few days, southerly currents brought the carcass closer to land, and it was reportedly resting on a reef off of Oahu’s South Shore.

Research biologist Nicole Nasby Lucas of the California-based Marine Conservation Science Institute said three large great whites, including Deep Blue, are swimming in the area, according to divers and researchers.
In addition, satellite tracking indicates another large great white shark is approaching the islands.

Nasby Lucas said a 15-foot shark, named Murphy Jean, was tagged in November off Southern California and immediately swam off toward Hawaii.

The Marine Conservation Science Institute is a small nonprofit that studies great white sharks off California and Guadalupe Island.

Nasby Lucas, who maintains the organization’s photo identification project, said Deep Blue was first photographed at Guadalupe in 1999 and re-identified there in 2013.
“She was already big in 1999,” she said.

Nasby Lucas said the shark seen in Ramsey’s video is not Deep Blue, but a previously unidentified shark that was named Haole Girl.

Nasby Lucas said Hawaii divers Kimberly Jeffries and Mark Mohler spotted Deep Blue and the two other large sharks earlier in the week and relayed the video evidence.

Nasby Lucas and colleague Michael Domeier said they don’t recommend swimming with or touching these creatures.

“It’s a great white shark,” she said. “It may be calm now but it can turn on you.”

There have been reports of crowds swimming in the vicinity of the carcass following the viral video. One man was even seen standing on top of the sperm whale.

State officials are warning the public to stay away from the carcass area due to the sharks.

“These are very dangerous animals,” Domeier posted on Facebook. “Yes, in this case they were very satiated and unlikely to bite … but the average person should not be hopping in the water with them. Would you go on a safari and ride the lions?”

Meyer said white sharks have been fingered in at least two Hawaii shark bite incidents, the most recent being at Makaha in March 1969.

Licius Lee, 16, was bitten on the leg while surfing, according to records, and the attacker was identified as a great white shark based on teeth marks in the surfboard. A dead whale had been recently removed from the area.

Domeier, president and executive director of MarineCSI, said it appears all of the great whites seen near the whale carcass in the last week were females, and there’s a 50-50 chance each one was pregnant.

These sharks, he said, spend most of their gestation in the deep offshore waters between the mainland and Hawaii, where food is scarce. An encounter with a dead sperm whale, he said, could represent a majority of their caloric intake for the season.

Meanwhile two state lawmakers have introduced a measure that will offer greater protections to Hawaii’s sharks and rays.

The proposals by Sen. Mike Gabbard and Rep. Nicole Lowen make it a misdemeanor to capture, take, possess, abuse or entangle any shark or ray, whether alive or dead, or kill any shark or ray in state waters.

A news release Friday mentioned the sighting of Deep Blue as “a hopeful sign that this may be the year that Hawaii’s sharks and rays earn protection from intentional killing.”