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Maui the clear hotspot for shark attacks

Published On: Nov 01 2013 06:27:00 PM HST

The number of shark attacks this year in Hawaiian waters is startling, but if you go back a few years, a clear pattern emerges: Maui is the unquestionable hotspot.

Kahului, Hawaii -

It's mankind's primordial fear ... what lurks beneath the ocean?

On Thursday, those fears surfaced yet again off Maui when a visiting kite surfer was bitten in the calf by a shark off Kanaha Beach Park in Kahului. It's the fifth Valley Isle shark attack this year, a head-scratcher for longtime Maui lifeguard Archie Kalepa, who's now retired.

"There are a lot of unknowns right now to come up with any logical explanation or answer to why Maui has seen this much activity," Kalepa said by phone from Lahaina.

In 2012, there were 11 shark attacks in Hawaiian waters, the same number of attacks so far this year. In 2011, 2010 and 2009, there were only three shark attacks each year statewide.

But, it's when you look island-by-island during that same five-year span that the spotlight on Maui becomes clear. A total of 15 attacks off the Valley Isle since 2009 compared to seven off the Big Island, five off Kauai, three off Oahu and one off Lanai. In August, 20-year-old Jana Lutteropp of Germany died after a tiger shark severed her arm as she snorkeled off Palauea Beach in Makena.

"You know I just find it really, really odd that Maui has those kinds of numbers compared to other places in the state," said Kalepa.

There are many guesses as to why sharks and humans are crossing paths more often, especially in Maui waters. Some have guessed it's the amount of perennial rivers and streams on each island. However Maui has 88 such waterways, while the Big Island has 130, Kauai 57 and Oahu 63.

Others blame the increase in shark attacks to the explosion in the sea turtle population, although there's no scientific proof to back that up. Sea turtles are among the favorite food of tiger sharks, and surfers sitting on their boards may resemble a turtle floating on the surface.         

"We've got to start thinking outside of the box, not only studying shark behaviors (and) activity, but I think we need to study other sea creatures like turtles," said Kalepa. "(Find out) what's going on, what's really, really going on."

A more plausible explanation for the surge in shark attacks could be the sheer number of people entering the ocean in Hawaii. From surfers to stand-up paddlers to swimmers and snorkelers, all are eager to enter the ocean because of the state's warm weather and turquoise water.

"There's definitely been well over a 100 percent increase in the last 50 years of the kind of activities (in the ocean)," said Kalepa. "You know back in the day it was just free-diving, and that was it."

Since 2009, 16 surfers been attacked by sharks in Hawaii. That's followed by five snorkelers, five swimmers, two spear fishermen and one standup paddler. Thursday's attack off Maui was the first on a kite surfer in Hawaii since at least 2001.

Thursday's attack didn't stop dozens of kite surfers from reentering the ocean at Kana'ha Beach Park Friday. The beach was reopened at noon after state and county crews monitored the area from shore, by watercraft and from the air.

Meanwhile, University of Hawaii researchers have been tagging tiger sharks to map their migratory patterns, and soon, the movement of tagged tiger sharks off Maui will be made public. However, the tracking is for informational purposes only, not some sort of warning system.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources also has a two-year study underway to try and identify factors in shark attacks and possible management strategies.

A 1996 study of the stomach contents by the Environmental Biology of Fishers showed that tiger sharks in Hawaiian waters tend to eat larger prey once they grow to 7.5 feet in length. The study said larger tiger sharks feed near the ocean bottom at night and at the surface during the day, while smaller tiger sharks appear to be primarily nocturnal, bottom feeders. 

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