Guardians of the Deep

By: Patrick Ching
Special to the Oahu Island News

Whenever we hear about shark attacks in Hawaii, we can’t help wondering, “Why?”

Having a special fondness for Hawaiian wildlife and having had experiences with sharks, I would like to share my mana’o (ideas) on this subject.

Growing up as a “surf rat” on Oahu I had many opportunities to share the waves with “the men in gray suits.” Their ominous silhouettes were regularly spotted gliding through breaking waves. Occasionally, they even swam right beneath us.

At certain spots, like Kewalo Basin where sharks are common, the regular surfers stayed in the water even when sharks were around, while newcomers would paddle frantically toward shore at the sight or even mention of a shark. Though I tried not to show it I was a bit unnerved by the thought that my legs dangling off my surfboard must look like juicy drumsticks under water.

Considering the numerous shark attacks where survivors were bitten just once or even “spit out”, I think sharks may not particularly like the taste of human flesh. I would say that humans are not a shark’s natural food, but I think anything in the ocean is fair game for the whims of a predacious fish.

When in the ocean I’m visiting the sharks’ house. I know and accept the risks. For me, Hawaiian waters are too good to stay out. Do I think shark attacks are on the rise? Is there something going on? I don’t know; compared to what? Are shark attacks supposed to happen on a regular schedule? From what I’ve learned about sharks I think that occasional shark attacks are rare but normal occurrences. I’m surprised more people don’t get bitten. As swimmers we have no idea of how often we are in the company of sharks because they see us long before we see them.

While working with the monk seal program on remote Hawaiian atolls, I felt a renewed appreciation of sharks. Fishing is restricted around these tiny islands and one can value the pristine ocean conditions and see how abundant sharks are in an ecosystem with minimal human impact. I’d often see sharks while bathing, washing my clothes or cleaning dishes there. If I encountered them while snorkeling I’d keep a leery eye on them. Once, while snorkeling, a six-foot gray reef shark began to circle me. My heart pounded as I pulled out my camera. I swam slowly toward the shore as their numbers increased from one, to five, to ten. Thinking that I was going to die, I started snapping pictures. I figured maybe someone would find my camera and see what happened to me. But then I started to pay attention to the beauty of the sharks. My heartbeat slowed and I even pushed some of them away with my hands as I finally walked out of the water. I was intact and in awe. Looking back I saw dozens of circling sharks, and enjoyed one of the greatest experiences of my life. I was hooked, and I have loved sharks ever since.

In mid-summer, large tiger sharks come close to the shore to eat fledgling albatrosses that landed in the water. I was fortunate to work with a national television crew filming the phenomenon – we boated up to the tigers, jumped in the water and filmed them as they tried to eat the bewildered birds.

Tiger sharks are as thick as cattle under water and usually move with the grace of a giant catfish. When they strike they can be extremely swift and powerful. At the moment of impact they cover their eyes with a protective membrane rendering them virtually blind. Because of this they often miss their target.

Many shark species inhabit Hawaiian waters. The Hawaiian word mano is a general term for shark. The white-tipped reef shark, known as mano lalakea, is common in shallow reef areas and is harmless to humans. The niuhi, however, were man-eating sharks. It is said that the eyes of the niuhi glowed in the dark.

Catching niuhi was a sport reserved for kings and favored persons.

Most literature suggests that the niuhi were great white sharks that rarely ply Hawaiian waters, though many believe that the term could also refer to the more common tiger or mako sharks.

The bodies of sharks were used in old Hawaii in several ways. The flesh was occasionally eaten, but only by those allowed to eat it. The skin was used as sandpaper or stretched over drums, and the teeth were made into cutting tools, weapons and decorative ornaments.

Sharks play a prominent role in Hawaiian culture. Many Hawaiian families revere sharks as their family guardians or aumakua. Such families are said to have mano kanaka relatives who were either born as sharks or who died and then were transformed into sharks. Mano Kanaka were distinct from ‘mano¯ ‘ia’ or edible sharks. Guardian sharks were cared for and petted by devoted relatives known as kahu. In return, the Mano Kanaka would protect their kahu and their family from ocean dangers.

Two Hawaiian proverbs referring to sharks are: He mano holo a ina ke ali‘i (The chief is a shark that travels on land) and an oath, Pau Pele, pau mano (I’ll die by fire or be eaten by a shark).