One of the regular questions I receive from visitors to Hawai'i is this, "Are there sharks in the ocean?"
After almost 10 years of living here, I am still stumped as how to answer this question. It's not that I do not know the answer. As a SCUBA diver, I know the answer well, even up close and personal. My hesitation before answering the question more results from trying to gauge my questioner. Is my questioner just being hopeful? Or is my questioner that petrified of sharks that my answer will preclude them from getting in the water?
Of course, there are sharks in the ocean. In Hawai'i, grey reef sharks, Galapagos sharks, hammerhead sharks, whitetip reef sharks and tiger sharks all ply our waters. That's not to say you will ever see them. But you may.
Next week, Discovery Channels' perennial favorite "Shark Week" begins. If the above PSA is any indication of the focus this year's program will take, the next person to ask me, "Are there sharks in the ocean," may really be concerned that there aren't. We should all be concerned that there are fewer sharks in our oceans.
During my 10 years of living, swimming, paddling, snorkeling and diving in Hawai'i, I have seen many reef sharks. I have not come face to face with a tiger--except at Maui Ocean Center. Although I am told that one time when I was paddling a canoe from the island of Moloka'i to O'ahu that a large tiger shark circled our boat....
The shark fear frenzy that occupies many people's minds elsewhere in the world is not so prevalent here in Hawai'i. That may be because of the Hawaiian culture; Hawaiian people have a long and storied history with sharks. What follows is an article that I wrote numerous years ago about it for Hawai'i Magazine.
A Shark's Tale
published by Hawaii magazine
See that shark! He's a big one! What do you suppose he wants?"
— told by Mary Kawena Pukui
Hawaii Island Legends: Pikoi, Pele and
Others (Kamehameha Schools Press, 1996)
Those could have been my very words if it wasn't for the scuba regulator in my mouth. Only there wasn't just one shark; there were 19.
As the men paddled toward the Kona coast they watched the great shark following their canoe. "What do you want, old shark?" one asked at last. "Do you know that we carry paiai [taro] to Kona to our relatives? Do you eat poi, O shark? Here then!" and the man threw a small bundle toward the shark.
In the back of my mind, I remembered my dive master, Jeff Hedlund, saying that the six-foot juvenile tiger shark circling above my head had eaten three whole fish the day before and that usually satisfied her for a few days. Three fish didn't seem like much for a tiger shark, but I didn't let that thought fully develop.
The great fish did not catch and swallow the food but pushed it with his nose toward shore. "That is a strange thing," a man named Aukai said. "Whoever saw a shark pushing food through the waves as that one did? Where is he taking it?"
Apparently, Hedlund — a lanky lad who a shark would never mistake for a tasty, fat seal — wasn't lying; when I dove into the 750,000-gallon aquarium at the Maui Ocean Center to swim with the sharks, I was completely ignored. Ignored by the five-foot white-tip shark; the eight sandbar sharks, which were up to seven feet in length; the five gray reef sharks; four smallish black-tip reef sharks of the four-to five-foot variety; and the aforementioned tiger shark, the most feared shark in all of Hawaii. They just kept circling.
Instead, a spotted eagle ray swam up to me and demanded that I pet her belly. Part of me felt like I was still in the 54-foot acrylic tunnel that bisects the aquarium, which I had toured before becoming a part of the exhibit. It's nice and safe in there, like watching an IMAX film. It wasn't until I was back on land peeling off my wetsuit that I realized I'd forgotten something on my dive: fear.
The next week these men again paddled from Kohala to Kona with paiai, the dry, pounded kalo from which poi is made. Again the shark followed and again swam toward the shore pushing before him the small ; bundle thrown to him. This happened many times.
Then one day Aukai said, "I mean to find out about that shark. You paddle toward Kona with the food and throw a bundle to the shark as you always do. I shall follow in a small canoe and see if I can learn what the shark does with the bundle."
ANCESTORS AMONG US
When the first Polynesians arrived in double-hulled canoes on the shores of Hawaii, it's said that a huge shark led them. That may explain the unique relationship that Hawaiians have with sharks and the preponderance of shark legend and lore.
The ancient Hawaiian attitude toward sharks and all nature can be summed up in one word: respect. It might derive from a concept of "ancestral gods" known as aumakua. Along with sharks, io (hawks), honu (turtles), eels, mice and rats, caterpillars, pueo (owls), kohala (whales), other birds and even rocks and clouds, are aumakua.
Aukai saw the men throw the bundle of food and watched the shark swim with it to a Kona beach. Then a strange thing happened, Aukai saw an old man come down the beach, leaning on a stick. Aukai watched as the old man picked up the bundle.
Two years ago, after 13-year-old surfer Bethany Hamilton lost her arm to a shark attack off the shores of Kauai, a large tiger shark haunted a popular, nearby surf spot prompting two local fishermen to hunt and kill it. Responses appeared immediately on the editorial pages of the local newspaper, one from a Hawaiian woman who was concerned that someone's aumakua had been killed.
In the close-knit ohana (family) system of Hawaii, it is believed that the spirit of an ancestor inhabits many visible forms, animate and inanimate, thereby continuing a parental role after death. Aumakua are believed to guide, warn, protect and help feed their living family. It's a concept that fosters a great respect for all of nature because all of nature could be aumakua.
Very curious, the Kohala man, Aukai, beached his canoe. He came to the house the old man had entered. "O, friend," he called, "here is a thirsty one. Can you give me a drink?"
The old man hobbled to the door. "Come in, drink and eat. Our water is a bit brackish, but it will cure your thirst." He brought a gourd of water. Then brought fish and poi. "Eat," he repeated.
Aukai looked about the little place and noticed that only the man and his wife lived there. Still he wondered "This food tastes good to a hungry traveler," he said. "Thank you, old man. But I wonder at the poi. Can one so old as you work in the taro patch?"
"Alas no," the old -man answered. "And we have no relative m this village to bring food. But in the bay we have, a friend. A good shark brings us fish. Of late, he brings poi, too. Every few days he comes with a bundle of paiai for us. I pound it with fresh water and make the good poi, which you taste."
"Where does the shark get the paiai?" Aukai asked, wondering whether the man knew.
The old man answered simply, "The gods provide."
Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell is a kupuna (elder) of Hawaiian descent and the cultural adviser of the Maui Ocean Center. He's a big man. He wears a necklace made of sperm whale teeth carved into the shape of two arms coming together like a big hug, and a big hug is what he gives me when we meet. He says his family aumakua is the shark, and he endorses the dive program at the center because it gives people a better respect for the shark. Uncle Charlie, as he invites me to call him, says when Capt. James Cook visited the islands in 1778, he noticed that the seas were abundant with fish, the land was cultivated from mountaintop to ocean's edge and the streams were clear as crystal. Cook noted Hawaiians to be the world's greatest ecologists.
They had to be; their lives depended on it. Isolated in the middle of a watery world thousands of miles from their nearest neighbors, ancient Hawaiians were dependent upon themselves for everything: food, drinking water and even clothing. There weren't barges arriving to drop off fresh produce and haul away the islands' trash. Airplanes didn't fly in clothes ordered from manufacturer's website.
If Hawaiians had polluted the islands' streams, they wouldn't have had drinking water. According to signage at the Maui Ocean Center, a kapu (sacred) system of management outlawed fishing for aku (skipjack) and opelu (mackerel scad) during their spawning seasons to ensure food sources were not overfished for future generations.
Aukai paddled back to his Kohala village and told what he had seen and heard. The people were full of wonder and sympathy. "The poor old folks," they said. And, "What a wise shark!
After this he shall have a big bundle of food each week."
And so he did. For many months the shark was given a big bundle of paiai whenever they went to Kona, and the bundle was dropped for him close to the beach where the old couple lived.
Then one day the shark did not come. The next week, still, he was not seen. "I shall take the food, "Aukai said, and paddled straight to the old man's village. He found the little home empty. Aukai went to a neighbor. "I have come to see the old man who used to live in that house."
"He is dead," the neighbor answered, "and his wife has gone to relatives in another village." Aukai paddled back to Kohala and told his friends. "The shark's work is done," he said. The shark was never seen again.
The long-held motto of the state of Hawaii is "Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i kapono" (The life of the land is perpetuated in rightousness.) Thankfully, that spirit still exists in Hawaii today.
Uncle Charlie's teachings must be rubbing off on me. He says education creates respect. After my shark dive at the Maui Ocean Center, I think I must have nitrogen narcosis, which is also known as "rapture of the deep." (This condition is related to breathing pressurized air at deep depths — even though my dive was only 20 feet deep — and causes temporary mental impairment.) I'm so captivated by the sharks that after I shower and change back into my clothes, I return to the exhibits 54-foot acrylic tunnel and sit for a few hours to watch them.