By all the news accounts I’ve read, Margaret C. Cruse loved being in the water. Originally from California but a Maui resident for the last dozen years, Cruse, 65, was snorkeling off Ahini Kinau Bay in South Maui on the morning of Apr. 29 when a shark bit her. According to a Reuters story published the next day, her brother said Cruse sustained wounds on her torso, face and arm, which was nearly severed. According to the Maui Police Department’s official press release on the incident, “other beach goers” found Cruse floating in the water and brought her to shore, where emergency personnel failed to revive her.
Shark bite stories like this still strike a nerve with the Mainland public (hence the fact that a big-time news organization like Reuters covered it) but out here on Maui, it’s become all too common. While it’s certainly true that the odds of a person getting bitten–much less killed–by a shark remain in the get-struck-by-lightning range, it’s also true that the words “Maui” and “shark bite” seem to be appearing together often in sentences.
We can see exactly how often thanks to data provided by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). Their Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) has posted a special sharks webpage (Dlnr.hawaii.gov/sharks) that includes a detailed database of shark incidents dating back to 1995.
Using this data, we’ve built a few infographics to illustrate sharks’ affinity for Maui. First, that for sharks, Maui is indeed the most popular of all the Hawaiian islands (Figure 1). Second, that around the island, South Maui seems most popular to sharks (Figure 2). And third, that surfing remains the most likely activity that people are engaging in during an incident with a shark (Figure 3).
Why the data shows all this is still a mystery. “That’s a good question,” DLNR spokesperson Deborah Ward told me when I asked why the data seemed to show a disproportionate number of incidents around Maui. “Researchers are still studying it. A pattern is noticeable, but the cause is under investigation.” Though Ward said she’d have someone from the DLNR get back to me with insight into the question, she didn’t by press time.
Following two shark attack fatalities–both in Makena–in 2013 (as well as a series of shark encounters in 2012), the state Department of Land and Natural Resources hired University of Hawaii marine biologists Kim Holland and Carl Meyer to conduct a two-year study of tiger shark behavior around Maui. The biologists captured two dozen tiger sharks, then fitted them with tracking devices.
Though their work isn’t over yet, the state does operate a website that shows the locations of the tagged sharks. Indeed, if you go to the Hawaii Tiger Shark Tracking webpage (which is for research, not a real-time warning system), it seems that the biggest cluster of fins appears in the waters of Maui County.
“We are seeing a strong preference for coastal shelf habitats shallower than 600 ft,” said Meyer, who’s with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, in a Nov. 20, 2015 UH news release on the study. “Although these sharks also roam far out into the open-ocean, they are most frequently detected in the area between the coast and the 600 ft depth contour which is up to 10 miles offshore around Maui.”
But as far as what they’ve come up with since then, Holland and Meyer are tight-lipped–or at least, will be until their research project ends.
“My colleague Carl Meyer and I are currently conducting a study of tiger shark behavior on Maui and we are quite strenuously resisting any requests to interpret the results until the experimental phase is over and we have had a chance to analyze the complete data set,” said Holland in a May 6 email when I asked him why sharks seemed to love Maui so much. “Certainly, the high number of people in the water around Maui is one of the factors that could contribute to the frequency of shark/human encounters there. It would be interesting to discover if there are any reliable estimates of ‘person hours’ in the ocean around the different islands.”
Cover/infographic design: Darris Hurst