Hawaii’s Spiritual Connection to the Shark

In Hawaii, sharks have a significant importance for native people, whose traditions and cultural beliefs surround these majestic marine predators.

Sharks play an important role in art, legends, and even spiritual beliefs. Throughout Hawaiian folklore, stories, legends and myths feature sharks as deities and their interactions with humans. Sharks as individuals, and as symbols, are even revered by many native Hawaiians. Some species of sharks, like the Tiger shark, have a special status as ‘aumakua, or family guardians.

‘Aumākua are spiritual beings that take the form of animals or objects and may serve as messengers between humans and the gods. An ‘aumakua may manifest as a shark, owl, bird, octopus, or inanimate objects such as plants or lava rocks. Many Hawaiian’s believe the ‘aumākua are their ancestors, a manifestation of deceased family members who return in different forms. In this way, the ‘aumākua embodies the interconnectedness of humans between plants, animals, elements, and humans.  

According to Hawaiian scholar Parley Kanakaole, some Hawaiians have certain sharks, not all sharks, that they choose as their ‘aumakua. Kanakole explains it can it works both ways, where the shark can also choose a human as their ‘aumakua. For those who are living, they not only look at that particular animal as being sacred, but all of its species as being sacred. there are certain animals that our people look at being as ‘aumakua. Whether it be an owl, or a particular type of fish or shark, you know, and so we look at not only that one particular shark but all the species of shark as being sacred to that one family.

Hawaiian artist and cultural scholar Herb Kawainui Kane is quoted in an interview that ‘aumakua were invisible to the living, but able to possess or inhabit many visible forms, animate or inanimate. A rock or a small carved image set up in a family shrine within the home might serve as a resting place for ‘aumakua.

Kahu Manō  is our new film on Hawaii sharks, culture and traditional conservation. In the film we use the image Feeding the ‘Aumakua by Mr. Kane, reenacting one of the myths of a fisherman calling the shark.

According to Mr. Kane, an ‘ A u m a k u a could also take possession of living creatures. Unusual experiences with specific fish, birds, reptiles, insects or mammals may have led some Hawaiians to regard certain animals as forms favored by their ‘aumakua. Thus it was believed that ancestral spirits could make appearances to express parental concern for the living, bringing warnings of impending danger, comfort in times of stress or sorrow, or in other ways being helpful.

Kahu Mano Kane
Feeding the ‘Aumakua, by Herb K. Kane. Rights given for use in

In the film Kahu Manō, Hawaiian cultural leader Micah Kamohoali’i, whose name bears the traditional name of the shark deity- discusses the role of Manō (the shark) as his family ‘a u m a k u a and the significance of sharks to his family.   

Legend has it that the shark god Kamohoali’i, led his sister Pele (Goddess of the Volcano) on a voyaging canoe from the ancient homeland of Kavi’iki to Hawai’i. Hawaiian mythology states that Madam Pele’s spirit still resides in Halemaʻumaʻu crater on Kilauea today.

This spiritual connection to sharks have led Hawaiian fishermen away from killing sharks, and even manifested itself into the strongest shark protection in the world. Hawai’i was the first US State to ban the shark fin trade and enforce the unlawful trafficking of fins. Hawaii is also the only state to prohibit recreational and commercial shark fishing.

Sharks play an integral role in the marine ecosystem by regulating prey populations and helping maintain healthy coral reefs. Thanks to the Kahu Manō ,Hawaii has demonstrated leadership and sets the example for the rest of the world to protect sharks.


Pukui, Mary Kawena and E. W. Heartig. 1976. Nann I Ke Kumu (Look to the Source). The Queen Lili’uokalani Children’s Center, Hawai’i.
Hawaiians’ relationship with sharks, State of Hawaii Department Aquatic Resources, Interview with Parley Kanaka‘ole
“The ‘Aumakua — Hawaiian Ancestral Spirits”  Herb Kawainui Kane
Hawai`i Island Legends, Pikoi, Pele and Others, compiled by Mary Kawena Puku`i,
Beckwith, Martha Warren (October 12, 1917). “Hawaiian Shark Aumakua”. American Anthropologist. 19 (4): 503–517. doi:10.1525/aa.1917.19.4.02a00060ISSN 0002-7294.
‘Aumakua (Guardian Ancestors) in the Context of Contemporary Hawaiian Religious Beliefs Leonard James Barrow  https://evols.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/server/api/core/bitstreams/21bac485-df7e-41fc-bcc2-4e0b80addf08/content