Shark Attacks Occuring Early in Hawai’i

“Pua ka wiliwili, nanahu ka manō”

“When the Wiliwili tree blooms, the shark bites.”Mary Kawena Pukui, Hawaiian Proverbs

This is a Hawaiian saying relating to the time in when the Wiliwili tree flowers bloom corresponds with an increased frequency of manō (sharks ) biting humans. Ancient Hawaiian’s proverbial observations and lore continue to ring true today. Most shark attacks occur in Hawaii in the months between September and November overlapping when mature tiger sharks migrate south from the NW Hawaiian islands.

However, the shark season is heating up early in 2024, with four incidents in Hawai’i by June. Although Maui has the notoriety of the most shark attacks in the Hawaiian Island chain, all incidents occurred on the island of Oahu thus far according to Hawaii’s Department of Aquatic Resources (DAR). At least two involved tiger sharks, one without injury, and one incident involving shark diving would be considered a provoked attack.*

On Sunday June 24, Tamayo Perry, a 49-year-old lifeguard, surfer and actor, was killed in a shark attack while surfing off Mālaekahana, (Sand island) on Oahu’s North Shore, shocking the local surfing community and people around the world. Perry, a highly respected waterman, was surfing alone off the small islet in reported turbid waters. The island, one of Perry’s favorite spots, is a protected fledging spot for seabirds and is a haul out for monk seals and sea turtles.

The three other events in 2024 have been non-fatal. The first event in 2024 occurred when a swimmer was bitten on the foot on Oʻahu’s, Ka‘a‘awa, Kualoa Beach in turbid waters, 5-10 feet from shore. The next occurred at the world famous (and crowded) Waikiki Beach when a surfer’s board was bitten on 4:55 pm March 3, 2024 at Old Mans around 350 yards from shore. The surfer reported the shark as a tiger shark, but was not harmed. The third incident involved shark diving near Haliewa, around 3 miles off the north shore of Oahu on June 6 at 1:40 pm. The victim was brought by boat to Haliewa harbor and treated for lacerations to he diver’s right thigh, forearm, and hand. Since shark attraction is involved in the north shore dive-tourism operations, this would be considered a provoked incident.

Tiger Shark, Kona Hawaii Picture David McGuire, Shark Stewards

 The Hawaiian people have a deep connection to the land and sea and the plants and animals they are surrounded by, with a rich oral history interpreting their relationship to nature. An increase in encounters with sharks in the main islands of Hawaii occur during fall months, coinciding with the period when the female tiger sharks migrate from the Papahānaumokuākea (northwestern islands) down to the main Hawaiian islands to give birth. During this migration and pupping period, female sharks have lower energy reserves and might become more aggressive. Increased rain during this time also leads to cloudy and muddy water with poor visibility, potentially increasing the sharks mistaking humans for their large prey.

Hawaii Shark Attack By Month

How to Avoid a Shark Attack

It is recommended avoiding swimming and surfing around any areas where freshwater streams meet the ocean, since the sediments lower visibility and can also carry food or scent that can attract sharks. Swimming or surfing with a group, like diving with a buddy, increases safety and chance of rescue. Small board or boogie boards where the arms and legs hang off may resemble a sea turtle, the tiger shark’s favorite prey. When spearfishing remove the fish from the water immediately to avoid attracting sharks and contain any fish blood. Avoid using fish blood or offal to attract sharks, and do not enter the water bleeding, or with fish blood or oils on your clothing or body. With tiger sharks, avoiding low light conditions, e.g .dawn and dusk, reduces risk of an encounter.

What is Your Risk?

The Hawaiian islands are ranked from records maintained by the International Shark Attack File by Florida’s Natural History Museum as number 3 in the USA for frequency of shark attacks. The island of Maui has the highest recorded encounters in the islands now at 71 since 1995, according to the Hawaii Department of Aquatic Resources (a division of Department of Land and Natural Resources). Surfing and Standup paddleboarding are the highest risk sport associated with unprovoked shark encounters in Hawaii, followed by snorkeling and swimming. Spearfishing and SCUBA are far lower risk, although there have been several bites associated with feeding sharks for tourism off of Oahu. Spearfishing and attracting sharks are considered “Provoked attacks” by the DLNR due to the nature of the activity.**

In 2023, the year ended tragically with a surfer fatally bitten by what is believed to be a tiger shark. On Tuesday morning December 13, J. Carter lost his leg while surfing Maui’s, Pāʻia Bay, approximately 150 yds from shore. It was the only fatality in the state in 2023, out of 8 events recorded by DAR. The other events involved lacerations, with two serious, non-fatal injuries. Of these, three were on Maui, two on Oahu, one each on Hawaii,.Kauai and Molokai.

Human-shark encounters in Hawai’i are a reality and are still extremely rare- but condolences go out to anyone who loses a loved one or suffers an injury. Swimmers are the highest risk group, followed by surfers and then divers. The June event is the 4th confirmed incident of a shark bite on a human in 2024, making it the 177th event logged by the DLNR in Hawai’i since 1995. Examining the last 23 years, from 2000 to 2023, there has been an average of 5.8 shark attacks annually in Hawai’i.

Poor water quality and reduced visibility aren’t much fun to swim or dive in anyway. Perhaps we can learn from the kapuna- the Hawaiian elder’s wisdom- and dive and swim another day when the Wiliwili is not in bloom, or by following safety recommendations.

Help keep these articles free and sharks swimming.

Pua ka Wiliwili, Nanahu ka Manō: Understanding Sharks in Hawaiian Culture, Noelani Puniwai University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa 7-1-2020

Pukui, M. K. 1983. ʻŌlelo No’eau: Hawaiian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings. Honolulu: HI:
Bishop Museum Press.

Bishop Museum Ethnobotany Database

Wailaloa Dry Forest Initiative

Hawaii Department Aquatic Resources Shark Incidents List ( For incidents prior to 1995, see Balazs, G.H. “Annotated list of shark attack cases in the Hawaiian Islands 1779-1996”.)

Florida Museum International Shark Attack File

*Provoked incidents are defined by the International Shark Attack File as occurring “when a human initiates physical contact with a shark, e.g. a diver bit after grabbing a shark, a fisher bit while removing a shark from a net, and attacks on spearfishers and those feeding sharks.” Incidents resulting from fishing activity are generally considered provoked. Sudden activity next to a shark, such as falling off a surfboard, may also result in an incident being classified as provoked.

**Unprovoked incidents are those “where an attack on a live human by a shark occurs in its natural habitat without human provocation of the shark. Incidents involving…shark-inflicted scavenge damage to already dead humans (most often drowning victims), attacks on boats, and provoked incidents occurring in or out of the water are not considered unprovoked attacks.”