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Shark Bite, Encounter, or Attack?

Scott Haruguchi was fishing from his kayak near Kualoa, approximately one mile off the east coast of Oahu, when he received a sudden surprise visitor.

In a GoPro video captured from aboard his boat Haraguchi exclaims, “Tiger shark! Tiger shark just rammed me.”

In most cases of human-shark encounters, sharks are investigating potential prey or are attracted by fishing or other attractants. These events are reported as attacks by the media, but more objectively by scientists investigating the incidents. What are reported as shark attacks are often an encounter, or incident, involving an investigation to a boat, kayak or board, often without any contact with a human.

Out of the top ten google search hits for this May 15, 2023 incident, only one news story in Hawaii did not use the word attack in their title but instead used the word encounter. The news media frequently sensationalizes events involving sharks using evocative words like attack, or more emotional words like violent, vicious, or aggressive when refering to sharks.

The video clearly shows a large tiger shark rise and bite the port side of the kayak just forward of the foot well on Haraguchi’s surf kayak, fitted out for ocean fishing. The shark mouths the kayak for about 2 seconds, and then departs without harm to the fisherman.

Haraguchi had just caught a large trevally, and had documented the fish from a Go Pro aboard his kayak, but left the camera on, inadvertantly capturing the moment. In an interview he also describes seeing a wounded seal nearby, and thinks the shark might have mistaken his kayak for the seal.

It is highly likely the tiger shark was attracted to the fish on the kayak, given that a large fish had been just caught and landed aboard, and probably bleeding or tremoring onboard. A wounded seal in the immediate vicinity would alos stimulate the shark to investigate any large object nearby.

The International Shark Attack File (ISAF) would describe this encounter as Provoked, although no harm was done to the victim. The ISAF is a global database of all known shark attacks, and classifies shark human interactions with sharks based ion a set iof criteria. A “provoked incident which refers to a situation in which a human unintentionally or intentionally initiates contact with a shark.

According to the ISAF, “Unprovoked bites” are defined as incidents in which a bite on a live human occurs in the shark’s natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark. “Provoked bites” occur when a human initiates interaction with a shark in some way. These include instances when divers are bitten after harassing or trying to touch sharks, bites on spearfishers, bites on people attempting to feed sharks, bites occurring while unhooking or removing a shark from a fishing net and so forth.”

The criteria are intended to describe a set of circumstances, and does not infer a victim intentionally attracted a shark. Read more about encounters versus attacks in the death of an Australian swimmer near Sydney in February 2023.

“A provoked bite is where people indulge in activities that bring the sharks in and make the probability of being bitten higher, and spearfishing is a definite way to bring sharks into the area,” Dr Gavin Naylor of the Florida Program for Shark Research said on America Reports, following two incidents of sharks biting fishermen in 36 hours Florida.

Another human activity considered a provocation is fishermen are bitten when bringing sharks onto the beach, a boat or a dock. The shark will often react out of fear once it is removed from the water, according to Naylor.

“Sharks are alarmed and frightened and they want to get back in the water, and they don’t have arms to move around, they’ll just bite you,” Naylor said. “It’s pretty frequent that fishermen get bitten by sharks when they’ve landed them on the decks.”

Most serious encounters with sharks involve surfers, swimmers and spearfishermen in the ocean. Scientists have hypothesized that sharks can mistake swimmers in wetsuits for seals, their common prey, and an attack is a case of mistaken identity. Swimmers and surfers can reduce their risk of a shark interaction by recreating with a buddy, avoiding areas where shark prey such as seals frequent, signs of wildlife feeding, or spots where attacks have been documented. In the case of a kayak fisherman having just landed a fish, or in an event of witnessing a wounded seal, changing locations is advisable.

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