Fatal shark attacks rare off Oahu, experts say

A sign warning of sharks in the area is seen Monday at Malaekahana beach on Oahu. (Craig T. Kojima/Star-Advertiser)

The North Shore community is still reeling from the loss Sunday of a beloved waterman due to an ap­parent shark attack off Malaekahana.

Shark experts say, however, that shark attacks still remain a rare occurrence, and even rarer at the site.


Kim Holland, a shark researcher from the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, said in his 40 years of research, he has no recollection of a fatal shark attack at Malaekahana.

“Even if there had been one, it was a long time ago,” he said. “It’s not as if this is a ‘hot spot.’ In fact, there are no ‘hot spots.’”

In an earlier study, Holland and his team determined that the protected shallow ocean shelf at a depth of less than 600 feet serves as a magnet for tiger sharks from near and far.

These waters most often visited by tiger sharks around Maui also happen to be some of the island’s most popular beaches and ocean recreation sites, a possible explanation for why the Valley Isle sees more shark attacks than any other Hawaiian Island.

Holland said there is a similar shelf off Kahuku, close to the site where the attack occurred, but the presence of tiger sharks does not necessarily translate into shark attacks.

“There are many instances where sharks are sighted and nothing happens,” he said. “We don’t know why these very unusual, very rare attacks occur. We don’t understand why one shark at one time decides to do it. It’s unknown, but it’s just one of those facts of life.”

That being said, any loss of life due to a shark attack is tragic.

“The science and the statistics can’t compensate for the tragedy and the loss that happens,” Holland said. “As scientists we can say this is very unusual and doesn’t happen very often, based on fatal attacks in the last 40 years, but it doesn’t help the family of people that have been attacked. We have to keep that in perspective.”

Loss of an icon

Honolulu Ocean Safety on Sunday confirmed the death of popular big-wave surfer and lifeguard Tamayo Perry, 49, of Oahu.

Perry was surfing in waters off Goat Island at Malaeka­hana during a break from his city lifeguarding shift when first responders received a call just before 1 p.m.

Lifeguards found Perry’s body, which appeared to have suffered more than one shark bite, and brought it to shore, where he was pronounced dead.

Shark warning signs have been posted at the beach in Laie and will remain up today, according to Ocean Safety. Lifeguards who patrolled the area Monday spotted no sharks.

Tributes, meanwhile, poured in from around the world.

The World Surf League said, “We are deeply saddened to share that the surf community lost a beloved icon.”

“Our hearts go out to Tamayo’s family and friends,” said the WSL in social media posts.

Perry competed professionally for more than 15 years and in 1999 won the prestigious Pipeline Master Trials. He had worked as a county lifeguard since 2016.

Perry’s widow, Emilia Perry, launched a GoFundMe supporting his legacy.

“He was everyone’s big brother, stern and uncompromising with an infectious and kolohe smile,” she wrote. “He was your rescuer in time of need, your safety when all things fell apart. He was a knight forged in the fires of the North Shore in the 90’s, his faith in Christ the rock upon which he stood. Few are those who truly follow in the footsteps of Jesus, Tamayo never took his eyes off the path.”

Many residents wrote in their memories of his courage in the ocean, but also of his kindness and compassion.

Not on sharks’ menu

James Sulikowski, director of Oregon State University’s Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station, agreed that shark attacks are rare because humans are not on sharks’ menus.

“We are not something sharks are actively seeking out,” Sulikowski said. “That is just the bottom line. We don’t taste like what they’re accustomed to — the texture’s different. The problem is often we are in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The way humans move in the water, and the sounds they make when splashing with shiny watches mimic a dead and dying fish, which sharks tend to be attracted to, he said. A surfboard also can resemble a seal or turtle, resulting in cases of mistaken identity.

“There are hundreds of millions of people in the ocean every year,” he said, “and there’s only about 100, or 150 maximum, people (globally) who are bitten by a shark, and of those maybe 10 are fatal.”

Statistically, rip currents and car accidents kill more people every year than interactions with sharks, he said.

“We’re just not part of their regular diet,” he said. “If we were, there’d be a lot more people missing.”

In Hawaii the previous shark attack in the state was reported June 7 in Haleiwa, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. A 25-year-old woman was taken in serious condition to a hospital with cuts to her leg, forearm and hand.

The previous fatal attack was on Dec. 30, when a man lost his left leg while surfing about 150 yards from shore at Paia Bay, Maui.

Surfer Mike Morita lived to tell the story of the 8- to 10-foot tiger shark that bit his right leg at Kewalo’s on Oahu in April 2023, which resulted in severe injuries and the loss of his right foot. The water was reported to be clear that day.

Tiger sharks everywhere

Tiger sharks are in waters all around the Hawaiian Isles, according to Holland, who is currently tracking the satellite tag movements of one nicknamed “Waianae Boy” off Oahu’s West Coast.

“There’s basically nowhere in the Hawaiian Islands where tiger sharks do not occur,” he said. “They occur in very shallow and fairly deep water, and they occur far offshore.”

Most scientists believe shark attack frequency is a factor of the high number of people in the ocean, which increases the probability of interactions with sharks.

Sulikowski recommends not bringing shiny objects into the water and not swimming at dawn and dusk or in areas with active fishing.

Holland said his golden rule is to not go solo into the ocean.

Many fatalities and serious injuries are due to shock or blood loss, he said, which can be reduced if someone is on hand to help or call for help.

“The reality is that the ocean is a shark’s home,” Sulikowski said. “We are visitors, and we have to be very careful when we enter any type of environment where we don’t belong.”

Emilia Perry wrote that as tragic as Tamayo Perry’s death may be, he left the world doing what he loved, where he loved to do it.

“We find strength in knowing he is in heaven with our Lord Jesus Christ, trading barrels at Pipeline with his friends that have gone before him,” she wrote.

Details on Perry’s celebration of life are still pending.

History of recent shark attacks in Hawaii

• June 7: Haleiwa, about 3 miles from shore, 600 feet deep. Victim swimming with sharks suffered lacerations to leg, forearm and hand. Considered a provoked incident.

• March 2: Kaaawa, Kualoa Beach, 5 to 10 feet from shore. Victim was swimming, suffered lacerations to left foot. Species unknown.

• Dec. 30: Paia Bay, Maui, about 150 yards from shore. Victim was surfing when attack resulted in loss of leg and fatality. Species unknown.

• Oct. 25: Haleiwa, Pauena Beach park, about 185 yards from shore. Victim was surfing when tiger shark attacked, resulting in lacerations to right leg.

Oct. 15: Hanalei Bay, Kauai, about 370 yards from shore. Victim was surfing when tiger shark attacked, resulting in lacerations and puncture wounds to left leg.

• April 9, 2023: Kewalo’s, Oahu, about 200 yards from shore. Victim was surfing when tiger shark attacked, resulting in severe leg injuries, loss of right foot.

Source: DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources/Incidents List