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Get to Know the Sharks of Hawaii with This Tooth-Filled Guide

Hawai’i is home to 40 species of sharks and nine species of ray, the shark’s cousin. The Hawaiian general name for sharks is manō, and the general name for stingrays is lupe. Sharks are apex predators, found everywhere from shallow water reefs to the deepest parts of the ocean. With the immense popularity of the summer blockbuster Jaws, the mention of sharks typically brings to mind gigantic and voracious sharks. While sharks do occasionally bite humans, fatal attacks are rare and human predation practically non-existent. Most of Hawai’i’s shark species do not pose a threat to humans.

What is a shark?

Sharks and rays are highly specialized fish. Their bloodline has been around for about 400 million years, twice as ancient as the dinosaurs! Both sharks and rays belong to the subclass Elasmobranchii, with sharks splitting into the superorder Selachii and the rays, skates, and sawfish superorder Batoidea. Sharks are cartilaginous fish, with only their teeth consisting of bony material. In general, sharks are covered with skin scales called denticles, have five to seven gills, lack a swim bladder, and have an upper jaw that is not firmly affixed to their skull. Most sharks are colored with countershading (dark coloration on top, light-colored on the bottom) to hide from prey and most have some form of dorsal fin. Teeth vary based on the type of prey a shark species eat, with the giant whale shark having about 300 tiny teeth and the tiger shark having teeth adapted for holding and cutting large prey.

When it comes to senses, sharks have an incredible variety of adaptations. Sharks can smell blood from hundreds of meters away—in concentrations as low as one part per million (ppm). The sense of smell is most sensitive in bottom-dwelling sharks that must find their prey in total darkness. Sharks also have excellent hearing, with some pelagic sharks able to hear directional sounds from 100 yards away. Shark vision varies between species, with most being able to see in color and having eye adaptations to help them see in low light environments. Tiger sharks have a unique yellow pigment in their eyes lens, which may act as a sort of built in sunglasses. Shark skin nerve endings are highly sensitive to touch, similar to humans. The sense of taste is also similar, with sharks able to detect contaminants in their food supply.

In addition to the five senses that humans have, sharks have two additional senses. The “lateral line” runs down the length of the shark, from its head to its tail. The lateral line allows the shark to sense vibrations and changes in pressure, indicating movement in the water. Specialized pores containing nerve endings called Ampullae de Lorenzini allow sharks to detect electrical currents. These ampullae can detect electrical fields as low as five nanovolts (one billionth of a volt). In addition to locating prey and detecting predators, scientists postulate that this electrical sense may help sharks navigate using the Earth’s magnetic fields.

What kinds of sharks are found in Hawai’i?

Due to the highly diverse nature of sharks, these 17 highlight species will be classified based on where they can be found in Hawai’i waters.   

Nearshore Sharks of Hawaii

Blacktip Reef Shark, Carcharhinus melanopterus
Hawaiian Name: Manō Pā’ele (black shark)
Habitat: Coastal, shallow water reefs to 100 feet
Maximum Size: 5 feet
Danger to humans:  Low due to temperament, although habitat makes it a possibility.  In 2019, a woman swimming at dawn was bitten by a blacktip reef shark.
Notes: On the Big Island, it is sometimes easy to see these sharks from shore near Pu’u Koholā.

Whitetip reef shark, Triaenodon obesus
Hawaiian Name: Manō Lālākea (white fins)
Habitat: Coastal, shallow water reefs to 100 feet (Though recorded at up to 1,000 feet deep,  this is rare).
Maximum Size: 6 feet
Danger to humans: Low due to temperament

Scalloped Hammerhead Shark, Sphyrna lewini
Hawaiian Name: Manō Kihikihi (curved, crescent-shaped)
Habitat: Wide range, shallow coastal reefs to 900 feet.
Maximum Size: 12 feet (in Hawaii)
Danger to humans: Moderate. Though not typically aggressive, their habitat and size make them a potential threat and attacks have been reported.
Notes: Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks give birth to their young in shallow water bays such as Hilo Bay,  Kāne’ohe Bay, and Waimea Bay.

Tiger Shark
Hawaiian Name: Niuhi (man-eater)
Habitat: Wide-ranging, from surface and nearshore to over 300 miles from land and 1,200 feet deep.
Maximum Size: 20 feet (rarely over 15 feet)
Danger to humans: High. Tiger sharks are especially dangerous to surfers. Though tiger shark attacks occur in Hawaii, they are rarely fatal, and low in frequency compared to most other places tiger sharks are found.
Notes: Tiger sharks have high pupping rates. Although they typically breed only once every three years, litters range from 10 to 82 pups! Baby Tiger sharks start off spotted and develop their signature stripes as they get older. Tiger sharks are known to have a highly varied diet, sometimes including trash, earning them the nickname “trashcan of the sea.” In the Northwestern Hawaiian islands,  tiger sharks regularly prey on fledgling sea birds.

Galapagos Shark, Carcharhinus galapagensis
Hawaiian Name: Manō
Habitat: Coastal, surface to 600 feet
Maximum Size: 10 feet in Hawaii
Danger to humans: Moderate. Size and the aggressive/inquisitive nature of this species make it a potential threat to humans. Galapagos sharks will readily approach divers and swimmers.

Pelagic Sharks of Hawaii

Whale Shark, Rhincodon typus
Hawaiian Name: Lelewaʻa (“Canoe jumper”)
Habitat: Pelagic depths, found near the surface due to filter-feeding diet
Maximum Size: 45 feet
Danger to humans: Though whale sharks are filter feeders, their large size can be injurious to divers and snorkelers who get too close and get bumped.
Notes: Unlike other parts of the world, whale sharks in Hawaii are almost always observed alone. The whale shark is the largest fish in the ocean.

Pelagic Thresher Shark, Alopias pelagic
Hawaiian Name: Manō hi’ukā (“Smiting tail”)
Habitat: Open ocean
Maximum Size: 10.8 feet
Danger to humans:  Minimal, due to habitat
Notes: Thresher and mako sharks are commonly sold at the fish auction in Honolulu. Though frequently confused with the common thresher shark, this species is not found in Hawaii. Thresher sharks use their long tails to stun prey.

Longfin Mako Shark
Hawaiian Name: Manō
Habitat: Open Ocean
Maximum Size: 14 feet
Danger to humans: Moderate. There is little natural contact with humans, but due to its large size and commonality as a fisherman’s catch, this shark should be considered potentially dangerous.
Notes:  This shark is a popular food shark, although this designation puts the species at risk.

Oceanic Whitetip, Carcharhinus longimanus
Hawaiian Name: None
Habitat: Pelagic, surface to 500 feet
Maximum Size: 11.5 feet
Danger to humans:  Dangerous. Though they are not commonly encountered due to habitat, oceanic whitetip sharks can be highly aggressive.

Blue Shark, Prionace glauca
Hawaiian Name: None
Habitat: Pelagic, migrates between the surface and 1,800 feet during the day
Maximum Size: 12.5 feet
Danger to humans: Minimal, due to habitat
Notes: Before banning shark finning blue shark fins were some of the most commonly sold fins in Hawaii. Blue sharks are highly migratory, traveling to the oceans of the Eastern US, Western Europe, and throughout the Pacific.

Great White Shark
Hawaiian Name: Niuhi (man-eater)
Habitat: Migratory pelagic shark, capable of diving depths exceeding 1,000 feet.
Maximum Size: 20 feet
Danger to humans:  Highly Dangerous
Notes: Great white sharks are rarely found in Hawaii, appearing only during migratory events. The Hawaiian name for great white sharks, niuhi, is applied to the tiger shark and other “man-eating” sharks. Two shark attacks in Hawai’i’s history have been attributed to great white sharks. In January 2019, one of the largest great white sharks on record was observed feeding on a whale carcass 15 miles from shore.

Deep-Sea Sharks of Hawaii

Megamouth, Megachasma pelagios
Hawaiian Name: None
Habitat: Deep Sea, migrating to the surface at night
Maximum Size: 17 feet (known)
Danger to humans:  No
Notes: This shark was discovered as an anchor bycatch in 1976 off of O’ahu. Megamouth has a 3-foot wide mouth and is a filter feeder like the whale shark. The inside of its mouth is highly reflective, which may help it attract prey. Megamouth was named by marine biologist and Waikiki Aquarium Director Dr. Leighton Taylor, who gave it the scientific name Megachasma pelagios, Greek for “giant yawner of the open sea.” The first discovered Megamouth is held in the ichthyology collection of Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

Cookiecutter shark, Isistius brasiliensis
Hawaiian Name: None
Habitat: Deep sea, migrates to the surface at night to feed on large animals and fish
Maximum Size: 20 inches
Danger to humans: Yes, human attacks have occurred during night swimming in deep water
Notes: This shark is bioluminescent.

Viper Dogfish, Viper Shark Trigonognathus kabeyai
Hawaiian Name: None
Habitat: Deep Sea
Maximum Size: 1.3 feet
Danger to humans: None
Notes: This shark is bioluminescent. In Kona, this shark can sometimes be found near the surface at night.

Frilled shark, Chlamydoselachus anguineus
Hawaiian Name: None
Habitat: Deep sea, but migrates to shallower water at night
Maximum Size: 7 feet
Danger to humans:  This species does not naturally come into contact with humans.

Spongehead Catshark
Hawaiian Name: None
Habitat: Deep Sea, sea floor
Maximum Size: 1.6 feet
Danger to humans: None
Notes: Spongehead catsharks are the only species in Hawaii that lay eggs. Egg sacks more fragile than “mermaids” purses of shallow water cat sharks are deposited on the deep sea floor.

Pygmy shark, Euprotomicrus bispinatus
Hawaiian Name: None
Habitat: Deep Sea migratory, 1,300 feet to surface migration at night
Maximum Size: 10 inches
Danger to humans:  None
Notes: The Pygmy shark is the second smallest shark species in the world. Pygmy sharks are bioluminsecent, with glowing bellies that light up in order to hide from predators and prey. Pygmy sharks can be found at night fairly close to shore off the Kona coast.

Sharks of Hawaii: Shark Cousins

Hawai’i features nine species of ray. Unlike many parts of the world, Hawai’i’s stingrays don’t typically gather in numbers. Hawai’i’s stingrays prefer deeper water, typically 60 feet and lower. Hawaii even has an electric ray, although it is extremely rare (deep sea). Most divers and snorkelers won’t encounter the majority of these species, except for three. Lupe is the generic Hawaiian name for stingrays.

Manta Ray, Manta birostris
Hawaiian Name: Hāhālua (two breaths)
Habitat: Coastal, 10 to 120 feet
Maximum Size: 22 feet wide
Danger to humans: Very low, although these are very large fish and accidental injury from bumping is possible.
Notes: Manta rays can be seen from shore at Kawaihae and Keauhou (Big Island), and man  snorkel boats offer nighttime snorkel tours.

Eagle Ray, Aetobatus narinari
Hawaiian Name: Hīhīmanu (elegant bird)
Habitat: Shallow shoreline to 200 feet
Maximum Size: 6 feet wide
Danger to humans: Moderate. Though docile, eagle rays have stinging barbs.
Notes: Eagle rays give birth in shallow bays, including Kāne’ohe Bay, O’ahu.

Broad or Brown Stingray, Dasyatis lata
Hawaiian Name: Lupe
Habitat: Wide range, from coastline to 700 feet
Maximum Size: 5 feet wide (wingtip to wingtip)
Danger to humans: Moderate. Though docile, broad/brown stingrays have stinging barbs. The greatest danger to humans is accidentally stepping on rays buried in the sand.

Notes: Broad/brown stingrays are common in Kāne’ohe Bay, O’ahu.   

How dangerous are shark attacks?

On average, sharks bite only three or four people per year in Hawai‘i waters. Fatal shark bites are extremely rare, especially considering the number of people in Hawai‘i’s waters.   

According to Hawaii’s DAR “There appears to be an increased risk of being bitten by a shark during certain months, in particular, October through December. Early Hawaiians recognized this and cautioned against going in the water at that time. Although fewer people are in the water from November through December, some of Hawaii’s most serious shark attacks took place during those months.” The highest risk activity is surfing, followed by swimming under certain conditions such as low water clarity and low light times of day.  To learn how to reduce your risk of a shark attack, please visit DLNR’s website.

Shockingly, shark attacks in 2019 tripled for one particular species – the cookiecCutter shark. All of the attacks took place at night in the Ka’iwi Channel, a deep water channel that separates the islands of O’ahu and Moloka’i. Prior to 2019, only two cookie cutter shark attacks had ever been recorded. One occurred in Hawai’i, the other in Australia. Though they are very small sharks, cookie cutter shark bites are dangerous due to their tissue depth.

Shark Conservation in Hawai’i

Despite their fearsome reputation, humans are much more dangerous to sharks than they are to us.

Marine policy estimates calculate that between 63 and 273 million sharks are killed every year. As of 2013, shark finning had been banned by 27 countries and the European Union. In 2010, Hawaii became the first state to ban possession, sale, trade, and distribution of shark fins.   

Though Hawaii is now a leading state in shark conservation, this wasn’t always the case. In 1991, following a fatal shark attack off Maui, the State authorized a mass shark cull. Kahu Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. brought the mass shark killing to an end by raising awareness of the cultural importance of sharks to Native Hawaiians. Native Hawaiians recognize sharks as ‘aumakua, deified ancestors and guardian spirits. Through tracking programs, public education, and beach closures at large shark sightings, the State of Hawaii has maintained low shark attack numbers despite having a healthy shark population.

Kahu Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. went on to advise on cultural practices at Maui Ocean Center.  Their shark program includes a 15-minute video introduction by Maxwell that discusses sharks in Hawaiian culture. To this day, every shark that enters Maui Ocean Center is met by the Aquarium’s Cultural Advisor who asks the shark for guidance, permission to be here, forgiveness if any unintentional harm is caused, and to teach visitors about sharks while fostering reverence for animals like it. A similar protocol is held when the shark is returned to the sea (Maui Ocean Center regularly rotates their exhibit animals).

Shark Experiences in Hawai’i 

Visitors and residents of Hawai’i can learn more about and interact with sharks in captivity and in the ocean under safe conditions. Maui Ocean Center and Waikiki Aquarium (O’ahu) host exhibits featuring sharks. Maui Ocean Center offers captive encounters in which participants can enter the water with sharks. Maui Ocean Center will even help you set up a proposal! And at Four Seasons Hualalai, guests can swim in an enclosed lagoon with Kainalu, their resident spotted eagle ray. There are also times when guests can get a little more up close and personal by participating in his feeding.

If you want to get into the ocean with sharks, Hawaii Shark Encounters and North Shore Shark Adventures offer cage dives with sharks off of the North Shore of O’ahu. For the most adventurous shark enthusiasts, One Ocean Diving and Islandview Hawaii offer shark tours without the cage. Sharks you may see on North Shore shark dives include galapagos sharks, hammerhead sharks, white tipped reef sharks and tiger sharks. You may also see spinner dolphins, pilot whales, and green sea turtles. It is always important to remember that every shark has the potential to be dangerous and should be regarded with caution. A Hawaiian proverb says “He manō holo ‘āina ke al’i – The chief is a shark that travels on land. Wherever your shark enthusiasm may take you in Hawai’i, please think of sharks and rays with appreciation and respect.

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