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Sharks of Hawaii

A frequent question is on our Kauai snorkeling tours is: Are there sharks in these waters? The honest answer is, “Yes, of course, there are sharks in these waters.” There are sharks in every ocean and sea — if the water is salty there are sharks.

The reality is that while there may be sharks in the ocean, more people are killed by dog attacks or coconuts falling on their heads — yet sharks continue to strike terror in the hearts of many (thank you “Jaws”). Over 100,000,000 (yes 100 MILLION) sharks are needlessly slaughtered every year.

Sharks on Kauai

Most of the sharks in the ocean are docile or non-threatening to humans. Some, such as the largest fish in the ocean, the Whale Shark, has an unmistakably gentle and curious nature. These creatures are filter feeders like a Humpback Whale, but unlike the Humpback, they do not even fight for the right to mate.

The most common shark we see are White-tip reef sharks. They are nocturnal and are usually seen sleeping in caves in the reef. They’ll grow up to 6 feet long but are not to be feared. They are easily be identified by the white tips on the dorsal and top of the tail fin (See photos above).

Sharks (superorder Selachimorpha) are fish (any aquatic vertebrate animal that is typically ectothermic, covered with scales, and equipped with two sets of paired fins and several unpaired fins) with a full cartilaginous skeleton and a streamlined body. They respire with the use of five to seven gill slits. Like other fish, sharks extract oxygen from seawater as it passes over their gills. Due to their size and metabolism, a shark must keep swimming to pass enough oxygenated water over their gills to prevent suffocation.

The fossil record of sharks extends back over 450 million years — before land vertebrates existed and before many plants had colonized the continents. The majority of the 360 described shark species can be traced back to around 100 million years ago.


Sharks include species from the hand-sized pygmy shark, a deep sea species of only 22 cm in length, to the whale shark, which grows to a length of approximately 12 meters (41 feet) and which, like most of the great whales, feed only on plankton, macro-algae, and krill via filter feeding.


The teeth of carnivorous sharks are not attached to the jaw, but embedded in the flesh, and in many species are constantly replaced throughout the shark’s life. All sharks have multiple rows of teeth along the edges of their upper and lower jaws. New teeth grow continuously in a groove just inside the mouth and move forward from inside the mouth on a “conveyor belt” formed by the skin in which they are anchored. In some sharks rows of teeth are replaced every 8–10 days, while in other species they could last several months. The teeth range from thin, needle-like teeth for gripping fish to large, flat teeth adapted for crushing shellfish.

Sharks in Hawaiian Mythology

Sharks figure prominently in the Hawaiian mythology. There are stories of shark-men who have shark jaws on their back and could change form between shark and human at any time they desired. A common theme in the stories was that the shark-men would warn beach-goers that sharks were in the waters. The beach-goers would laugh and ignore the warnings and go swimming, subsequently being eaten by the same shark man who warned them not to enter the water.

Hawaiian mythology also contained many shark gods. They believed that sharks were guardians of the sea, and called them Aumakua:

Kamohoali’i – The best known and revered of the shark gods, he was the older and favored brother of Pele, and helped and journeyed with her to Hawaii. He was able to take on all human and fish forms. A summit cliff on the crater of Kilauea is considered to be one of his most sacred spots. At one point he had a he’iau (temple or shrine) dedicated to him on every piece of land that jutted into the ocean on the island of Moloka’i.

Ka’ahupahau – This goddess was born human, with her defining characteristic being her red hair. She was later transformed into shark form and was believed to protect the people who lived on O’ahu from sharks. She was believed to live near Pearl Harbor.

Kaholia Kane – This was the shark god of the ali’i Kalaniopu’u and he was believed to live in a cave at Puhi, Kaua’i.

Kane’ae – The shark goddess who transformed into a human in order to experience the joy of dancing.

Kane’apua – Most commonly, he was the brother of Pele and Kamohoali’i. He was a trickster god who performed many heroic feats, including the calming of two legendary colliding hills that destroyed canoes trying to pass between.

Kawelomahamahai’a – Another human, he was transformed into a shark.

Keali’ikau ‘o Ka’u – He was the cousin of Pele and son of Kua. He was called the protector of the Ka’u people. He had an affair with a human girl, who gave birth to a helpful green shark.

Kua – This was the main shark god of the people of Ka’u, and believed to be their ancestor.

Kuhaimoana – He was the brother of Pele and lived in the Ka’ula islet. He was said to be 30 fathoms (55 m) long and was the husband of Ka’ahupahau.

Kauhuhu – He was a fierce king shark that lived in a cave in Kipahulu on the island of Maui. He sometimes moved to another cave on the windward side of island of Moloka’i.

Kane-i-kokala – A kind shark god that saved shipwrecked people by taking them to shore. The people who worshipped him feared to eat, touch or cross the smoke of the kokala, his sacred fish.

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