Last updated on September 30, 2022 by Wandering our World
Hawaii is a fabulous destination for anybody that loves a tropical climate, pristine white sand beaches, beautiful rainforests, and spending time in stunning clear turquoise water. Hawaii is made up of six main islands, all of which are a little different, and likely you’ll only visit one during your trip. However what they all have in common is that you can find sharks throughout Hawaiian waters.
The main islands are Oahu, Maui, Kaua’i, Hawaii (Big Island), Lana’i, and Moloka’i. No matter which island you’re visiting, the beaches and water will be calling you, so having concerns about whether sharks are an issue off any of the islands of Hawaii is understandable.
The USA has the most shark attacks in the world. In 2020 Florida had the most in the US, and accounted for 48% of shark attacks, with Hawaii coming in second with 15%. Hawaii’s stats translate into five shark attacks and one deadly shark attack during that year.
It’s possible but very unlikely to be attacked by a shark in Hawaii, based on how many visitors there are to Hawaii and how many shark attacks there are. However, it’s important that you understand the common and dangerous sharks in Hawaii, as well as what islands are most prone to attacks. We cover all of that here, so let’s review together to ensure you have a safe vacation! (Recommended: The Best Hawaiian Island for Families).
What Common Sharks Live in Hawaii?
Hawaii is home to around 40 common sharks that swim in its waters. Here we share with you the most common you may come across, before looking at which sharks in Hawaii are the most dangerous.
1. Whitetip Reef Shark
Whitetip Reef Sharks are the most common shark you’ll find around the reefs of Hawaii. You’ll be able to spot them from the white tips on their fins and their relatively small size compared to other sharks, reaching around 5 feet on average and 40 lbs.
These sharks are curious around divers, though they are very docile and not considered to be dangerous. However, they become excited around divers spearfishing and could bite you by mistake when trying to take your fish.
2. Sandbar Shark
Sandbar Sharks are not seen often as they’re deepwater sharks; however, they do come to investigate divers off the coast of Kaua‘i. They are not aggressive towards divers and are just curious, even though you may get a fright if you see this large shark coming towards you.
They can grow to around 8 feet long and weigh 150 lbs or more and are considered to be stocky looking.
Sandbar sharks can still bite people, and the most recent known attack in the US was in August 2021 on a 12-year-old girl in Maryland, which required many stitches. So while they are not considered aggressive, you still need to be wary of them like all sharks.
Due to overfishing, these sharks are no longer allowed to be commercially fished in the US, and they’re currently listed as a vulnerable species.
3. Galapagos Shark
Galapagos Sharks are a common sight for tourists in Hawaii and can be dangerous, but rarely attack humans. However, at least one attack in Hawaii in 2019 was attributed to a Galapagos Shark on the Big Island of Hawaii. Their habitat is shallow tropical waters, so they often come into contact with humans.
These sharks can reach a size of 11 feet and weigh up to 430 lbs; they’re very curious about humans and often investigate them when they enter the water. In some situations, divers will be forced out of the water by these sharks due to their aggressive approaches towards them.
4. Bignose Shark
Bignose Sharks have a long and broad nose, distinctive from many other sharks. They can grow to almost 10 feet long and weigh up to 370 lbs. You will most likely find them in deeper waters, though still close to islands, so many divers or fishers may encounter them. However swimmers and surfers won’t see them very often in Hawaii.
These sharks are not especially dangerous to humans as we don’t encounter them very often. However, they do get commercially fished for their meat and fins. So people fishing them may find them understandably aggressive.
5. Grey Reef Shark
Grey Reef Sharks are another common sight around Hawaiian reefs but are also relatively small at an average of 5 feet long and 60 lbs. You may see them attacking fish in large groups of 20-100 sharks as they hunt food.
These sharks are often interested in divers for a short amount of time, though they lose interest once they realize you aren’t food or trying to take their food. If you are spearfishing, they may accidentally bite you to get your fish, and if you corner or act aggressively towards them, they may also bite in defense. They can cover extremely long distances quickly and have a strong bite, so while small, they can inflict a lot of damage.
Are There Dangerous Sharks in Hawaii?
The most dangerous shark in Hawaii is the Tiger Shark; it accounts for more attacks and fatalities than any other shark combined in Hawaii. While there have been some sightings of Great White Sharks in Hawaii, these are extremely rare. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other sharks that have the potential to injure you.
1. Tiger Shark
If you are to be attacked by a shark in Hawaii, it’s most likely to be a Tiger Shark. The area where that’s most likely to happen is on the west coast of Maui, though it is still relatively unlikely. While Tiger Sharks are considered incredibly aggressive, they are not interested in humans as a food source.
In most cases, Tiger Shark bites are due to provocation from humans, even if that’s just getting too close, or because the shark thinks a surfer or paddleboarder is a seal or other form of prey. So you will be bitten by a shark until it realizes you are not something it wants to eat, and then it will release you.
Tiger Sharks are a type of requiem shark – this is the family of sharks that are the most common type which attacks humans in Hawaii. So many of the requiem shark attacks may also be Tiger Sharks that were just not identified well enough.
Tiger Sharks can grow to almost 17 feet and weigh 1,400 lbs, so along with being extremely aggressive, they are very big and capable of causing a lot of damage. They can be identified by the dark stripes down their body that look like a tiger. However, these stripes fade with age, making Tiger Sharks more difficult to distinguish from other requiem sharks.
One of the big issues when looking at shark attack stats is that you just see attacks and fatalities. However, due to the size of the Tiger Shark, many of the attacks by this animal can result in a loss of limbs, so it is still a significant issue even if someone doesn’t die.
Outside of the Great White Shark, Tiger Sharks are considered the most aggressive and dangerous sharks in the world, especially because they come into contact with humans so often due to their habitats. They account for the second most attacks and fatalities of any shark species on the planet.
2. Blacktip Shark
Blacktip Sharks are not especially aggressive towards humans. However, they are very common in Hawaiian waters and have been known to bite surfers and others in murky waters.
They are also attracted to people spearfishing, such as a 2021 attack against a woman in Maui who was bitten while spearfishing off Lahaina. This type of attack may have been due to a larger number of sharks than normal in the area fighting over the fish.
Blacktip Sharks are also a requiem shark species in the same family as Tiger Sharks. They can grow to around 9 feet and 271 lbs. The shark’s fins are black on the tips, which is where it gets its name.
The favored habitat for Blacktip Sharks is in shallow water around bays and even river mouths; they do like to check out divers but are generally timid and stay away. The only thing that draws Blacktip Sharks to humans is often a potential food source, which is why spearfishing or other types of fishing while diving can be dangerous to humans in Hawaii when around these sharks.
3. Shortfin Mako Shark
Shortfin Mako Sharks are a favorite for people fishing for sharks, which is something offered to tourists in Hawaii. Due to the Shortfin Mako Shark’s size, it can do some severe damage to boats when it’s caught on a line.
Shortfin Mako Sharks do not look at humans as food or act aggressively towards us outside of fishing for them. So most attacks are considered provoked by humans, and specifically when trying to capture them.
Shortfin Mako Sharks can reach around 13 feet long and up to 1,300 lbs, putting them at a similar size as the Tiger Shark when fully grown.
How Common are Shark Attacks in Hawaii?
Shark attacks in Hawaii are not common, though Hawaii is the second most dangerous location for shark attacks in the US. If you break down each island, you can see some do not have shark attacks, while in others it is much more common.
In 2021 there were at least seven shark attacks in Hawaii; Maui had three, O’ahu had one, Kaua’i had one, and Hawaii (Big Island) had two.
In 2020 there were six shark attacks, Maui had three, Hawaii (Big Island) had two, and Kaua’i had one.
In 2019 there were 14 shark attacks; Maui had three, O’ahu had eight, Kaua’i had one, and Hawaii (Big Island) had two.
So even looking at those three years, you can see a pattern that some islands have no shark attacks, while others have the majority. The most dangerous locations are Maui and O’ahu, with Hawaii (Big Island) coming in third. Maui, over the years, has had the most shark attacks, though not every year.
Sharks in Maui
The waters of Maui are highly desirable to tiger sharks, one of the world’s most aggressive and deadly sharks. Unfortunately, the tiger shark habitats overlap with many resorts and tourist activities. With increased tourist activity and interaction with tiger sharks, it’s inevitable that there will be attacks.
Almost every day you can see tiger sharks off the western side of Maui near Makena Point, Kalama, Palauea, and Olowalu. You’ll also see them near the southern end of the island, where there is a lot of food available.
Sharks in O’ahu
There are a few reasons that O’ahu has high shark attack rates. First, O’ahu is considered the best location in Hawaii to surf, so it has a much larger number of surfers in the waters at any time of year. Unfortunately, surfers appear to look like food, especially seals, to sharks, who will then bite and release surfers when they realise their mistake.
The North Shore of O’ahu is where the most sharks tend to be found, which also, unfortunately, is where the best surfing happens.
O’ahu is also the most visited island overall, especially as Honolulu is the first and potentially last destination for many travelers coming to Hawaii.
The other reason for a higher number of shark attacks in Oahu is due to tours that advertise swimming with sharks. Many of the attacks in Oahu are related to people going on these tours and getting too close and provoking the sharks.
What Should You Do if You Come Across a Shark?
Stay calm and don’t flail your arms or legs around, as the thrashing can attract a shark to investigate to see if you’re food. By investigation, sharks will nibble on you to see what you are.
Keep eye contact with the shark if possible and slowly swim away from it. Try to stay vertical rather than horizontal when moving away from the shark.
Do not become aggressive with the shark unless it appears to be getting aggressive itself. If you really need to attack the shark or defend yourself, then attack and gouge its eyes, nose, and gills.
Our Final Thoughts
Shark attacks in Hawaii are rare, and it’s even rarer for there to be fatalities from them. However, they do happen, and Hawaii has a higher percentage of attacks than many other locations around the world, so it’s essential to stay aware and be careful (Recommended: Spiders in Hawaii).
The two most dangerous locations in Hawaii are the North Shore of O’ahu, especially if you plan to surf or go on any shark swimming tours, and the west coast of Maui due to the large number of Tiger Sharks in the area.
Spearfishing is another common activity that will attract sharks and make them excited enough to bite you by accident when trying to get your fish. So be wary if you plan to go spearfishing in Hawaii.