If you’ve ever thought of visiting Hawaii, you’ve probably wondered what kinds of sharks call the waters home. After all, most people go to Hawaii hoping to swim in their beautiful waters.
It’s true, Hawaii is home to a lot of sharks, about 40 species total. However, only 10 of these species will make it close to shore where you’ll likely be swimming.
Of course, you’re likely thinking that 10 species of shark is still a lot. You’re right, but just because they may swim close to you doesn’t mean you’re in any danger. Sharks are largely indifferent to people and shark attacks are not common. Fatal shark bites are even less common.
Rather than spending your vacation worrying about the sharks around you, let’s learn about them. Let’s see what they look like and what makes them unique. After you know more about these sharks, you’ll have a whole new appreciation for them.
Here are the 10 shark species most common in the coastal Hawaiian waters:
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What They Look Like
Hawaiian Name: Niuhi
Size: The largest can reach up to 16 feet (4.9 meters) long, but most are under 14 feet (4.3 meters). They can reach 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms).
Color: Young sharks have a distinctive spotting pattern. As they age, the spots will turn into stripes.
Body: Their snouts are broad and round. The teeth are curved with serrated tips.
Mating occurs through internal fertilization. The mother will give birth to live young, up to 80 young. However, this live birth is different then most.
The embryos will develop inside eggs that are inside the mother’s body. The eggs will hatch while still inside the mother, and then she will give birth to live young.
These sharks can live for 20-50 years.
There are an estimated 30,000 tiger sharks left in the world.
Tiger Sharks can be found worldwide across tropical and temperate waters.
These sharks are very common around coastal areas, but they like to swim in the open ocean as well. They usually stay near the surface, rarely traveling below 2,500 feet (762 meters). While in coastal waters, they stay above 300 feet (91 meters).
These sharks will eat lots of different animals, including ones that are already dead. They will also eat literal garbage. They have been termed the “garbage can of the sea”. They commonly eat invertebrates, marine mammals, stingrays, seabirds, sea snakes, and smaller sharks.
Typically, they will eat whatever is most available. In Hawaii, this means green turtles and Hawaiian Monk Seals.
Their only known predator of the tiger shark is the orca. Tiger sharks swimming in Hawaiian waters are at the top of the food chain.
2. Blacktip Reef Shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus): The Smallest
What They Look Like
Hawaiian Name: Mano pa’ele
Size: They can grow up to 6 feet in length, but are usually under 5 feet (1.5 meters). The average weight is 55 pounds (25 kilograms).
Color: Blacktip Reef Sharks are light brown. Like their name suggests, they have large black markings on the tip of their first dorsal fin and tail tips.
Body: They have no interdorsal ridge. Their snouts are short and round. Their teeth are angled and saw-like.
They breed by internal fertilization and the mother will give birth to live young. She will have between 4-11 pups, and she will give birth once every two years.
Mothers create nurseries for their young in shallow waters. This helps them avoid predation from other sharks.
These sharks can live for up to 12 years.
Blacktip Reef Sharks are considered abundant, but are still threatened. They are in danger due to overfishing and habitat loss. The young are particularly in danger of habitat destruction because their nurseries may be destroyed by fishermen.
Blacktip Reef Sharks can be found worldwide in tropical to temperate coastal waters. They are most often found on the coastlines of Pacific regions, but can also be found in the Indian Ocean all the way to the Red Sea.
These sharks stay very close to the surface, swimming between the surface and the first 100 feet of the ocean. They are commonly found along the coast and inside coral reefs.
Their favorite meal is bony fish. Their diet includes stingrays, cephalopods, shrimp, and crustaceans.
Tiger sharks and gray reef sharks are common predators. They are also hunted by humans for their meat and for the production of oil.
Size: They can grow up to 12 feet (3.7 meters) in length. The largest reported in Hawaii was 9.8 feet (3 meters).
Color: Brownish gray in color on the upper half of their body. The underside is white. The underside of the tail is a dark grayish coloration.
Body: The coloration of these sharks is pretty common. The only distinguishing feature they possess is the ridge that runs between the dorsal fins.
The females will give birth to live young that are tethered to her by a placenta-like organ. This organ is what gives the young nourishment while inside the body. The mother will give birth to 6-16 pups, but the average is 8-9.
Mother sharks will produce young every 2-3 years, and the gestation period is about one year.
These sharks can live for up to 11 years.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), the Galapagos Shark is listed as “near threatened”.
They can be found worldwide. They are often found swimming in open waters and around coasts. However, they prefer warm and clear waters like those near coral reefs, islands, and continental shelves.
The Galapagos Shark will most commonly be found around the waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
They prefer shallow waters and have not been seen diving below 919 feet (280 meters).
They prefer to eat bottom dwelling fish and cephalopods. They can also be seen eating rays and octopuses.
They have also been known to attack sea lions and seals.
Young sharks are commonly preyed on by larger sharks. Their only natural predator is the human. Locals will actively hunt the Galapagos shark because they fear it’s a danger to humans.
Size: They can reach lengths of up to 8 feet (2.4 meters), but most stay below 6 feet (1.8 meters). The largest reported in Hawaii was 6.2 feet (1.9 meters).
Color: Their bodies are gray, but they have a thin streak of white going down the edge of their dorsal fin. They also have a black edge on the back of the tail.
Body: They have no interdorsal ridge.
Gray Reef Sharks give birth to live young and will have a litter of 3-6 pups. The gestation period is 11-12 months.
These sharks can live up to 25 years of age.
According to the IUCN, these sharks are listed as “near threatened”. This is largely due to overfishing. Gray Reef Sharks are commonly fished for human consumption, use in fish meal, and use in other shark-based products.
Gray Reef Sharks are most commonly found in coastal regions in the Indian and Pacific oceans. They prefer to stay within reefs.
In Hawaii, these sharks are not known to swim below 900 feet (274 meters). Their average depth is 320 feet (97.5 meters).
They are most commonly found in the waters along the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. They like to stay close to the coral reefs where the terrain is rough and there is a strong current.
Their diet generally consists of fish, cephalopods, and crustaceans.
Larger sharks like the Silvertip Shark and Hammerheads.
Size: They can grow up to 9.5 feet (2.9 meters) in length, but most average a size of 6 feet (1.8 meters).
Color: Their coloration is predominantly gray.
Body: They are known for their high interdorsal ridge and their prominent nasal flaps. Its snout is broad and blunt.
Bignose Sharks bear live young with yolk sac placentas. The mother will give birth to 3-11 pups.
When the birth takes place depends on where the mother is located. In the Mediterranean region, she will give birth from August to September. Near Madagascar, it will take place from September to October.
According to the IUCN, the Bignose Shark is listed as “data deficient”. This means that scientists need to further research the status and needs of the species.
Bignose Sharks can be found all across the world, but they prefer warm and tropical regions.
Although these sharks can be seen around the coast, they mostly live off shore. You’ll commonly see them at the edges of the continental shelves and insular slopes.
Bignose Sharks can most commonly be found between 90 to 1,200 feet (24 to 366 meters) in the water column. The adults swim in deep water more often than the juveniles. Juveniles often stay above 300 feet (91 meters).
These sharks prefer to eat deepwater fish, including other sharks. This also includes rays. They are also fans of cephalopods.
Humans are the main predator of Bignose sharks. Their bodies are used for fish meal and animal feed. They are even utilized in making oil. Fortunately, this is forbidden in the United States.
Besides humans, larger sharks can pose a threat to juvenile Bignose Sharks.
Size: These sharks can reach up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) in length. They can weigh between 66 to 220 pounds (30 to 99.7 kilograms).
Color: They are gray and have black tips on each of their dorsal and pectoral fins.
Body: Their snout is very pointed.
During breeding, these sharks will come together in groups to create shallow nurseries near the shore.
The mother gives birth to live young and will have 4 to 10 pups. These sharks begin reproducing at the age of 4 or 5, and they will give birth every 2 years.
Male sharks will mature at ages 4 to 5, while females mature at 6 to 7. Despite this, they only live to about 10 years of age.
The Blacktip Shark is predated mostly by humans who hunt it for its meat and fins. This species of shark is one of the most common used for shark fin soup. The nurseries are also targets for habitat destruction.
According to the IUCN, the Blacktip Shark is listed as “near threatened”.
The Blacktip Shark is a shallow-water shark that is often seen in estuaries, bays, coral reefs, and the shallower waters off of coasts.
Sometimes, in the summer, they will migrate to cooler waters, but some prefer warmer water year round.
In Hawaii, the Blacktip Shark is commonly seen in shallow waters. They prefer to stay at depths of 40 to 210 feet (12 to 64 meters). The pups are only seen in a few parts of Hawaii: Kaneohe Bay to Midway Atoll.
These sharks like to eat a variety of marine life including octopus, bony fishes, and squid. You may sometimes see them eating crustaceans as well.
Their hunting technique is unique. They will jump out of the water, turn in the air, and splash down on the surface of the water. This allows them to attack schools of fish that like to swim at the surface.
Besides humans, Blacktip Sharks are in the most danger from larger sharks and groupers.
7. Sandbar Shark (Carcharhinus plumbeus)
Size: These sharks can reach up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) in length, but most stay under 6 feet (1.8 meters).
Color: They are a gray or tan coloration with no distinctive markings.
Body: Their dorsal fin is high and they have a strong interdorsal ridge.
The Sandbar Shark gives birth to live young and will have 1 to 14 pups. The gestation period is 6 to 12 months.
Females will not mature until 16 years of age, and they will give birth every 2 years.
These sharks can live for about 32 years.
Unfortunately, the Sandbar Shark is one of the sharks most hunted by humans. They have large fins, so they are often captured for their use in shark fin soup.
Because of this, the IUCN has listed them as “vulnerable”. Still, they are considered one of the most abundant species of sharks found in the Atlantic ocean.
These sharks are found all across the globe, but prefer warm and temperate to tropical coastal waters.
The Sandbar shark is mainly a shallow-water shark. It is commonly seen from 30 to 900 feet (9.1 to 274 meters) below the surface. Females tend to stay higher at about 223 feet (68 meters).
For their main diet, they eat smaller reef fishes. They will also eat octopus, squid, crustaceans, and mollusks.
Besides humans, Sandbar Sharks don’t have any known predators.
8. Scalloped Hammerhead Shark (Sphyrna lewini)
Hawaiian Name: Mano kihikihi
Size: These sharks can reach up to 14 feet (4.3 meters) in length, but most stay under 7 feet (2.1 meters).
Color: Their bodies are overall a solid gray coloration.
Body: Hammerheads are very distinctive because of their flattened, hammer-shaped heads. They also have notches along the front of the head.
The Scalloped Hammerhead Shark have live young who live in a nursery before joining the adult populations.
These sharks can live for up to 30 years.
Unfortunately, hammerheads are commonly caught and exploited. Their bodies are used for meat and oil.Unlike most predators, Scalloped Hammerheads will school together in groups of several hundred sharks. This makes them easy prey for fishermen.
The IUCN lists them as a “critically endangered” species.
The Scalloped Hammerhead Shark can be found across the world in tropical and warm temperate waters.
In Hawaii, adults will generally live off shore. They will come into the shallower waters of Hilo Bay, Kaneohe Bay, Waimea Bay, and others. They will do this to have their young. Juveniles tend to stay near the bottom of the bays in the deepest areas.
Hammerheads prefer to eat reef fishes. They will also eat smaller sharks, rays, crustaceans, and cephalopods.
They have few natural predators, but may be in danger from large tiger sharks and orcas.
Hawaiian Name: Mano kihikihi
Size: They can reach lengths of up to 13 feet (4 meters), but most stay below 8 feet (2.4 meters). They can weigh up to 880 pounds (399 kilograms).
Color: Their bodies are mostly gray in coloration.
Body: Like all hammerheads, the Smooth Hammerhead Shark has a flattened hammer-shaped head. The difference is that their head is smoother and they don’t have an indentation in the middle.
Smooth Hammerhead Sharks give birth to live young and will have about 33 pups in one litter. Pups are raised in shallow nurseries.
These sharks can live for more than 20 years.
Hammerheads are one of the sharks that is most sought-after for shark fin soup. Every year, it’s estimated that 1.3 to 2.7 million fins are harvested from Smooth and Scalloped Hammerheads.
Smooth Hammerheads are also used to create oil.
The IUCN has listed Hammerheads as a “vulnerable” species.
The Smooth Hammerhead Shark can be found around the globe in temperate and tropical waters.
In Hawaii, the juveniles stay quite close to the surface. They are most commonly seen at 110 to 225 feet (33.5 to 68.5 meters).
Overall, these sharks prefer shallow water and will typically stay around 65 feet deep. They have been known to go as far as 656 feet (200 meters).
These sharks primarily eat bony fishes. They will also eat smaller sharks, rays, crustaceans, and cephalopods.
They don’t have many known predators besides humans, but they can be at risk from orcas.
Hawaiian Name: Mano lalakea
Size: These sharks can grow up to 7 feet (2.1 meters) in length, but most stay under 5 feet (1.5 meters). They can weigh up to 40 pounds (18 kilograms).
Color: They are gray in coloration. They have white tips on their two dorsal fins as well as the top of their tail fin.
Body: The head of these sharks is slightly flattened.
Whitetip Reef Sharks bear live young and will have 1 to 5 pups. They have a gestation period of about 12 months.
These sharks can live for about 25 years.
The IUCN lists this species as “near-threatened”. Habitat destruction is a big cause of this. Overfishing doesn’t appear to be much of a concern for Whitetips, however they do frequently become victims of bycatch.
Whitetip Reef Sharks live in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Their favorite places to reside are inside coral reefs.
In Hawaii, these sharks have been seen in coral reefs at depths of 25 to 130 feet (7.6 to 40 meters). They are bottom-dwelling fish that like shallow waters.
They also like to rest in underwater caves and may stay there for extended periods of time. They will do this because they can stop swimming for a time. Most sharks cannot stop swimming or they’re unable to breathe.
Whitetip Reef Sharks prefer to eat reef fishes, but they will also eat crustaceans and octopuses.
Besides humans, their natural predators include tiger sharks and giant groupers.
To protect sharks, a bill was recently passed (2022) that makes shark fishing illegal in Hawaii. No person can knowingly kill, capture, or entangle any species of shark.
Anyone caught doing so will be charged with a misdemeanor and fined $500. Any repeat offenses can lead to a fine up to $10,000.
Shark attacks are quite infrequent. In 2020, the United States had 33 “unprovoked” shark attacks. This makes up 58% of the total global shark attacks for 2020.
Of those 33 attacks, only 5 of them occurred in Hawaii. Florida had triple that number. On average, the Hawaiian government expects 2 to 3 shark attacks a year. In comparison, Hawaii has about 60 deaths a year from drowning.
Most sharks that are found in coastal waters are harmless and are not a threat to humans. Fatal shark attacks are extremely rare. Since Hawaii began recording shark bites, only 6 have caused fatalities.
Maui is the island most prone for shark bites, followed by Oahu. This is likely because the human population is higher and people spend more time in the water there.
Unfortunately, sharks are negatively impacted by habitat loss, human impacts, and climate change. Below is a list of ways sharks are harmed directly or indirectly. These threats are worldwide and are not directly related to Hawaii:
- Cutting down Mangroves
- Coral reef destruction due to fishing nets and trawls (coral bleaching)
- Coral reef destruction due to increases in water temperature
- Oil dredging
Sharks are incredibly important in Hawaiian culture and spirituality.
When someone died, it was often believed that they could be reincarnated into a shark. As a shark, they were then considered the guardian spirit, or the “‘aumakua”, of the family.
Gods are also a large part of Hawaiian culture, and at least 9 gods are related to sharks. These gods include: Kamohoali’i, Kua, Kuhaimoana, Kawelomahamahai’a, Kane’apua, Kaholia-Kane, Ka’ahupahau, Keali’ikau o Ka’u, and Kaehuikimano o Pu’uloa.
Besides being important in culture, sharks were important in the everyday lives of Hawaiians, too. They would collect and use the shark teeth as knives. They would also use the shark skins to make drums.
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