By CLAUDINE SAN NICOLAS
KIHEI — County lifeguards extricated a 5-foot tiger shark that had become entangled in a fishnet off Charlie Young Beach on Sunday morning and ferried the animal back out to sea.
Cary Kayama, acting captain for South Maui water safety officers, said the shark had caught its mouth in the net about 100 yards offshore. He said beachgoers watching the incident asked why the shark was being freed.
"The tourists were tripping out. "Why did you let it go?' I said because it was alive and it belongs in the ocean," Kayama recalled.
Water safety officers Zach Edlau and Rodrigo Caba responded first at about 10:30 a.m. Sunday after a tourist spotted a net and dead fish in 12 to 15 feet of water.
The officers immediately caught sight of the shark trapped in netting and with a hook in its mouth, and summoned Kayama. They decided to bring the net and shark onshore at Kamaole Beach Park I instead of trying to disentangle the animal in the water.
"It was just too dangerous" in the water, Kayama said.
Lifeguards pulled the net onshore and the shark offered little resistance, thrashing only after Kayama cut the net from the shark's mouth. The animal exhibited no exterior injuries, but when lifeguards tried to steer the shark into the ocean, it wouldn't move.
"I don't know why it didn't swim away, but maybe because it was tired," Kayama said.
Then, the water safety officers placed the animal on a rescue sled and used a personal watercraft to tow it about 500 yards offshore.
Caba drove the personal watercraft while Edlau held on to the shark by its tail. After freeing the shark, water safety officers patrolled the waters to ensure the animal didn't return to where people were swimming.
At no time did authorities clear swimmers from the ocean, Kayama said, although many came ashore at Kamaole Beach Park I to watch the action. The shark incident attracted about 100 onlookers, many taking photographs, he said.
"It was pretty exciting. We had a lot gathering around watching," he said.
Kayama said Sunday afternoon that he felt sure the waters were safe, but officials posted shark-sighting signs until sundown Sunday as a precaution.
Kayama said he had consulted with state Department of Land and Natural Resources officials, who had concurred that the shark should be returned to the ocean.
State Shark Task Force spokesman Randy Honebrink said in a phone interview from Honolulu that there didn't appear to be any reason to hold the tiger shark.
"I think putting it back into the ocean isn't creating a risk," he said.
Studies show that tiger sharks normally don't attack large prey like turtles or even human beings until the sharks grow to about 10 feet long, he said.
Honebrink said he's never been involved in a case of a nonattacking tiger shark, as in the Kihei incident. Protocol has been established for dealing with Hawaii tiger sharks that have attacked only, he said.
Native Hawaiian cultural specialist Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr. of Pukalani, a member of the state Shark Task Force, applauded the actions Sunday of water safety officers.
"I think that's terrific," he said.
In the early 1990s after a fatal shark attack off Olowalu, Maxwell had protested a state proposal to hunt down and kill tiger sharks. Killing tiger sharks goes against traditional beliefs of Native Hawaiians, who consider these animals to be aumakua, or ancestor spirits, he said.
Maxwell also mentioned Sunday a study on tiger sharks in Kaneohe Bay. Researchers found that sharks don't stick around after an attack, and the state Shark Task Force discussed these findings about a year ago, he said.
Kayama confirmed that no shark attack was reported Sunday and that he felt confident there was no threat after the tiger shark was released.