Olowalu shark signs up

Some think specific area, and hazard, singled out unfairly

The Maui News
Friday, August 2, 2002

Staff Writer

LAHAINA – Signs warning that "Sharks may be present" were posted on the shoreline at Olowalu on Thursday by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The posting drew mixed reactions, with snorkel and dive tour operators asking why Olowalu had been singled out.

"The chances of being bitten by a shark are extremely remote, but the area does have a certain reputation and history," said Gil Coloma-Agaran, DLNR chairman.

Two Mainland visitors have been bitten by sharks at Olowalu in the past two years, and an Olowalu woman was killed by a shark while swimming there in 1991. After a man was bitten there in January, the state began considering posting a permanent warning.

"We've taken this measure out of an abundance of caution," Coloma-Agaran said.

The signs were posted by the state workers at eight sites on Honoapiilani Highway and one site at Olowalu Landing. They bear the silhouette of a shark and warn, "Shark bites have occurred in this area."

"I'd rather be safe than sorry," said Marsha Wienert, executive director of the Maui Visitors Bureau. "There's no question that that part of Maui has had more (attacks) than any other part of the island."

But she said she would have preferred alternatives to the signs, such as more information in visitor brochures or on visitor information television programming.

Tim Means, a scuba instructor and retail manager for Lahaina Divers, questioned why Olowalu was singled out for the signs. He thought it might lead visitors to believe other beaches are shark free, when in fact shark attacks and sightings have occurred in many areas.

"They're everywhere. It's their home," he said. "I actually think if they're going to put up warning signs they should put them all over, because sharks aren't specific; they go to all different places."

But he said he didn't think the signs would keep many people out of the water.

"The red flags of surf conditions don't seem to stop them from going swimming," he said.

Jan Nolan, manager of Teralani Sailing, felt the signs were a mistake.

"I don't think it's right, what they're doing. There are sharks in all Hawaiian waters," she said.

The ocean is full of many dangers, including rough shore break, dangerous currents, eels and sea urchins, she noted, yet sharks are given special attention.

"I think it's going to scare tourists off," she said.

With more people using the area, it's no wonder shark attacks have become more common, said David Jung, general manager of Island Marine.

"I think the reason we've had shark attacks at Olowalu is it's one of the most popular snorkeling spots around. Sharks do frequent that area, and the more people in the water the more likely they are to get attacked by a shark," he said.

He noted that shark-control fishing programs were stopped more than a decade ago, and the population of sea turtles, a favorite shark food, have also increased. The result has been more sharks.

"We're going to have sharks in the ocean. That's just the way it is," he said.

"I think educational signs, no matter where, are a good idea, because we do have a lot of people who are unfamiliar with the waters . . . An educational sign I would have no objection to; a noneducational warning sign I would."

Becky Rufener, co-owner of Dive Maui, worried the signs might hurt business in the wintertime, when her company sometimes takes divers to the Olowalu area.

"Anyplace in the ocean runs the risk of sharks," she said. "This is a reaction to a situation. It's not a solution."

But Wienert said the signs - or the knowledge that she's sharing the water with sharks - will not stop her from continuing to visit Olowalu.

"I've been there in the water many, many times," she said.

But knowledge of the area's reputation may make her, and other swimmers, a bit more nervous.

On one visit "we saw a fin," she said. "But it was a stingray. It was gorgeous - I never knew they were so graceful. But for a minute I was like, ÎOh my gosh!' "

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