TV show revives shark tour debate
By Ashlee Duenas
Advertiser Staff Writer
"Shark Boat," a proposed TV docu-series based on the adventures of a Hale'iwa cage-diving company, has renewed the debate over whether shark tours should be allowed in Hawai'i.
A. Smith and Co. Productions — the maker of Fox TV's "Hell's Kitchen" and TLC's "Trading Spaces" — has begun development of "Shark Boat."
The show, which doesn't yet have a network or a start date, will track Hawaii Shark Encounters, a North Shore company that has conducted shark tours since 2002.
Hawaii Shark Encounters and the show's producers hope the series will raise awareness about sharks and their conservation.
"We need to educate people that sharks aren't the man-eating monsters portrayed in movies," said Hannes Jaenick, a filmmaker who has done several documentaries for A. Smith and Co.
Shark tour operators are running into opposition from at least one group that hopes to ban the activity. Safe Waters for Hawai'i — a group of canoe clubs, surf organizations, community organizations and elected officials — is drafting legislation that will ban shark tours throughout the Islands. The group's main concerns are public safety and disrespect of sharks, which are considered to be 'aumakua, or family gods.
Earlier this year, some East O'ahu residents opposed a new "swim with the sharks" business that was planning to operate out of Koko Head Marina and tour in waters off Maunalua Bay. Opponents expressed concerns that the business could endanger those who frequent those waters, especially those who paddle, surf and use the waters for other water sports.
In the end, the business owners decided to not go through with the venture and have since removed their boat and shark cage from Koko Head Marina.
One of Safe Waters for Hawai'i's chief concerns is that the tour boats use chumming — or baiting the water with fish — to attract sharks.
Elizabeth Reilly, vice-chairwoman of the Hawai'i Kai Neighborhood Board and a member of the Ka Iwi Coalition, said not only does chumming make the water unsafe for people, it is disrespectful to the Hawaiian culture because the shark is an 'aumakua and it's abusive to tease them with the food.
The owner of Hawaii Shark Encounters, Stefanie Brendl, said the firm's employees have stopped chumming.
Some opponents fear shark tours will encourage more sharks to follow small boats looking for food.
Ed Ebisui has lived in Hale'iwa all of his life and has been an active swimmer and fisherman for nearly 50 years. He is concerned about the shark tours and the effects they have on the fishing and surfing community.
"The bottom line is that those activities change the sharks' behavior," Ebisui said. "I operate my boat in that area, and sometimes I have 20 to 30 sharks around my boat. They've begun to associate boats and humans with food."
Ebisui said feeding the sharks is "stupid and irresponsible. It's good for the tourists, but for the people and creatures that do live here, it's not so good. Visitors wouldn't go home and feed the bears or mountain lions in (their) yard."
Brendl, of Hawaii Shark Encounters, said she hopes the TV show will change some of the negative opinions of sharks and shark tours.
"Change the fate of sharks, that's what we're trying to do," said Brendl. "With the show, we will reach so many more people than just bringing a couple of people on a tour."
EDUCATION, NOT PROFITS
Brendl said the "Shark Boat" series will be "about shark conservation and the work we're trying to do."
"People just think we're trying to take people out there and make money. Anyone who has been on the tour knows that we love sharks and that our work has nothing to do with making money, it's about education. Many of the people who oppose (it) haven't even been on the tour," she said.
Many who have been on her tour have changed their opinion of sharks. Patricia Morine, of Makawao, used to live on O'ahu and, before taking a tour, had been scared of sharks.
"Until a few years ago I would probably be one of the multitude of people supporting a ban from pure lack of knowledge," Morine said. "(I) have spent a lifetime on the ocean; sailing, snorkeling and kayaking. When the movie 'Jaws' came out, it terrified me. I did not go in the water for a year."
Morine said that every time she went in the water after seeing the movie, she was terrified that a shark was near. She attributes her experience and the education given to her on the shark tour to getting rid of that fear, and turning her into a shark advocate.
Jaenick, the filmmaker, said "(O'ahu) is the only spot on Earth where you can film these animals without (seeing) them being abused."
He said he was shocked when he found out people were opposed to the shark tours.
"People get bit because they made mistakes," he said in response to those who say shark tours will lead to more shark attacks. "I've interviewed all kinds of people who were bitten by sharks and they admit they made mistakes. They were out in murky waters, or they were out after it had just rained.
"We need more projects in North Shore about the education and conservation of sharks."
Carl Meyer, an assistant researcher at the University of Hawai'i who studies sharks, said, "Sharks may be initially attracted to boats or other objects by a wide range of sensory stimuli including sight, sound, smell, vibration and even electrical current, but (they) will lose interest unless presented with a food reward."
"Worldwide there have been very few scientific studies of shark cage diving, but those that have been published found that moderate levels of these activities probably have only a minor impact on shark behavior, and are therefore unlikely to create ecosystem-level effects," Meyer said.
"We (the Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology) are not advocates of shark cage diving. We feel strongly, however, that the debate over these controversial activities should be based on carefully validated facts, not unsubstantiated anecdotes or alarmist rhetoric," he said.