“Multiple large sharks spotted at Kaimana Beach”. “Shark warning signs posted”. “Popular Waikiki Beach spot closed intermittently due to shark sightings”. Those were the headlines that cycled through our local news almost daily from mid September through October, 2020. Drone footage showed up to ten 4-6’ blacktip sharks (Carcharhinus limbatus) foraging through several large schools of bait fish right off Kaimana beach. I’ve been swimming there for 20+ years and have never seen anything like it.
Shark sightings at Kaimana Beach are rare. But blacktips love to hunt small schooling fishes in shallow water. So when unusually high numbers of halalu and goldspot sardines took shelter there, the big boys came in to feast. It’s interesting how this event coincided with far less people on beaches and in the water due to the restrictions.
Halalu are young akule (Selar crumenophthalmus), the Hawaiian indigenous fish also referred to as bigeye scad. The halalu first appear in small schools far offshore, but eventually find refuge in bays and harbors between July and November.
The goldspot sardine (Herklotsichthys quadrimaculatus) was first discovered in Kaneohe Bay (Oahu) in 1975. No one quite knows exactly how it got there. Likely, it was introduced from the live well of a fishing vessel in the early 1970s. Goldspot sardines are mainly used as bait since the head and guts can contain clupeotoxin, a poison found in plankton-eating fishes.
But the halalu are tasty little fish, much preferred over the sardines by people as well as the sharks. The sweet, oily flavor is similar to mackerel. You’ll know the halalu are running when you see fishermen, shoulder-to-shoulder, along the shoreline. That was scene at Kaimana Beach every day. And with dozens of lines in the water, the swimmers were not happy, far more concerned about being hooked than being bitten. Tensions were high.
Blacktips are generally timid by nature but I was amazed how wary they were of people while hunting. Floating motionless above the school was the best way to see them foraging.
Summer swells were still hitting Waikiki and the visibility was often terrible. But the murky days were usually the most exciting. Picture lying on the sand surrounded by bait fish. Suddenly, the small fish part, swimming frantically in all directions. A backtip’s pointed snout appears just a few feet away. Within a split second, the predator turns on a dime. The tail disappears into a cloud of silt.
As of the New Year, only the sardines remain. The sharks and fishermen left Kaimana Beach when the halalu returned to the open sea. I’m crossing my fingers for more sharks and bait balls here next fall!