December 13, 1958 – 8-months before Hawaiʻi became a state … it was described as a typical trade wind, Windward Oʻahu day; the sky was clear; the water was a little rough with whitecaps and there were good-sized waves.
Six friends, ages 9 to 15, were doing what kids do, then and now; they had paddled and rowed out to the Mokulua Islands to surf and play in the water.
Along with an 8-foot boat, they had three surfboards and three air mattresses. The boys kept together; never was one more than 75 – 100-feet from the others.
Then, disaster struck.
Billy, 15-year old son of Spencecliff restaurants partner Clifton Weaver, was on an air mattress and missed catching a wave. Then, the rest of the boys noticed he was clinging to the mat, apparently in difficulty.
They heard a cry for help.
Seeing blood in the water, they swam over and tried to rescue Billy – they saw he had lost a leg.
Then, one of the boys cried out ‘Shark,’ seeing it surface 30-feet away.
Fearing their small boat would swamp in the surf, they rowed to shore to get help.
About an hour-and-a-half after the attack, the Fire rescue squad was on the scene. Other boats joined in the search. Finally a helicopter crew from the Marine Base spotted the body on the reef.
A local resident dove down and recovered the body. Efforts to revive him failed; Billy died from loss of blood, drowning, shock or a combination of the three.
The shark was estimated to be over 15-feet long; they believe it was a tiger shark. It was seen still cruising in the area.
The next day, the Territory and local residents set out to capture the shark. Bounties were offered. Lines of hooks were set in the water where the attack occurred. Overhead pilots spotted two schools of sharks in nearby Kailua Bay.
Over the next couple of days, more hooks were set and three tiger sharks and two sand sharks were caught.
In response to the fatal attack, the Billy Weaver Shark Research and Control Program was initiated. Starting April 1, 1959, 595-sharks were caught off Oʻahu during the remainder of the year; 71 were tiger sharks.
Kenny Young, my father, was the fund drive chairman for the Billy Weaver Shark Control Fund (Hawaiʻi’s first shark control program.) They accepted donations, and to raise additional money teeth from the hunted sharks were put on chains and sold as necklaces.
In the old days, folks used to catch and kill sharks. The accepted attitude was, “the only good shark is a dead shark.”
In an attempt to relieve public fears and to reduce the risk of shark attack, the state government of Hawaiʻi spent over $300,000 on shark control programs between 1959 and 1976. Six control programs of various intensity resulted in the killing of 4,668-sharks.
Subsequent evaluation of the 1959-1976 efforts noted, “Shark control programs do not appear to have had measurable effects on the rate of shark attacks in Hawaiian waters. Implementation of large-scale control programs in the future in Hawaiʻi may not be appropriate.” (Wetherbee, 1994)
At the turn of the century, my grandfather and his brothers (Young Brothers) used to have various jobs in Honolulu Harbor; one was taking paying customers out to harpoon sharks off-shore. My great-uncle, William, wrote books about his adventures shark hunting.
I remember Kohala shark “hunts” on the Big Island where a donated steer carcass was tied between points in a cove and “hunters,” on surrounding cliffs using high-powered rifles, shot at sharks feeding off the carcass.
Times have changed.
We have learned that tiger sharks (the ones most implicated in attacks on humans) don’t simply dwell in small coastal territories, but are instead extremely wide-ranging.
They are opportunistic predators and typically move on soon after arriving in an area, because the element of surprise is quickly lost and potential prey become wary and difficult to catch.
We know more now and recognize that sharks are an important part of the marine ecosystem. Sharks are often the “apex” or top of the food chain predators in their ecosystems because they have few natural predators.
As top predators, sharks help to manage healthy ocean ecosystems. Sharks feed on the animals below them in the food chain, helping to regulate and maintain the balance of marine ecosystems; limiting the populations of their prey, in turn affects the prey species of those animals, and so on.
To some, sharks are ʻaumakua (ancestral spirits that take possession of living creatures) that make appearances to express parental concern for the living, bringing warnings of impending danger, comfort in times of stress or sorrow or in other ways being helpful. (Kane)
Sad and Tragic, yes – we continue to have shark attacks. However, many believe it is typically mistaken identity – the sharks mistake surfers and floaters as turtles or seals. (Remember, we are visitors to their realm in the ocean.)
I still vividly recall Halloween morning, 2003, when DLNR’s shark expert came to my office to brief me on the shark attack on Bethany Hamilton on Kaua‘i. It was a somber day at DLNR. Unlike the old days, there was no “hunt” called for. Other incidents and attacks continue to occur.
“The number of shark attacks has nothing to do with how many sharks are in the water and everything to do with how many people are in the water,” said Kim Holland, University of Hawaiʻi shark researcher and Shark Task Force member. (Honolulu Advertiser, following the Hamilton attack)
John Naughton, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist, said previous efforts to remove large predatory sharks saw the proliferation of smaller ones, which harassed fishermen and their catches.
“It’s an archaic way to manage the resource. It’s like the turn of the century, when they shot wolves. It doesn’t make sense anymore.” (Honolulu Advertiser, November, 2003) (Lots of information here is from Tester and Wetherbee.)