AAFSpecial Report AAF
forwarded by AAF Correspondent: James Morris

From the The Maui News, Hawaii

Warning signs gone but caution advised after women bitten by shark

Monday, March 8, 1999


Staff Writer

KAANAPALI -- Warning signs were gone from a 3-mile stretch of West Maui coastline this morning, two days after a shark took a huge bite from the thigh of a Haiku woman swimming off Kaanapali.

No large sharks were spotted during an hourlong flight from Maalaea Bay to Napili in a Coast Guard helicopter Saturday, said Francis Oishi, aquatic biologist with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

But officials were cautioning oceangoers to stay away from humpback whales, following speculation that the shark that attacked the woman was drawn to the area by a pod of whales.

``When the whales are close to shore like that, it's not a good idea for people to go out and be near the whale,'' Oishi said. ``Sharks are very unpredictable.''

Robyne Knutson, 29, was in stable condition Saturday at Maui Memorial Medical Center after undergoing surgery Friday to her right leg. Doctors were optimistic that proper circulation could be restored to the injured leg, said Boyd Kleefisch, hospital administrator.

Gary Moniz, acting chief of law enforcement for DLNR, said officials believe the woman was bitten by a shark, based on witnesses' statements, although the size and kind of shark had not been determined.

Witnesses said Knutson and her boyfriend, Bruce C. Brown, had been swimming near a pod of whales in depths of 50 to 60 feet. The two were at least a quarter-mile offshore in front of the Whaler condominium in Kaanapali when the crew of the 64-foot catamaran Gemini heard cries for help at about 10:45 a.m. Friday, as the boat was nearing shore to pick up a charter at Dig-Me Beach fronting Whalers Village.

``All of a sudden we heard somebody screaming for help,'' said Steve Dettwiler, operations manager of Gemini Charters. ``We could see this guy; he was way out.''

The boat immediately backed up to reach the man, Dettwiler said.

``We could see he was dragging a girl with him, and he yelled to us and said, `Shark attack,' '' Dettwiler said. ``He said he kicked the shark in the head and it let go and took off.''

While Dettwiler took the helm, captain J. Dushane and crew member Jeff Worthen helped bring the couple aboard, wrapping the woman's leg in towels. ``She was conscious and breathing, but she was definitely in a state of shock,'' said Dettwiler, who used his cellular telephone to call for fire and ambulance crews, which quickly arrived at the popular beach where about 150 people were gathered.

Dushane carried the woman off the boat to the beach, where Dr. Betsy Schusser examined Knutson before paramedics arrived to take her by ambulance to the hospital.

Muscle and skin were gone from above the woman's knee to her thigh, said Schusser, a family practitioner at the nearby West Maui Healthcare Center in Whalers Village.

``This was very serious,'' Schusser said. ``She was in shock when I got down there a few minutes after it happened.''

Maui Ocean Activities manager Mike Carter, who ran to get oxygen and assisted with administering first aid, said he saw teeth marks below the woman's missing flesh. He estimated her wound to be 14 to 15 inches long.

``Everybody did what they should do under the circumstances,'' Dettwiler said. ``We're just praying she's going to be OK.''

Both Dettwiler and Chas Wilkerson, captain of the Wind Warrior charter boat, said they saw a pod of whales in the area at the time the woman was attacked.

The mother, calf and escort whale were in calm, clear waters about 150 yards from the swimmers, Wilkerson estimated.

Maui County lifeguard Alan Akana speculated that the mother whale was giving birth at the time, causing the pod to remain in the area even after the attack. He said blood in the afterbirth may have drawn the shark to the area.

``You should always be worried about things like this; if you see a whale out there in a pod, leave them alone,'' Akana said. ``If you know whales are out there birthing, just stay away.''

State and federal laws require people to stay at least 300 feet from the endangered marine mammals, which are wintering in Maui waters.

After the attack, DLNR officers and Maui County lifeguards warned people to stay out of the water from Wahikuli County Wayside Park to S Turns near Kahana.

At Black Rock, north of where the woman was picked up, about 200 people were in the water when Wilkerson ferried a DLNR officer to tell swimmers to leave.

When people heard about the shark attack, ``the tourists were a bit shaken up,'' Wilkerson said. ``They were walking on water. They were climbing up on Black Rock.''

While he didn't see any sharks in the water Friday morning, Wilkerson said a 12- to 15-foot shark had been spotted off Black Rock in the past couple of weeks.

Observers said sharks usually don't frequent the waters off Kaanapali because of its calm waters and boating activity. There's also little for the sharks to feed on in the area.

``The Kaanapali area is not known for frequent shark sightings,'' Oishi said.

``It's very, very rare,'' Dettwiler said. ``It was a very freak accident. The conditions were clear. The water was clear.''

DLNR officers posted yellow warning signs along the coast from Hanakaoo Beach Park to Honokowai after the attack and notified nearby hotels so they could caution guests.

The warning signs were removed at dusk Saturday after Oishi and National Marine Fisheries Service biologist John Naughton saw no large sharks during their flight in a Coast Guard helicopter. ``All we saw were healthy whales,'' Oishi said.

People were at the beaches, which remained open Saturday. But most beachgoers were staying close to shore.

At the Kaanapali Beach Hotel, general manager Mike White said he hadn't talked with any unhappy guests.

``Obviously, everyone is . . . a little concerned,'' he said. ``Once you tell them it was way, way offshore, they're much more comfortable with the news.''

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