If you’re heading to Oahu on vacation, you’re likely to be planning a day or more at one of the most well-known beaches in the world, Waikiki Beach, on the shore of Honolulu.
Whether you’re interested in enjoying surfing, canoeing, snorkeling, or swimming, the stunning two-mile stretch is the perfect spot.
Hawaii is well-known for its marine life, and some can be potentially dangerous. So, you might wonder if there are sharks at Waikiki Beach.
Meeting an ocean predator face-to-face could, understandably, be a bit worrying.
Yes, sharks do live naturally in the Pacific Ocean off Waikiki. However, there isn’t any need to be concerned about a dangerous encounter during your vacation.
In fact, the chances of seeing a shark at all off Waikiki Beach are extremely low, and they’re not regarded as any threat to humans.
As we explore the sharks in Waikiki, we’ll see that the beach has an excellent safety record, and there have been no recorded instances of a shark attack here since 1900.
So, what sharks are there at Waikiki Beach? About forty species live in Hawaiian waters, but the water off the beach isn’t especially deep, and coral reefs protect many areas.
This means the most likely species are those that like shallow water, including whitetip, blacktip, and gray reef sharks, and the sandbar shark. None of these are typically considered dangerous.
Let’s take a complete look at the sharks in Waikiki and assure you they’re nothing to worry about.
The Presence of Sharks in Waikiki
Are there sharks in Waikiki Beach? Yes, they live there naturally. However, they are not seen that often and this isn’t an area known for shark attacks.
The Division of Aquatic Resources says that 41 species of shark are found in Hawaiian waters. But before you start to worry about a shark-infested ocean, you should know that the list of sharks that could be expected to be seen at Waikiki Beach is much shorter.
To begin with, many species on the list, for example, the frilled shark, are only found in very deep water. Several others, including the oceanic whitetip, prefer the open ocean and are not seen close to shore.
There’s also a bunch of small cat sharks and dogfish that definitely don’t pose any threat. There is even the rarely-seen whale shark that might be big, but it only eats plankton. So, what are we left with? What kind of sharks are in Waikiki?
To understand the types of sharks that live naturally at Waikiki Beach, we need to understand the environment.
While it can depend on the exact location and tide, the water close to the beach is generally relatively shallow. There’s a gradual slope that extends out towards deeper water, and in many areas, there are coral reefs that provide some natural barriers.
There are surf zones in some areas where the water can be rougher and more turbid, but there are also calm areas like Kūhiō Beach, which has shallow, lagoon-like water inside its breakwaters.
What this all means is that the sharks you’re likely to see off one of Waikiki’s beaches are those that tolerate shallow water. We can break this down into just seven species that are typically expected in the Waikiki area.
Whitetip Reef Shark (Triaenodon obesus)
Sharks (mano) have profound, spiritual importance in Hawaiian culture, and the whitetip reef has the name mano lalakea.
They are loyal to the reef and, like many sharks, are considered an ʻaumākua, an ancestral spirit that protects its descendants. Families with whitetip ʻaumākua will even provide food for the shark.
This is a relatively small shark that only grows to about 1.5 meters (5 feet).
They’re not often seen during the day as they tend to sleep inside caves or on the bottom in deeper water before coming out at night to hunt octopus, crabs, or lobster, or perhaps a sleeping fish.
Whitetip reef sharks are not dangerous unless severely provoked. The species has only been implicated in five unprovoked (all non-fatal) attacks in the entire world since records began in 1580, and none have ever taken place in Waikiki.
They can sometimes be curious and may be seen if there are large schools of baitfish.
However, they’re usually wary of people and will keep their distance.
Blacktip Reef Shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus)
The blacktip reef shark is known locally as mano pa’ele. It looks a little like the whitetip, but, unsurprisingly, has black tips on its fins. It also reaches a maximum of about 1.5 meters (5 feet).
The shark likes shallow water, so snorkelers may see it. However, they’re usually quite nervous and will avoid human activity.
This species has also been involved in very few unprovoked attacks on humans (just 14 worldwide – all non-fatal – to the end of 2022 since 1580) and none in Waikiki.
Gray Reef Shark (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos)
Grey reef sharks get a little larger, with adults averaging a maximum of 1.88 meters (6.2 feet).
These are not commonly seen in Waikiki Beach waters and will usually stay away from the shallows in deeper areas outside the reef where scuba divers may encounter them.
Like the other reef sharks, there are no reports of a gray reef attacking anyone in Waikiki (can you see the pattern that’s forming?), and they would likely only be a potential, unintended danger to spearfishers in deep water.
Sandbar Shark (Carcharhinus plumbeus)
Sandbar sharks are the largest shallow-water shark around, and females can reach an impressive 2–2.5 meters (6.6–8.2 feet) in length.
This shark is one of the more common around Waikiki. However, it will usually stick to water deeper than 10 meters (30 feet) deep, so you don’t need to worry about it while wading unless you are throwing bait in the water.
They can be bold and follow large schools of fish to hunt them. But the shark is regarded as docile regarding people and has never been implicated in an unprovoked attack here (and only in five worldwide since records began).
Blacktip Shark (Carcharhinus limbatus)
Blacktip sharks are known to be particularly bold when it comes to pursuing baitfish. In some locations, including in Florida’s infamous “Shark Attack Capital of the World,” they have been implicated in several bites, especially those involving surfers.
However, here in Waikiki, the blacktip is regarded more peacefully. Although they may be seen reasonably frequently in shallow waters, locally, they are considered timid and have not been involved in any attacks.
Scalloped Hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini)
This hammerhead shark is typically only seen as a small juvenile in shallow water, while adults stay much deeper.
Known locally as mano kihikihi, the scalloped hammerhead is a popular ʻaumākua. The shark particularly enjoys eating octopus, squid, rays, and crustaceans. It has a smaller mouth than its typical size, so it is not considered dangerous to humans.
Tiger Shark (Galeocerdo cuvier)
The final shark that can potentially be seen off Waikiki Beach could be dangerous. Indeed this is a shark that comes in third on the list of most dangerous sharks of all time.
However, it is essential to have some perspective and understand that although they are seen from time to time, the distinctively striped tiger shark has never been involved in an unprovoked attack at Waikiki in recent history.
While tiger sharks are thought to be responsible for most shark attacks in Hawaii, we should understand that there have only been 179 unprovoked attacks in all of Hawaii between 1828 and the present day.
While a tiger shark may have been involved in several of them, the chances of a dangerous encounter are still incredibly low, especially in the beach’s shallow waters.
Having said all that, we should still treat the tiger shark respectfully, and if they are ever spotted, the authorities will quickly close the area until the shark has passed.
Tiger sharks are called niuhi locally and are known as dangerous. Unlike the other sharks, tigers were regarded as evil and would be hunted historically by the island’s people.
Are There Great White Sharks in Waikiki?
This is a common question, and the answer, so far as the average vacation visitor is concerned, is no.
Great white sharks do occasionally visit Hawaiian waters. But they’re very rare and are typically only seen when the water drops below 23 °C (75 °F) between January and April. They also like to stay in deep open ocean environments.
A great white was seen stealing a tuna from an angler’s line in 2022. But it’s important to understand that this happened 25 kilometers (15 miles) out in the open ocean.
What Months Are Sharks Most Active in Hawaii?
Sharks can be found in Hawaiian waters year-round, and different species have different behaviors.
However, in general, the shallow water sharks found at Waikiki Beach are more active in the warmer months, from May to October, when more baitfish and other prey may be available.
It’s worth knowing that when shallow water gets especially warm, in the height of summer, most sharks will seek cooler, deeper areas.
Shark Attacks in Waikiki
Have there been any reported shark attacks in Waikiki? Well, to find one, we had to go all the way back to September 5th, 1900, when a gentleman named Joe Hartman is said to have been left with his “bathing suit torn & “imprints of the shark’s teeth on his body.”
It’s unknown which shark species was involved, but the attack is recorded as non-fatal.
Although there are occasional shark sightings, Waikiki is considered one of the safest beaches in Hawaii to enjoy swimming, surfing, paddle boarding, and other water activities.
The most recent incident was in May 2019, when a surfer reported being bumped completely unharmed off his board by a shark thought to be hunting baitfish.
In 2015 a man claimed to have been bitten on the foot by a shark but it was proven to have happened when he stepped on an eel.
Extensive records are kept by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, so it is easy to compare incidents in other areas.
Similarly, the International Shark Attack File shows only four unprovoked attacks in Honolulu as a whole between 1828 and the present day.
In comparison, Maui is considered the most dangerous island, and a total of 71 attacks have taken place over the same time.
On Oahu, almost all incidents have involved surfers. Surf waters are usually more turbid and have large numbers of baitfish, so attacks by hunting sharks based on mistaken identity can happen.
For example, in 2008, a surfer was bitten on the leg by a tiger shark at Ka’a’awa on the island’s northeastern coast. Another surfer had their board bitten in 2007 but suffered no injury at Waialua Bay in northwest Oahu.
As an exception, a snorkeler was bitten on the forearm by a shark in 2008 while snorkeling, but like all the other incidents, this happened far away from Waikiki at Lahilahi Point on the west coast.
Measures Taken To Protect Beachgoers From Sharks
While shark attacks at Waikiki Beach are incredibly rare, it’s still essential to follow the instructions of the lifeguards stationed on all beaches to stay safe.
Signs are immediately posted when sharks are spotted, and the area will be closed to swimmers until the shark has moved on.
There aren’t shark nets at Waikiki Beach as they are considered unnecessary and environmentally destructive.
Even if you do happen to see a shark while you are at the beach, there is no need to panic. Sharks are generally not interested in humans and are much more likely to swim away from us than to attack.
Just be sure never to provoke them by approaching aggressively. Never do anything to attract them, particularly by putting food or other bait in the water.
Remember that if you are nervous about sharks, you can stay in the enclosed areas found along the length of the beach, where you can be completely assured you will never see one.
In reality, the jellyfish found in Hawaii present a much more significant threat. Other injuries occur when swimmers get caught by waves and currents or come in contact with the reef. So make sure you’re aware of your limitations and always swim with another person.
Consult the website Hawaii Beach Safety before you travel for information on the latest conditions.
Sharks live naturally in the shallow coastal waters of Waikiki Beach, but this area of Hawaii is considered extremely safe when it comes to shark attacks.
Despite incidents elsewhere in Hawaii, there have been no attacks in Waikiki since a non-fatal bite happened in 1900.
So, if you’re heading to Waikiki for a beach vacation, you can stop worrying about sharks and focus on enjoying everything the area offers.
Make sure to take plenty of reef-safe sunscreen, so you don’t get burnt. Pay attention to the lifeguards, and you can enjoy swimming, surfing, or just soaking up the sun without any concerns.
British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.
Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.
When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.