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Shark Attacks Very Troubling for Island Paradise

April 02, 1999|PETE THOMAS

Planning a trip to Hawaii this spring or summer?

If so, you've probably heard about Mark Monazzami's tragic honeymoon. And if you weren't aware of it before, you know now that you'll be swimming in sparkling blue waters that are home to large and dangerous sharks.

You should also realize, however, that if you practice a little common sense, you have little to worry about--and that the dangers are far greater on the road to the airport than they are in the water at Waikiki.

Monazzami's story, full of suspense and intrigue, has been told on television and in newspapers around the world. . . .

A kayak is rented by newlyweds who paddle out into the water. A sudden wind comes up and sweeps them out into the channel. Night falls and they find themselves miles from shore, clinging to the vessel while in the water in an attempt to stay out of the chilly wind.

The woman cries, "Shark!" and is pulled under. She surfaces without an arm and bleeds to death next to her husband. It's rough and he can't hold on, and she drifts off into the night. He climbs onto the kayak, weary, wet and cold, and drifts helplessly away, eventually washing ashore on an uninhabited island, where he wanders for two days before being rescued.

Or so his story goes . . .

There are doubters, naturally. The body of Nahid Davoodabai has not been recovered. Monazzami, a computer engineer from Sunnyvale, Calif., is the only one who knows exactly what happened during those fateful days two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, his story is raising more than eyebrows. Lawyers have been contacted and methods used by people who rent kayaks are being scrutinized.

"Those channels are wind-swept and if you get caught out there on any small vessel you could find yourself in deep trouble," said Carol Hogan, who has promoted ocean sporting events at the islands for nearly 30 years. "My point is, the kayak companies should not let anyone go out alone if they know the people are inexperienced, or if the weather is going to be rough. And you shouldn't go yourself if you know high winds are forecast, and they were that day."

They were, but Monazzami maintains he wasn't aware of the forecast and that nobody warned him. Regardless, he was fortunate to have been deposited on the shore of Kahoolawe Island, 12 miles from Maui, or his body might never have turned up.

He and his wife would have become mere statistics, classified as drowning victims. There would be no sensational tale and no media frenzy, which Maui police described as unprecedented.

Has any good come from all this?

Aside from the kayak safety issue, it is hoped Monazzami's ordeal will bring about a greater respect for the ocean among the many visitors to paradise.

Hawaiian waters are not like Santa Monica Bay or Lake Michigan. They're much more dynamic. The islands are in the middle of the ocean and exposed to strong winds almost daily. The water may be calm and comfortable in protected areas along the shore, but out in the channels the currents are usually swift and the seas often very rough.

For this reason, Hogan said, escort boats accompany competitors in the many cross-channel paddleboard and outrigger races she promotes. "It doesn't matter how experienced you are," she added, pointing to another well-publicized incident in 1978, which claimed the life of Hawaii's Eddie Aikau.

Aikau, a world-famous surfer and lifeguard, disappeared while trying to paddle a 10-foot surfboard for help after a sailing vessel he and 15 others were on flipped in gale-force winds in the Molokai Channel.

The boat was the Hokulea, a traditional Polynesian double-hulled sailing canoe. The crew was practicing for a 3,000-mile journey to Tahiti and using only traditional navigation and sailing techniques. They had a radio, but when a giant wave capsized the 60-foot vessel about midnight, the radio was rendered inoperable.

Like Monazzami and his wife, the crew members clung to their craft and huddled in the water in an attempt to stay warm. At daybreak, with the vessel drifting away from the islands, it was decided that Aikau would try to paddle a surfboard for help on either Lanai or Molokai, which were still in sight.

Aikau figured it would take five hours. But fierce winds--and perhaps sharks--dictated otherwise. He was never found, despite a rescue effort that involved dozens of helicopters and boats. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter rescued the crew of the Hokulea that night.

Most tourists aren't concerned about getting in such trouble, and rightly so. They generally stay near the coast and swim and snorkel in protected lagoons off beaches manned by lifeguards. If the surf is large, inexperienced swimmers are usually wise enough to stay ashore.

Hawaii averages about one death a week in the ocean. That's pretty low considering that millions visit the islands every year.

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