The shortfin mako shark, Isurus oxyrinchus (“sharp nose”), is a large, feisty mackerel shark found worldwide in temperate and tropical offshore waters.
An ancient relative, Isurus hastilus, was probably 20 feet long and nearly 6,000 pounds; it was the Cretaceous grand mako that shared the seas with kronosaurs, ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs.
Makos have striking coloring, with a deep purple to indigo blue back and fin surfaces, light-blue silvery sides and white ventral surfaces. The shortfin mako is snow white around the mouth and under-snout. Only the blue shark can rival the makos for beautiful coloration.
“Mako” comes from the Maori language, meaning either the shark or a shark tooth. Their teeth are highly prized by the Maoris. It may have originated in a dialectal variation, as it is similar to the common words for shark in a number of Polynesian languages: “mago” in Samoan, “ma‘o” in Tahitian and “mano” in Hawaiian.
Makos represent the largest, fastest, most sophisticated species of pelagic shark on the planet. Makos are prized gamefish that are fished commercially and for recreation. The mako is an excellent “food” shark, like the thrasher, and taste like pork chops.
Although an oceanic species, the shortfin mako’s power, aggressiveness, teeth and great speed make it a danger to humans. Shortfin makos have been blamed for a number of both nonfatal and fatal attacks on humans.
Shortfin makos frequently damage boats and injure fishermen after being hooked. Most attacks occur when the shark is either provoked or caught on the end of a fishing line.
International Shark Attack File statistics record 42 shortfin attacks between 1980 and 2010 on humans, three fatal, along with 20 boat attacks. Divers who have encountered shortfin makos note that they swim in a figure-eight pattern and approach with mouths open prior to an attack.
The shortfin mako is sleek and spindle-shaped with a long conical snout. Mako sharks have a more hydrodynamic shape than any shark other than the salmon shark. This enables its spectacular speed and movements with great agility.
Makos are legendary swimmers, reaching speeds as one of the fastest sharks in the ocean. This powerful shark has been recorded at sustained speeds of 35 mph with bursts of up to 45 mph. Some scientists suggest that the shortfin mako can swim up to 60 mph. They can leap approximate 20 feet or higher in the air. These qualities have made this fast, high-leaping species a sought-after sport fish worldwide.
This species grows to an average length of six to ten feet and to a weight of approximately 800 pounds. The Hawaii state record is 1,207 pounds caught in Kona. The IGFA all-tackle world record for men is 1,221.0 pounds caught in Massachusetts. The women’s all-tackle record is 911.12 pounds caught in Florida. A near record-sized female shortfin mako measured 13 feet and weighed 1,750 pounds. There is some uncertainty about its life span, but it is suspected to reach ages of between 20 to 30 years.
The makos of today feed on some of the world’s fastest and highly developed tunas and billfish and are therefore considered apex predators. It feeds mainly upon cephalopods (squid, cuttlefish and octopus); bony fishes, including mackerels, tunas, bonitos and swordfish; but it may also eat other sharks, porpoises, sea turtles and seabirds. Shortfin makos have been found with amputated swordfish bills impaled into their head and gills, suggesting that swordfish seriously injure and likely kill makos.
Makos hunt by lunging vertically up, tearing off chunks of their preys’ flanks and fins. Makos swim below their prey — so they can see what is above — and have a high probability of reaching prey unseen.
The mako was propelled to “big-game fishing” fame by author Zane Gray, who was taken by the animals’ menacing appearance and volatility during the early part of the 20th century.
Author Ernest Hemingway was also impressed by the mako and depicted it as the marlin-marauding monster in his classic novel, “The Old Man and the Sea.” Three impossibly large shortfin mako sharks appear as the antagonists in the film “Deep Blue Sea.” The character Chum from “Finding Nemo” was a shortfin mako.
Fishing boats in Hawaii catch sharks quite frequently while fishing the buoys or flotsam with bait. Most are the “Whalers” (Bronze and Galapagos), which are released healthy after giving the angler a fight of a lifetime. Sharks are a nuisance when trying to bait a buoy for mahi or tuna, and they can ruin a good day of fishing. But, sometimes you just have to pay the “Tax Collector.”