The shaka hand gesture (also known as the hang loose hand gesture) is the symbol made by holding the hand in a loose fist and extending the thumb and pinky finger with the back of the hand facing the recipient. You have most likely seen this gesture being flashed by surfers and Hawaiian natives, but do you know what it actually means? Sure, it can be a way to say “hey” or “that’s cool,” but it actually holds a much deeper meaning. This gesture is more than just a mere wave or thumbs up. The shaka is a symbol of the “Aloha spirit,” which is the coordination of the mind and spirit to think and exude good feelings to others.

Did you know? The term aloha derives from Proto-Polynesia and dates back to the early 1800’s. It’s used in other Polynesian languages, too, with varying meanings. When broken down, the literal translation of the phrase translates to [Alo] meaning ‘presence’ and [Hā] meaning ‘breath.’ Together the word aloha translates to ‘The presence of breath’ or ‘breath of life.’

Just like “aloha” means much more than just “hello” or “goodbye,” the shaka is more than just a simple greeting or gesture of thanks. Saying “aloha” means that there is mutual regard and affection for the other person. It is acknowledging the importance of each and every individual in collective existence. This same core value is reflected in the shaka. The simple gesture symbolizes reverence, solidarity, compassion, and friendship. It is a sign of respect and mutual understanding for the recipient.

underwater shaka

Adopting the Shaka

Surfers and, more recently, scuba divers have adopted this Hawai’ian gesture and brought it across all parts of the world. Often interpreted as “hang loose”, the symbol fits the surfing culture. While there is debate over where the shaka originated, legends point to Hamana Kalili of Laie who lost the three middle fingers of his right hand while working at the Kahuku Sugar Mill. As he was a guard of the sugar train, his all-clear wave evolved into the shaka and was emulated by children. Wherever the symbol came from, it is important to know its meaning today as you travel to scuba spots across the world. Take the compassion and understanding that comes with the shaka and spread mutual respect wherever your diving travels may take you.

Here is a fun video that gives a short history of the modern shaka and some creative variations of the shaka starting at 2min 40 sec. Our favorites include: the I’m Far Away Shaka and the We Just Won Shaka.

Scuba Diving Shaka

Did you know that in some parts of the world, gestures similar to the shaka sign are actually underwater hand signals used by scuba divers to communicate the presence of certain marine species?

Manta Ray: With your right hand make your shaka and move it into the horizontal position so that the back of your hand is facing upwards, thumb extended to your left and little finger to your right. You’ve just made a manta ray, and you can make it swim by moving your thumb and little finger too!

The same sign is sometimes used for the manta rays’ smaller cousins – mobula rays. Did you know that mobula rays are also known as devil rays? Their cephalic fins, when rolled up, resemble horns!

Mola Mola (Oceanic Sunfish): Mola molas are known for their distinct appearance with long ventral and dorsal fins. The underwater hand signal for mola is simply a vertical shaka with your thumb pointing upward and your little finger pointing downward. Rotate your wrist from left to right to make the mola swim!

Do you want to learn more scuba diving hand signals for marine life? Check out the video below. Or, if you want to read more about hand signals for divers, check out our blog about hand signals here!

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