Sharks At Tunnels Are Not Villains

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - April 13, 2011
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Kauai’s Bethany Hamilton has shared her story of faith and hope all across the world ever since she lost her left arm in a shark attack in 2003.

On April 8, she started reaching an even larger audience when Soul Surfer was released in theaters across the nation. The movie features Hamilton’s amazing spirit and drive as she fights through the tragedy with the help of her family and friends, and eventually fulfills her dream of becoming a professional surfer.

The well-documented attack by a 14-foot tiger shark happened at a break called Tunnels on Kauai’s north shore, a spot Hamilton and her family had surfed at for years. It is also a break with which marine biologist Terry Lilley is well-familiar.

“The caves at Tunnels are lava tubes at about 40 feet deep that wind all through the reef,” says Lilley of the area where Hamilton was bitten. “These caves are as big as a normal-size bedroom. Bethany was surfing on the outer edge of a sunken volcano.”


Lilley says the lava tubes serve as a habitat for many ocean creatures including schools of menpachi, lobsters, sea turtles and white tip reef sharks.

“I have counted more than 20 in caves right under people surfing and no one knows they are there,” says Lilley. “Occasionally a big tiger shark will cruise into the caves looking to find a turtle. Big tiger sharks just look at me with little interest and go on their way almost as if I did not exist. Not once in 12 years and more than 300 dives at Tunnels have I had a shark bother me - and I have been within five feet of hundreds of them!”

Lilley knows the newly released movie is not meant to teach people about sharks, but he hopes people don’t walk away with the wrong impression of the mysterious and often misunderstood creatures.

“I think the world of Bethany and her family, and I hope everyone goes to see the movie, as it really is a one-of-a-kind, positive story,” says Lilley. “I just want to make sure we all also learn the truth about sharks along the way.”

Lilley dove at Tunnels Reef the day before Hamilton was bit in 2003, and recalls coming within a few feet of two large tigers. He says sharks often cruise the bottom near the popular break.

“Right where Bethany was surfing is a major turtle hang out - it is called a turtle-cleaning station,” says Lilley, who takes divers out to see it in the summer. “The turtles come to this spot to have the algae cleaned off their shells by certain reef fish.”

Lilley reminds people that shark attacks are uncommon and deaths are rare.

“Nationally, an average of six people a year die from accidental shark bites, but 120 die from falling coconuts, 200 from dog bites, 1,000 from bee stings!” he states. “Thirty-four million people a year swim, surf or dive in the water where large sharks live, but only six die from a bite. More than 3,000 people a year die in traffic accidents driving to the beach!


“And internationally, 125 people die world wide each year from falling off the toilet seat at night and 75 by tripping over sand castles at the beach.”

Lilley says the movie Jaws gave sharks a bad reputation and caused people to think sharks eat people. He firmly believes they do not and stresses sharks are not villains.

“Bethany is just a truly amazing person who came back from a terrible accident, turned it into a positive and she will bring a smile to anyone who meets her or surfs with her - including me!” says Lilley. “I support her, but I also want to make sure the moral of the†story is about Bethany and not about sharks. Let’s not be afraid of sharks.”

For more information on Lilley’s dives, log on to his blog at http://terrylilley.wordpress.com/.

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