Snorkeler survives encounter with shark
California musician Tommy Holmes is "ecstatic" to be alive after staring into the jaws of one of the ocean's most feared predators while snorkeling off Maui on New Year's Day.
Tommy Holmes was attacked by a shark while snorkeling off Maui on New Year's Day.
The 35-year-old Los Angeles resident, who was snorkeling with his girlfriend, escaped the encounter with six lacerations on his buttocks where the 6- to 7-foot tiger shark nipped him with its razor-sharp teeth before disappearing into the deep.
"He was very lucky, that's for sure," said Randy Honebrink of the state's Shark Task Force. "Usually tigers would be expected to do a little more damage than that."
Honebrink said an average of three to four shark "incidents" occur every year in Hawai'i.
The most recent shark attack occurred last March, when a suspected reef shark bit a bodyboarder's hand at Sandy Beach on O'ahu. In 2000, two nonfatal attacks reported off Maui were blamed on tiger sharks.
Holmes is the first to acknowledge his good fortune in suffering only minor injuries from Tuesday's attack.
"I couldn't feel luckier," he said yesterday from his hospital bed at Maui Memorial Medical Center.
A certified scuba diver, Holmes said he has made more than 100 dives off Southern California and Kaua'i and had never once even seen a shark.
Turtles in area
On Tuesday, the conditions were clear and the ocean calm when Holmes and girlfriend, Monica Boggs, 29, entered the water around 12:30 p.m. at a popular snorkeling spot off Olowalu near Lahaina. They swam out about 100 yards in water that was 40 feet deep.
"We saw a big group of 12 to 15 turtles. It was amazing," Holmes said. "We were just watching them for about 10 minutes when Monica spotted the shark about 25 feet away and grabbed my hand."
Boggs said the shark sped straight toward them with a clear purpose.
"It was swimming right at us at an alarming speed. It didn't look curious Â— it looked like it knew what it wanted. I thought we were going to die," she said.
Holmes said they popped their heads out of the water and started to back away from the approaching animal.
"I put my mask back in the water to see where he was and he was around four feet away. I saw his open mouth and teeth, and a very big head," he said.
Holmes curled into a ball to protect his limbs, and the shark latched onto his buttocks then quickly released. Before the shark swam off, Holmes managed to punch its snout as it lingered near the surface.
"I saw Tommy fighting a little bit and it scared me to death," Boggs said. "It all happened very fast."
"I'm very grateful we saw it coming. We were kind of able to prepare."
On the frantic swim back to shore, Boggs turned to get a look at Holmes' wounds and saw that his shorts were in tatters and there was blood in the water. It wasn't until they reached the beach that they realized he had escaped serious injury.
Holmes said he didn't feel any pain when the shark bit him, only a stinging sensation as he began to swim back to the beach.
"We were quite happy once we were on the shoreline," he said. "We were both ecstatic. I had all my limbs, and we knew it was in the butt and that we had gotten off easy. I'm a lucky guy."
'It was absolutely terrifying'
Holmes said he received more than 50 stitches to close the half-moon bite wounds. As a singer, songwriter and guitarist for a rock 'n' roll band in L.A., Holmes said he "loves telling stories" in between numbers and was hoping to get more publicity for his music Â— but this isn't quite the kind of story and publicity he would've preferred.
Although obviously joyful at surviving their shark encounter, both Holmes and Boggs remain shaken by the event.
"It was absolutely terrifying," Boggs said. "You don't feel that kind of feeling, ever. You can never know what it's like unless you go through it.
"I figure if I can take that, then I'm pretty set."
Like Holmes, Boggs enjoys water sports and ocean swimming. Both said the shark attack wouldn't keep them out of the water, although they might stay a little closer to shore.
"I'll be a little bit more aware of how far out I go," Holmes said. "It's not until you get out there that you realize you have to swim back in."
Boggs, a visual arts teacher and professional singer, finds some security in figuring the odds are with them. "How could that happen twice?" she said.
Snorkelers who ventured into the water at Olowalu yesterday also were counting on the rarity of shark attacks. Most, like Joe and Liza Eto of Oakland, Calif., were unaware of Tuesday's incident until they noticed the shark-sighting signs posted at the beach by the state Division of Aquatic Resources. The signs were removed at 11:15 a.m. yesterday after a county lifeguard used a personal watercraft to inspect the snorkeling area.
The Etos, who were snorkeling with their children, Ben, 12, and Georgia, 8, were unperturbed by the threat of an ocean predator.
"We came all this way and we rented all this dang equipment, and we're not going to go in now?" said Liza Eto as she squeezed anti-fog drops into her mask.
Dive instructor Jeff Tanonaka has been taking dive groups off Olowalu for years, and he said he has never had trouble with sharks there. He said he often sees black-tip sharks and other reef sharks, but they generally are not aggressive unless harassed.
Attack happened at midday
Honebrink said Holmes' description of the shark, in particular its large head, leads him to believe it was a tiger shark.
"This is not unusual as far as the types of thing that happen in Hawai'i with shark bites," he said. "Most of the time when people are bitten, it's usually a tiger shark."
In this case, "it doesn't surprise me that there are sharks in an area where there's a bunch of turtles."
While experts warn of a higher shark-attack risk if swimming in dark, murky waters or early or late in the day, Tuesday's incident happened at midday in clear, calm conditions.
"The guy wasn't doing anything wrong," Honebrink said. "What this incident does is remind people that sharks are out there and we have to be careful. It's part of going into the ocean. We're entering their environment, and they're the boss."
Two other shark attacks have been reported off Olowalu in the past 10 years, both occurring a bit north of the spot where Holmes was injured.
On Oct. 18, 2000, Henrietta Musselwhite, 56, of Geyserville, Calif., was bitten on her upper and lower back while snorkeling a half-mile offshore. On Nov. 26, 1991, swimmer Martha Joy Morrell, 41, of Maui, was mauled by a tiger shark. Her death triggered a state-sanctioned shark hunt and the formation of the Shark Task Force.
Honebrink said officials are not ready to declare Olowalu a shark zone, but "we're certainly paying attention to that right now, with three incidents in the past 10 years."
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