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‘She Really Cultivated Love’ : Community Mourns Loss of Tour Crew Operator as Investigation on Cause Continues

By Tom Hasslinger
April 6, 2022, 1:50 PM HST
* Updated April 6, 4:06 PM
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Theresa “Reesa” Butts PC: The Butts family

Friends, family and the ocean community are mourning the death of a 54-year-old manta tour crew member who died in an accident while working aboard the tour vessel Uhane Nui O Naiʻa.

Loved ones remember Theresa Butts of Kailua-Kona – Reesa, as she was known – as a powerful, intelligent, strong woman and role model who impacted countless lives around her for the better and who cherished the people in her big circles almost as much as she did the ocean and marine life, where she felt most at home.

“She was very outspoken and she loved everyone else who loved the ocean,” Reesa’s daughter, Jeannette Butts, told Big Island Now. “She had so much more planned with her life and the ocean. That’s what makes it so hard. I know she had grand plans.”

Authorities are investigating the fatal incident that occurred on Monday, April 4 outside of Honokohau Marina. They have not identified the name of the victim, but Jeannette Butts confirmed to Big Island Now and other media outlets that the victim was her mother. Jeannette worked alongside her mother in the water at a different job for the last eight months, an experience she described as a dream come true.

“We made a pretty kick-ass team if I don’t say so myself,” Jeannette said.

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She said her mother was a skilled water-woman who loved to fish, dive, snorkel, swim and educate anyone she could on the importance of reef-safe sunscreen and protecting the health of the sea.

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“Our briefings were so intricate,” Jeannette said of the educational component Reesa shared with crew and staff aboard the boats.

Reesa also knew the mantas so well, the ones she led tourists to go see on evening snorkel tours, that she had the creatures’ mannerisms down to a T, Jeannette said.

“And they were 1,000% accurate,” she said.

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The Hawaiʻi Police Department along with the U.S. Coast Guard is investigating the incident that took place around 6 p.m. that evening around 10 boat minutes outside of the marina. The victim died later that night at the hospital, authorities reported.

Uhane Nui O Naiʻa is operated by Sunlight on Water. Contacted at the marina on Wednesday morning, the owner of the company declined to comment, referring all questions to the Coast Guard. The company’s sign outside their dock, which was hanging early Wednesday, had been taken down around 10 a.m.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Ryan Fisher, spokesman for the Coast Guard, said he could not comment on the investigation that involves multiple agencies. He said toxicology tests are standard procedure during any incident, and one was conducted on the captain who’d been operating the boat at the time of the accident. He did not have a timeline on how long the investigation could take and said the toxicology results were not yet back.

“These things are very sensitive,” he said.

Jeannette Butts told Big Island Now she did not want to speak about the accident itself, but said her comments the day before to the Honolulu news outlet, Hawai‘i News Now, were accurate. She told the news agency that the boat’s operator performed negligently.

“This was not negligence on her part or her deckhands,” she said in the article. “This comes down to negligence of ownership and the captain. This should not have happened.”

She also refuted a claim by fire department personnel in another Honolulu outlet’s report that her mother fell off the boat, which she said investigators confirmed with her was not the case.

“That is not the correct statement,” Jeannette Butts said. “She was really good at her job.”

HPD is also working in conjunction with the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation. Anyone who may have information relative to this incident is encouraged to contact Petty Officer Graham of the United States Coast Guard at 808-763-6520.

A friend of the boat captain said that the captain is distraught over the accident.

Teri Lambert, who works at the office of Bite Me Sport Fishing charters at the harbor, said her friend has over 20 years of captain experience and has been suffering greatly since the accident. His name is being withheld in this story as he has not been charged or cited for any infraction.

Lambert said she called her friend immediately after she heard of the accident and had heard that her friend had been crying hysterically and sprawled out in the harbor parking lot immediately after the boat returned to shore that evening.

She said the situation is tragic for everyone involved.

“I’m very concerned about him right now,” Lambert said of her friend. “I do know him very well and he will internalize this and I’m very, very concerned.”

Other diving and snorkel tour professionals around the Big Island said the loss hit the entire ocean community hard. The group is especially tight-knit and even if divers work for different companies, they all see each other and befriend each other in the water. Everyone is on the same team, they said.

Teri Leicher, one of the managing partners of Jack’s Diving Locker, said the diving community is devastated by the “horrific accident.” While the victim didn’t work at her company, they knew her, as crew members from multiple companies would often run into each at the docks. Their hearts go out to the victim’s family, she said.

Manu Powers, owner of Sea Quest, offered her employees time off to cope with the devastating news.

“Once you’re out there, the majority of the companies cooperate,” she said, adding of her staff: “Everyone is still really, really tender. It’s been a tense couple of days.”

She also echoed something Leicher said, that her company will use the incident as a moment to self-evaluate to determine if and how they could improve any of their own safety measures. The loss puts into perspective how nothing can be taken for granted in that regard, even if 99.9% of all tours across the island are conducted in a safe manner.

“It’s an opportunity to reflect,” Powers said.

Shaylee King is one of the women Reesa impacted in a significant way. A friend of Jeannette and hanai-daughter to Reesa, King landed a job alongside the mother-daughter after Reesa talked her into it, if not challenged her.

King was working as a tour guide in Oregon at the time, and Hawai‘i’s ocean wasn’t on her mind until Reesa told her: “We got it. We’re family. We’re going to explore the world. We’re going to learn so much.”

Joining the company was one of the best decisions of her life, King said.

“It was a very powerful and meaningful experience,” King said. “She really cultivated love.”

The family has established a GoFundMe account, “In Memory of Reesa,” to help with expenses. A memorial service hasn’t yet been scheduled. Reese leaves behind two daughters and a mother, among other friends and family.

As well as many memories.

Jeannette reflected that it was only recently that her mother finally accomplished one of her lifelong ocean dreams, swimming with a whale shark, as well as swimming with her daughter and a school of hammerhead sharks.

“She was so happy,” Jeannette said. “I will never forget that memory.”

Uhane Nui O Naiʻa is operated by Sunlight on Water. Contacted at the marina on Wednesday morning, the owner of the company declined to comment, referring all questions to the Coast Guard. PC: Tom Hasslinger/Big Island Now
Reesa was a water-woman through and through, her family said.
Tom Hasslinger
Tom Hasslinger is a journalist who lives in Kailua-Kona. Prior to joining Big Island Now, he worked as the managing editor for West Hawaii Today and deputy editor for The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai. He's worked for over 15 years as a reporter for the Oahu-based Civil Beat news outlet, as well as in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and Douglas Wyoming.
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