Man on a mission

It’s a hot, sunny afternoon and Terry Lilley is where you can usually find him: the North Shore. Specifically, he’s at Tunnels Beach, flippers, goggles, snorkel ready to go, underwater camera gear in hand.

In a few minutes, he will head out into the ocean, gliding above the reefs far from shore. He records what he sees for about an hour. There are some colorful fish that pass by, but not many — not what there were maybe four or five years ago.

“For every four fish you saw out there, there would have been 100,” he said.

But these days, much of the reefs here are devoid of the coral that provided food for the fish. Close to shore, there is virtually no coral, but just mud and rocks. And mud and rocks aren’t much to see.

Lilley has been trying to attract attention to the demise of the reefs and coral. It is, as far as he can tell, a collapse and a catastrophe unlike anything he’s seen in his years of diving.

“We have these several things that are working against coral reefs right now,” he said. “So we need to take a lot better care of them than we use to. Not worse care, but better care.”

Some are listening. Movies are being made about the North Shore coral disease. The state is investigating. University of Hawaii graduate students are studying it. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard dove with Lilley to see for herself the extent of the damage.

“When people can actually see it themselves, they know what the heck is going on,” Lilley said.

No one disputes the North Shore marine environment has problems. A cyanobacterial disease outbreak is affecting three species of montipora, or rice, corals. Reefs have crumbled. 

But the cause — and claiming who is to blame – is where Lilley and many part ways. Most say the cause hasn’t been determined. Could be many factors — pollution, chemicals, human waste, climate change — and more review and tests are needed to figure it out. They say there can’t be a rush to judgment, and believe that Lilley is guilty of just that.

The Hanalei man, who says he is a marine biologist, doesn’t hesitate when asked what’s the problem. In the course of a conversation, he offers several theories: Military electronic warfare. Sonar. Radar towers. Pesticides. Toxins. High acid levels in the water. Illegal development that results in mud being dumped into the Hanalei River and flowing into Hanalei Bay.

He’s vocal in his beliefs, often sending out emails and posting accusatory comments, like this one from Tuesday: “It really is time to make a change and stop letting our government destroy the very fabric of life here on Kauai. We have been invaded by Corporate America greed and the US Military, and our children have no future on this sacred island if we do not do something about it! We are proving everyday with GOOD SCIENCE that we cannot sustain this attack much longer and have a healthy environment for our future generations!”

Or this one: “If you are sitting in your government office tonight in Lihue trying to figure out why our reefs are dying, then maybe you may want to actually study the reefs! A study of the reefs also includes knowledge of the local surf, currents, fish and weather. This is because all of these things are connected. You cannot figure out what is killing our reefs without having some knowledge of the reef and how it relates to the all of these factors,” he wrote.

Lilley stands by what he writes and says. He’s strong in his views when it comes to cause and effect. He’s not shy about debating, even criticizing, those who don’t agree with him. No apologies here. He contends he’s the guy out there, every day, taking photos and shooting video. He documents what’s happening. He has 180,000 underwater pictures and 3,000 hours of high definition video. He sees the damage, the change to the environment, and it angers him.

His explanation on what’s happening in North Shore waters can be debated, he says, but one thing can’t: The reefs are in trouble and coral is dying — at what he calls an alarming rate. 

“Not one person has tried to debate what my video camera is seeing,” he said.

And dying corals is not the sign of a healthy ecosystem, he said.

“My job is to go out and study the reefs like I do, day in and day out. Seven days a week I dive and take movies,” he said.

He has his critics. They say he’s too opinionated. Not enough science. Lacks academic credentials and isn’t a real marine biologist. An extremist. Too passionate about this issue to be objective. A guy looking for credit and headlines. The fact that TGI is even writing about Lilley will upset many people, who fear he’s being given a platform for misguided opinions.

Lilley disagrees.

“I’m not doing it for pay. Nobody has paid me a dime. Why would I want to go out there and spend three years of my life doing this if I didn’t care about it?” he asks.

Another view

Dr. Greta Aeby, a coral expert with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii, said Lilley has done a great job of bringing attention to the plight of Hawaii’s reefs and bringing education to the community.

“I thank him for that,” Aeby said. “Understanding the underlying cause of what is happening to the reefs is a job for scientists. Terry is trying to understand the problem by jumping from idea to idea based on very little evidence and limited logic. Not surprising as he is not a trained scientist. However, he is getting people to understand the reefs are under threat.”

Aeby said the poor corals on Kauai’s North Shore are living under very poor environmental conditions and the strain is showing. In order to be healthy and maintain a healthy coral reef ecosystem there needs to be clean, clear water with an abundance of fish, she said.

Kauai’s North Shore has sediment, nutrients and other pollutants in the nearshore waters and the reef fish are depleted. The corals are under constant strain, hence vulnerability to disease outbreaks.

Overfishing is just one of the things that needs to be addressed, she said.

“There are many management options but people in power need to make the hard decisions to do it,” Aeby said. “Water quality can be improved through changing out cesspools, decreasing use of fertilizers in areas that run off into the sea, etc. With an improved environment, the corals will be able to recover. Without intervention the reefs will continue to decline.”

About Terry Lilley

Lilley graduated from Cal-Poly University with a degree in biological sciences. He came here from California, where he owned and operated a reptile zoo, among his ventures. He surfed professionally, spear fished and produced films.

He moved to Hawaii about 15 years ago, later sold the zoo to finance his films and has produced several DVDs on marine life.

“My real passion in life is teaching kids. I love working with the kids because they’re not prejudice,” he said.

Early on, he didn’t have any desire to study coral disease. His focus was educating youth about the ocean.

“That was my 100 percent intent until I got sidetracked with coral disease,” he said.

That was in 2011, after he had done more than 1,000 dives around Kauai for his videos. Reefs then, he said, were healthy.

“I didn’t see much of a coral problem here in Kauai,” he said.

But later that year, at Tunnels, he said he started noticing whiteish, yellow growth on some of the rice corals.

“I thought, this is kind of weird. I wonder what it is?” he said.

He sent pictures to Aeby, who responded that it appeared to be cyanobacterial disease, which had devastated corals in Kaneohe Bay on Oahu.

“Can you go out and look for this stuff?” Aeby asked.

Lilley did.

At 60 dive sites, he found hundreds of bacterial infections breaking out.

“It happened up and down the North Shore of Kauai, all within the same month, which is really weird,” he said.

“I was totally blown away, completely surprised when I saw what was happening on the reefs.”

The problem is worsening, Lilley said.

“It’s probably way over a million corals a year are dying right now on the North Shore of Kauai. This is in the magnitude of a thousandfold worse than anywhere else in the world anyone can document,” he said.

Another view

Fern Rosenstiel, who was raised on Kauai, has a bachelors in science with majors in wildlife management, environmental sciences and marine biology and works on the North Shore, said when it comes to what is causing this coral disease and what can be done about it, “I would say we are a ways from those answers at this stage.”

She said the marine ecosystems off shore, specifically around Kauai, have been impacted for generations by poor land management, pollution and degradation. When it comes to something like this, as with all wildlife disease, it can take a while to be clear on what type of disease we are working with, what stimulates it and what stops it.

“Marine ecosystems are dynamic and complicated,” Rosenstiel wrote.

Some worldwide issues are likely part of the problem. With global warming and the increasing acidification of the oceans, corals are already under stress, possibly so much so that their immune system and ability to deal with outside stressors is already compromised.

On top of these major stressors, she said the largest threats to coral reefs are sedimentation because of impacts associated with poor land management — a combination of open fields, invasive species and poor erosion and sediment control.

“These conditions make conditions prime for disease to establish and spread,” she said.

It’s easy to speculate the causes, as there could be many, like any major ecological and toxicological issue we face today, Rosenstiel said.

“The truth is with so many factors impacting the health of the coral, it’s hard to pinpoint one specific cause,” she said.

She believes there are long-term solutions.

“The ways forward are to address the issues with excess nutrients, chemical run off, excessive herbicide, fertilizer and chemical application with yard work and maintenance and overflowing septic systems, as well as invasive species management and the restoration of riparian and coastal native vegetation,” she wrote.

Short-term solutions should involve trying to isolate the areas where the disease is present and work to control the spread to other coral systems.

“There may be ways that the disease will be controllable to some extent,” Rosenstiel said. “The short-term solutions to this problem are going to require a comprehensive understanding of what we are dealing with and it’s my understanding that researchers are in the process of trying to do this now.”

Lilley’s fears

The death of corals and collapse of reefs, besides an environment disaster, means far fewer tropical, colorful fish around, the ones people will fly thousands of miles to see. That means fewer tourists. That means, fewer dollars to the economy.

“All the beautiful fish we’re known for, the butterfly fish, most of those are dying right and left because they eat coral polyps, so it’s a change,” he said.

In their place are algae eating fish, dull brown and green and not exciting to watch. But the green sea turtle population is booming, too, Lilley said, so that’s the good news.

The coral disease has been seen elsewhere, he said, but nothing to the magnitude of the North Shore of Kauai.

“We have something going on here unique in Kauai,” he said. “The problem that we’ve had, still happening today, is that state government has not wanted to fund any studies on Kauai on this coral disease.”

Lilley hasn’t been greeted with hugs and cheers for his efforts. He said he received death threats via email. Bullets have been fired near his trailer. He said a man tackled him, threw him down and broke his wrist in Hanalei.

“You can’t believe the crazy stuff,” Lilley said.

Some have discredited his credentials and his work. Other said he’s too opinionated to offer valid analysis. And if anything, he’s causing more damage than good with his accusations and polarizing the issue.

Lilley is not deterred. 

He would love to see a national investigation of the problem and said he has sent hundreds of reports to officials and agencies. Few have taken him up on his offer for a tour to see the collapsing reefs and coral disease firsthand. 

“For some reason I really can’t answer, it’s all being blocked, I really don’t know why. It has to do, I’m sure, with politics on Kauai,” he said.

Another view

Mayor Bernard Carvalho, Jr. said the coral disease issue is very important and concerning both to his administration and the community at large.

“We look forward to more information from all experts on this matter including DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources as to what is causing it, and will support their efforts in whatever way we can,” he wrote.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources is investigating the coral disease problem.

Its findings so far include:

w DAR continues to coordinate the Management Response Team, which is assessing the next steps for research and management action.

w The multi-agency Management Response Team is developing several proposals for funding that would support the next phase of investigation to better understand the suite of factors that is driving the coral disease.

w A research progress report from field surveys conducted by UH staff and graduate students will be available in September 2014.

w UH graduate students will work with DAR education staff on Kauai to conduct Eyes of the Reef training and outreach opportunities this summer in the Hanalei community.

w DAR continues to request the help of the public in reporting coral disease, bleaching, and other marine mortality events at

Body of proof

Lilley said people are missing the point when they say he must prove his theories. He said his background as an underwater marine biologist is documenting underwater living systems.

“I don’t have to prove anything. I’ve proven millions of corals are dying every day. I can take anyone out any day and show it to them. I document it every day,” he said. “I don’t need to prove anything. It’s for the hardcore scientists to do the proof. I let those people do what they do best. I just supply the info.”

He has recorded dates, places and times of different North Shore dive sites to document the changes over time. In some cases, they reflect dramatic differences in weeks.

“There are corals that are thousands of years old on the North Shore that are disintegrating right now, so fast it’s amazing,” he said.

He’s seen similar problems at Salt Pond and Ahukini, too, but not to the extreme of the North Shore, places like Anini and Tunnels beaches.

To stop the demise of the coral, he said they have to find out what’s causing it — soon. He wants to see more action from government agencies and blames a lack of communication and “massive amounts of lack of understanding” for there being little action on the issue.

“Does it have to affect humans for people to do something about it?” he asked.

Another view 

Dr. Thierry Work, a wildlife disease specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Honolulu field office, agreed there is coral disease, cyanobacterial, on the North Shore that wasn’t there five years ago.

“Why it’s showing up now, we don’t know,” he said.

But Work knows this: “We lose the coral, we have a problem with the whole ecosystem.”

“There’s hardly any fish in the reefs — that’s not the way it should be,” he added.

There is, he said, a general paralysis on action to take without a firm answer on cause.

“If you can’t point to a particular cause as the driver, nobody is going to change anything,” he said.

He pointed to possible factors — overfishing, poor management of land and streams, and pollution — and said it’s time to take a hard look at what’s resulting in the destruction of reefs. To save the coral reefs, Work said, it will take a change in human behavior.

“The chance of recovery will increase if people stop treating the oceans like their toilet bowls,” he said.

Work has gone into the field with Lilley and said he is passionate about saving the reefs.

“Personally, I like him,” he said.

At the same time, he said Lilley is a “very polarizing figure.”

Sometimes, he alienates people with his blunt message that the reefs are going south and why it’s happening, Work said.

“Terry does have ways of communicating that could sometimes be more constructive, which is unfortunate,” Work said. “Overall, his heart is in the right place.”

Work said time will tell if the reefs and coral can be saved.

“This is really up to the North Shore community. If they don’t think this is important, if they don’t think this is an issue, then no, I’m not very hopeful,” he said. “Do we want coral reefs in North Kauai or not?”

The green sea turtle population bounced back, Work noted.

“So it is possible to reverse these things. From that sense, yes. I am hopeful,” he said.

What’s next

It’s hard to look down the road far enough and say what’s ahead, Lilley said. Death and renewal are part of the cycle of life. The problem right now, he said, is humans are causing that to happen at an accelerated pace.

He said there are healthy reefs and coral around Kauai that could be used to help recovery on the North Shore.

“We have first stage cancer of the corals, all around the North Shore of Kauai,” he said. “So we have to stop putting mud out in the water, stop putting pesticides out in the water, stop putting heavy metals in the water, stop bombarding the reefs with microwaves and underneath bombarding the reefs with sonar. That will help.”

Lilley said he’s committed to doing what he can to determine the cause and be part of a solution. He knows some people don’t like him. He knows some think he’s got it all wrong. No matter.

“There’s a great deal of pride in doing a scientific study until closure. Normally, you figure out the problem, you get it fixed or everything dies. I intend to stay here and do that. Figure out the problem until it gets fixed or everything is going to die,” he said.

“The bottom line is, I just simply want the truth to get out about this because we’re going to have a dead reef system here in another couple years, maybe even sooner, and everyone is going to suffer here on Kauai.”


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, send us an email.