HALEIWA, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A former deck hand for a Haleiwa shark tour company said he lied to medical personnel at the direction of his bosses to cover up an on-the-job shark bite he suffered last year, a charge the company denied Thursday.
Tali Ena, 32, said he worked for a year and three months at North Shore Shark Adventures, where he and other deck hands occasionally have to go into the water surrounded by sharks to untangle a line or retrieve a lost piece of equipment.
Ena said the company makes millions of dollars a year, charging tourists $96 each and $75 more for custom videos of their underwater shark encounters where they can watch the creatures from the safety of a shark cage.
"I loved my job. I loved working with sharks. I loved working with people. I enjoyed the money, the money was good," said Ena, a Kunia resident.
He said he was paid as much as $9,000 a month as a deck hand during the peak season.
Last Memorial Day, when he dove in the water to retrieve a video camera rod, a Galapagos shark bit him on his right hand, severing two tendons and requiring more than 20 stitches in the emergency room, he said.
"This is a pretty extreme story in my opinion. Been bit by a shark, forced to lie about it and then denied help," Ena said.
He said company owner Joe Pavsek told him to lie to medical personnel to avoid bad publicity, so he told doctors and nurses he cut his hand on his surfboard skeg at Sunset Beach.
Ken Kuniyuki, attorney for North Shore Shark Adventures, said, "The company denies it ever told him to lie about his injury."
But Ena played a voice mail he said he received from one of the company's boat captains when he was in the ER.
"Do not tell them you work on a shark boat. You're quarterback coach for Kapolei High School. You're something other than you work on a shark tour or you're unemployed," the voice mail said. At that time, Ena was helping his brother who's a coach at Kapolei High School, he said.
Doctors said he'd need surgery on his hand that could cost him as much as $10,000, since he was uninsured. North Shore Shark Adventures did not offer medical insurance to its workers who were independent contractors, Ena said.
And when he asked his boss for financial help with his medical bills, which had already topped $2,000 from the emergency room visit, drugs and follow-up visits to doctors, he said Pavsek's "response was brief. He said, go (blank) yourself. You're an independent contractor."
In August, after he once again asked his boss for financial help for his medical bills, Ena said the company re-assigned him to a different boat that went out fewer days a week, cutting his pay, so he quit and filed a worker's compensation claim.
Kuniyuki, the attorney for the shark tour company, told a different story. He said Ena was re-assigned to another boat after he got into a scuffle and tried to choke a co-worker, something Ena denied.
But the company said it is not fighting his worker's compensation claim for an injury that has left the former Washington State University and arena football quarterback unable to fully use his hand.
"I can no longer pick up a football and throw it. It's something I loved to do, I actually earned a living doing that after college for several years. I love playing basketball, lifting weights, running, bowling, golfing, those are all things I'm not able to do any more," Ena said.
Kuniyuki said Ena's worker's compensation case is under way and once the company receives all his medical records to assess any permanent disabilities, there is a financial formula based on his pay for which he will be eligible.
Ena said he's been unable to afford to have that surgery to re-attach a tendon in his hand and has since become a teacher at Nanakuli Intermediate School.