Punahou teacher's death jolts expedition
By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor
By Christie Wilson
Authorities are investigating the death of a popular Punahou School science teacher who was pulled unconscious from waters off Lana'i during an oceanography expedition for 98 students.
Jeremiah Johnson, 36, was found unconscious Sunday in the ocean about 120 yards off Kaunolu Bay on the island's southern coast, said acting Sgt. Nelson Hamilton of the Maui Police Department.
In a note yesterday to the Punahou community, school President Jim Scott said Johnson "quickly developed a reputation as a popular teacher committed to each of his students. ... Jeremiah's passion for science and the environment was a source of inspiration for his students."
Punahou spokeswoman Laurel Bowers Husain said chaplains and counselors are available to grieving students. Attempts to contact students and teachers aboard the expedition were unsuccessful yesterday.
The annual seagoing expedition provides Punahou students with an in-depth exploration of marine biology and oceanography and has been offered for years, she said. Students have the option of signing up for it. Johnson was one of nine Punahou faculty members on board.
He was one of 14 adults accompanying students aboard the 145-foot charter vessel Rapture on an ocean expedition that left Honolulu on Saturday, Husain said. It returned yesterday.
A smaller Zodiac boat connected with the Rapture had taken the teacher to a spot known as Shark Fin Rock where Johnson entered the water, wearing a mask and no fins, about 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Hamilton said.
When he didn't resurface after about 30 seconds, the crew looked down and saw him sinking to the bottom, Hamilton said.
Hamilton and Husain said they did not know if any students were on the Zodiac or swimming with Johnson at the time.
The unconscious teacher was brought up to the boat, and crew members performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation as he was taken to Kaumalapau Harbor on Lana'i, where fire and police personnel were waiting to continue lifesaving efforts, Hamilton said.
Johnson could not be revived, and he was pronounced dead on Lana'i. An autopsy will be done to determine the cause of death.
Johnson is from Kaua'i and earned a degree from the University of Hawai'i-Hilo. He joined the Punahou staff in January 2003 and taught high school environmental science and marine biology, Husain said. He is survived by his wife, Sara Simmons, and a young daughter.
Husain said the family was not ready to comment on his death yesterday. Plans for a memorial service have not been announced.
Prior to joining the school, Johnson worked as a research associate for University of Hawai'i oceanography professor Roger Lukas on the Hawai'i Ocean Time-series project. The project, started in 1988, aims to document changes in currents, water column chemistry, particle sedimentation rates and other ocean conditions.
A TEAM PLAYER
Lukas said Johnson was a hard-working, enthusiastic member of his research team for three years who participated in monthly voyages to collect data in the deep ocean north of Kahuku.
"First and foremost he was a very effective member of the team. Everybody enjoyed working with him and he had an incredibly positive attitude and a lot of enthusiasm, not just for the work but for all aspects of the ocean," he said.
While sorry to lose Johnson when he left the project to pursue a teaching career, Lukas said he was "very pleased to see that he was going in the direction where he would be able to share his enthusiasm and experience with young people."
Reach Christie Wilson at email@example.com.