Interview by Chris Latronic
Transcription by Lauren Rolland
Photos Peter King
Ulu Napeahi is a 17-year old surfer from the Big Island of Hawaii. His full first name, Ulualoha means “forever growing love.” In August 2013, Ulu was attacked by a reported 8 to 10 foot tiger shark at his home break “Dead Trees” during a pumping swell. An aspiring junior surfer with much promise for the professional industry, Ulu recounts the tragic incident with Freesurf during an interview. Despite the horrific experience, this surfer still has a deep respect for sharks and an even greater affinity for life. An ordeal only a fortunate few live to tell about, this is Ulu’s story.
Tell us about where you’re from.
I come from the southeast side of the island on the Big Island, it’s called Kalapana. I live in Keaukaha. It’s real country, easy going, off the grid and I love it. I call it home, it’s so peaceful and I really appreciate it.
How was growing up surfing on the Big Island?
Growing up surfing on the Big Island was very interesting for me. I lived in Keaukala at the time, at this spot called Waiuli and I lived at my tutu’s house. Every day at the crack of dawn I’d run away from home and go to the beach. One day I found a surfboard, a broken surfboard under this house and I kind of stole it. I had really good friends at the time who would take me out and push me into waves and my mom would be trippin’ cuz she wouldn’t know where I was all day long. And I’d come home when the streetlights came on. I was only 4 years at the time so it was pretty nuts for me to be out.
But I kind of fell in love with it ever since. I would just catch waves and ride it straight all the way and ever since then I was hooked and I just kept on surfing. I never knew it would take me this far, but when you love something so much you never give up and I think that’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me.
It’s funny because I’ve never seen sharks really. I was always aware of the ocean and my surroundings, but… I love the ocean, I treated it like a safe haven; it was a place for me to go to stay out of trouble. Sharks in general, I was always scared of them, but I just never let that fear affect me because I love surfing so much.
Tell us about the spot Dead Trees
Dead Trees. Its located at Pohoiki on the southeast side. It’s probably the closest surf spot to my home and I surf there every single day. Whether it’s low tide, high tide, too big, blown out, I surf it every single day of my life and I love it, I live it and I breath it. I surf that place all the time alone by myself.
Tell us about August 18th, 2013.
So it was August 18, 2013 approximately 11:30am and me and my sister were paddling out, and it was funny cuz it was her first time back surfing in a few years, and she was bodyboarding. I remember paddling out of the boat ramp and into second bay and I looked out there and seen the waves just barreling and spitting on every wave. And I was like ‘Oh my god the waves are so good!’ It was about 4 or 5 feet maybe.
I surfed with her for about an hour, a good hour, till like 12:30pm and then I was like ‘Okay Tristy, I gotta get out there, the waves are so good.’ So I paddled her back in and then I started to paddle out to Dead Trees.
What do you recall about the attack?
I was at the very point of the reef cuz I wanted to get a good deep one, and right then I duck-dove to wet my hair and I went to sit on my board and I got hit. So hard, the hardest I’ve ever got hit in my life. I flew like 15 feet off of my board and I was like ‘Oh my god, what just hit me?!’ It couldn’t be my friend ya know, so I yelled, I was like ‘fu*k!’ Next thing you know I sunk straight down like a floater, like ttthhhhhunk and just got ragged like a rag doll. And at that second I knew it was a shark.
So I started punching it as good as I could and finally it got off of me. But then it came around the front to where I could see it, and I hit it once and it let me go, and it came back and grabbed me again and that time it grabbed my hamstring down here. And I just remember fighting for my life, just punching it in every way I could. The final last look that it gave me, it’s eyes flashed from grey to black. And I punched it one last time and it swam straight down and bit off my leash and I kicked it in its mouth.
It bit me in my hips, my ass cheeks, my hamstrings, my calf and my foot. A barrage of bites. It bit me 13 times. The shark was on my back and it bit my hips and then the second time it got my ass. And like… literally, it didn’t look like I had ass cheeks, it was shred to pieces. And my hamstring looked like a U, like the jaw you know. When it bit off my leash I kicked its mouth on accident. I felt really dumb cuz my feet didn’t look like my feet, it looked like shreds. It was pretty nasty, down to the bone, every bite. I remember trying to grab my ass cheek and I grabbed my bone back there, that’s how bad it was.
Then I got back up on my board and I noticed everyone had split, they all were paddling in. So I got on my board and caught a wave around the reef onto the corner, and halfway into the shore break my friend Dallas O’Shaughnessy paddled up to me and said, ‘Come here, grab on, hold on.’ I said, ‘Please don’t leave me in the water I got bit, please don’t leave me in the water I’m hurt’. They pulled me up on the beach.
I just laid there on the ground with my face in the sand. They lifted me up, tied the tourniquet around my waist and held me up so that the blood would flow to my heart and my head. They stopped the bleeding but I waited on the beach for 45 minutes and by that time I was going in and out of consciousness because I lost so much blood. I finally got in the ambulance and I blacked out. I actually died and they resuscitated me, shocked me back to life.
It was quite an experience. So after that I spent about 2 ½ weeks in the hospital.
When I was underwater and I saw that last look, it was scary and peaceful at the same time. It was like looking at something that tried to take your life and settling it and being like, ‘Okay I’m done with you.’ It gives me chicken skin to talk about it and it’s really hard, but I respect those animals so much and I respect every living thing just as much I would like to be respected. And when it looked at me and it swam down, I knew I was okay; I knew I made it out alive.
Tell us about surfing now.
I’m super excited, I’m super pumped. I just want to surf every single day all day. I want to surf every single wave to the best of my ability. The experience has definitely given me that drive that I have something to prove. In surfing I feel way better than I have before. Maybe it’s the hype, or something. But yeah, my turns are good, my games going good right now and it’s only getting better. This is my second chance ya know. My second chance at life, my second chance at surfing.
How do you feel toward sharks after everything that’s happened?
I totally respect them. It’s their territory out there in the ocean and we just play where they live. So we have to respect the ocean and all that comes with it. I have no hard feelings for sharks at all. It humbled me. Sharks are really powerful creatures and they’re the best hunters in the world.
I haven’t seen another shark since then. But my instincts in the water are so good now. If I see one shadow I’m freaked out. So, that has definitely changed. I am really scared every time I go in the ocean, but I love surfing and I’m never going to stop doing it.
My message for the generation below me is to respect everyone and everything and always have a positive attitude towards anything. Believe in the spirit of aloha because it gets you really far.