The Inertia Contributing Writer

Heads up for Kawika Matsu @hawaiianitem originally from the Big Island of Hawai’i 🤙🏼Shaka’s all round🤙🏽 He is the miracle survivor of multiple shark encounter and unprovoked attack off Ascension Island recently. Incredible gift to have met you and spend time hearing how you instinctively dealt with unfolding and severe adversity. Medical bills are astronomical here in the US and he needs our help. Click on link in my bio for Kawika’s Gofundme page. Thank you @kellyslater for alerting us to the cause and urging for us to go visit while close by in Ft Lauderdale yesterday. The light in Kawika’s eyes was indescribable🌟👁💫👁🌟 @shark_shield #misstakenidentity @oneoceandiving @oneoceanresearch https://www.gofundme.com/kawikarecovery

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The largest of the three sharks struck Kawika Matsu first. The waters off the tiny, remote Ascension Island were a crystalline turquoise. But from atop his stand-up paddleboard, the 37-year-old Hawaiian — a consummate waterman — didn’t see them coming.

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The shark attacked from below, launching him six feet in the air. To strike with such velocity, it breached the ocean surface with most of its enormous, sleek frame. Before plunging back into the Atlantic Ocean, Matsu looked down and saw the dark, hulking figure clearly. It was the same length as his SUP, a 14-foot downwinder.

“The big guy was teaching the little motherfuckers to hunt,” says Matsu, who’s currently at a Miami-area hospital recovering from six major surgeries with more to come. He remembers seeing the shark breach while he was airborne and thinking, “No way.”

Matsu had been paddling 100 feet from shore in the island’s desolate English Bay; he was out fewer than 10 minutes before the attack began. A group of six of his friends, the only people around, were all still on land. So when he splashed down, his board well out of reach and his paddle out of sight, he was very much alone.

What followed on that day, July 24, was a gruesome attack, heroic rescue and miraculous survival that has gotten virtually no coverage in the media, though the harrowing tale has rippled through the surf world. Australian surf legend Tom Carroll paid him a visit the other day. Carroll posted on Instagram a link to the GoFundMe page set up by Matsu’s family to help recoup medical costs. Shane Dorian has done the same. And Kelly Slater posted a link to one of the few stories that touched on Matsu’s ordeal. (Though until this point Matsu has spoken with only two media outlets, West Hawaii Today, from his native home on the Big Island, and now The Inertia.)

***

An instant after hitting the water, another shark, this one about 6-feet in length, latched its jaws onto Matsu’s right upper arm and shoulder. “I didn’t want to pull away,” he says, for fear that he would lose considerable flesh. “So I let him chomp.”

Its teeth still sunk into Matsu, the shark began dragging him beneath the surface. With his free arm, he struck the fish in the nose. “I punched him again, and the second time he let go.”

Badly wounded, Matsu kicked and stroked twice hard before his head broke the water’s surface. Just as he spotted his board 10 feet away, he felt an immense weight on his hip — yet another shark, this one perhaps 8-feet long, latched on his buttock and pelvis. Later, doctors would find different types of bacteria in the wounds on his upper arm and hip, a fact that supports his recollection of being bitten by two different animals.

“I had a feeling there was a couple of them,” he says.

Matsu again tried to beat the fish into submission. “I had to do a downward punch at a weird angle. When I hit him, it let go.” Free from the shark, and with his face above the surface, he saw his board just five feet away and, wounded badly twice now, began swimming for it.

Matsu made it to the board. With the eerie feeling that, for whatever reason, the sharks were letting him go, he pulled himself up. From atop the board, “I noticed a chunk of meat half the size of my arm, with a piece of fat or something attached,” floating in the water. It was his right tricep.

He picked the flesh from the water and placed it alongside him on the deck. He spied his paddle floating 15 feet away, but when he began using his hands to paddle toward it, “Blood just started streaming out of me,” he says.

He stopped paddling, and instead fashioned a tourniquet from his leash, placing it around his shoulder. “Pulled it as tight as I could,” he says. “I was spewing blood so badly I would have bled out.”

He yelled at his friends on shore for help. Moments later he got their attention and, feeling incredibly weak, he laid down on the board, stomach down. Though desperate for help, “I was swearing to God I hoped they didn’t get in the water because I didn’t want them to get attacked.”

With his cheek to the deck, he could see his blood running into the water. “The sharks were circling me and ramming my board.” He contemplated what life would be like with the injuries he’d suffered. If it would be worth it. If he’d ever be able to surf or dive again. If he would rather not go on. “I was like, do you want to live or not? Because where you’re at this is going to be fucking gnarly,” he says. “That was definitely an option — to just roll off the board and let them finish me off,” he says.

But he resolved to see the other side of the incident. “That’s when I decided, fuck yeah I want to live.” Yet, he could do nothing but lay there while offshore winds slowly began pushing him out to sea, no hope in sight. At times he thought he heard a rescue boat, but it was just the sounds of the vast equatorial Atlantic.

***

A lifelong native of Hawaii Island, Matsu’s trade as an HVAC professional was all in service of being in the ocean — surfing, body boarding, free diving, spearfishing. One day while home on the island, he got a phone call from a friend who told him of an island “exactly like what Hawaii was 50 years ago” where he could land a job.

The place was Ascension Island, a volcanic nub and British territory adrift in the Atlantic, nearly smack dab between South America and Africa. The job was doing HVAC for the Department of Defense (the United States has a military presence on the island as well).

“Can I bring my surfboards and dive gear?” he asked his friend.

Visiting Ascension Island is difficult. Commercial airlines are not permitted to land there, and visits require explicit permission from the island government. The few who make it there find a rugged landscape smaller than the city of San Francisco with a population of fewer than 1,000.

But the island is a waterman’s dream. There are abundant A-frame reefs and “world class pointbreaks,” as Matsu says, all of them empty. The waters teem with tuna, sailfish, swordfish, marlin, lobster, sea turtles. And of course sharks.

This video shows an encounter a fisherman had with aggressive sharks on Ascension Island last year.

He arrived in July 2016 with a duffel bag of dive gear, a surfboard, and a bodyboard. Soon enough everyone on the island knew him by his first name and recognized him as a waterman. “If the surf wasn’t good, I would be diving or stand-up paddleboarding.”

Nearly every time he went in the water, twice a day most days, he saw sharks. “But are you not going to do what you love to do?”

The day of the attack was the beginning of a trip with six friends around English Bay. The surf was flat and it was hot out. While his friends were unloading gear from a truck, Matsu figured he’d cool off with a paddle around the bay. “I was paddling without a care in the world,” he says.

Below is his last Instagram post just days before the attack:

***

Matsu’s friends had heard his call for help. With no phone service, they jumped into a car and headed for Georgetown, virtually the only hint of civilization besides an air force base. Matsu just laid there on the edge of consciousness while the sharks circled the board.

Twenty-eight minutes after he’d signaled his friends, he heard what must have been a sweet sound: the rumble of the twin-outboard Fire & Sea rescue boat. His friend Malcolm called his name. He responded, “Malcolm, brother.” Matsu heard someone say, “He’s fucking alive. Oh my god, grab the board.”

He told his friend Jonah, “They tried to fucking eat me. I wouldn’t let them…I don’t think I’m going to make it. I lost a lot of blood.”

Using the SUP as a stretcher, the rescuers pulled him aboard — sharks circling all the while — and gunned the twin engines to Georgetown. There’s no boat ramp, so a crane is required to lift vessels from the water. Luckily, the operator was already there, and the crew got Matsu into an ambulance, and then the hospital.

Blood loss was his biggest enemy. Amazingly, islanders lined up to donate blood. Matsu required five pints almost immediately, followed by a sixth through the night. The medical staff controlled the bleeding but didn’t perform badly needed surgeries.

“I wouldn’t have lived if it weren’t for the people of the island,” he says. “The nurse told me a good 15 to 20 people were waiting to give blood.” Three days later, a medical transport plane landed on the island. Leaving behind his surfboards and dive gear, Matsu was packaged onto the jet. The plane refueled once in Brazil and again in Trinidad before arriving in Florida.

The next day, Matsu had his first surgery. Doctors delayed the second surgery due to high bacterial concentrations in his wounds. “It was a waiting game for a solid five days” while antibiotics took hold.

So far, he’s endured six surgeries and multiple skin grafts. “There’s nowhere to take it from anymore. They’ve been taking it from my other leg and other parts of my body,” he says. When Matsu asked doctors how many staples and stitches he’d gotten, they told him they had no idea, adding “a lot.” Sutures weave around his upper arm, armpit and butt crack. Had the wound on his arm been located an inch off, he would have lost the arm.

Matsu is lucky to have all his limbs, though doctors could not reattach his tricep, and are concerned with infection and range of motion in his right arm, he says. He walked for the first time this week with the help of another person and a walker.

He could be discharged as soon as next week, though he feels much too weak to fly home to Hawaii. Still, all he can think about is getting back to the Big Island and surfing his home break with his brothers. And his luck. “I definitely used up a life on this one,” he says.

Or was it something besides luck? “I’m a strong motherfucker. I’m a waterman. As tough as they come.”

Editor’s Note: If you’d like to support Matsu’s GoFundMe, feel free to do so here. 



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