In the five weeks of recovery, what happened? Was that when you got into photography?
Totally. I was on the surf team and we did little video projects here and there, and my coach had some still cameras. What happened was I started using his cameras and I’d start by shooting my friends Kamalei Alexander and Evan Valiere and those guys.
What really got me stoked on it was this guy John Russell who came to shoot me for a magazine right after the attack. He came back to Kauai a few months later to do a Sports Illustrated shoot, and he knew nobody on the island except for myself. He wanted to know if I wanted to assist him for the shoot, and I was like, “Sure, why not?” Being on the shoot with him and watching him work made me believe it was a really great profession. I thought I’d like to do this as a living. It happened to be the same time that I was trying to figure out what I was going to do now that my bodyboarding career was over with.
I loved the shoot with John and I talked to my mom who looked on the internet to see if there were any colleges that specialized in photography. We came across Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara and I applied and got accepted. Overnight, it seemed, I was in college learning photography.
Halfway through the program, we had a marketing class and the teacher’s like, “Here’s promo pieces from photographers around the country,” and she hands me a promo piece from this photographer and it was John Russell’s. At that moment, everything came full circle. As soon as class got out, I called him and I told him I was in college because of him and he said, “Actually, I’m in Santa Barbara right now. Let’s grab some lunch.” From there, he started getting me assisting with bigger jobs for bigger clients. Everything really snowballed from there. It’s been an amazing experience.
Tell me about your involvement with shark conservation.
A few years back, I got a call from the PEW Environment Group. They asked if I knew about shark finning. I had no idea what that was or any of the facts and issues surrounding it. I learned through watching the movie “Shark Water” that there are roughly 70 million sharks per year killed for their fins and they called me back about it. They started sending me more information and put me in touch with scientists who explained the science behind it.
The more I learned, it was a no-brainer that I’m in a valuable position as a shark attack victim to speak out for the sharks. I believe they’re in the ocean for a reason–they’ve survived ice ages, extinction, all that. They’re the glue that holds the marine diversity together, some scientists will say, though they’re being killed at an alarming rate and many are on the verge of extinction.
The Great White Shark is an endangered species and Colin Barnett is breaking 21 different laws–international policies and laws in Australia. I don’t think putting a bullet in their head is teaching the right lesson to the world. Instead of that, maybe tag it and learn more about it? Learn how to co-exist with it. I just think it’s a total knee-jerk reaction and it’s the wrong way to go.
How did you go about getting back in the water post shark attack? Was there a mental hurdle to overcome or was the transition seamless?
It wasn’t difficult. I’d say it really has to do with growing up in the water in Hawaii. If I was born landlocked and I put my toe in the water and a shark jumped out and attacked me, and that was my only interaction ever with the ocean, it’d be a totally different thing. But because I spent so much time diving as a kid and snorkeling and surfing and boogie boarding, it just goes with the territory. If the water’s salty, that’s the shark’s home. The hardest part of the whole ordeal was being out of the water. It wasn’t sharks or anything like that. It was not being able to surf in the winter season.
Was there any post-traumatic stress?
No. I’ve been fortunate. I never had one nightmare. No twitching, nothing like that. No keyword that someone says and I start having flashbacks. It’s basically had zero psychological effect on me at all. There have, however, been a couple times surfing, post-attack, when I’ve had a couple scares around big boils of water. Not flashbacks but it does get the blood going.
Recently, I’ve gone diving with sharks and it’s pretty cool underwater interacting with them. It’s a much different thing. Also, the chance of someone getting bitten twice by a shark–I mean, those odds are absolutely astronomical. If I was, maybe I’d be able to write a really good book or something. I’m not too worried about it.
No ghost or phantom pains?
There were some phantom pains, but that’s all physical. No psychological stuff. It went away after a little while.
Is that alleviated after you get the prosthetic and become accustomed to using it?
No, it’s alleviated over time. Y’know, maybe it is a mental thing. Some scientists or doctors have figured out a way for war victims, after they get their leg blown off and they’re laying in the hospital bed, they put a mirror where their leg should be, which tricks the body into thinking the leg is still there by seeing the reflection. It’s helped a lot with that phantom pain. It happens to everyone who loses a limb, the phantom pain.