Keane Hayes survived a shark attack and reignited his love for the ocean

Keane Hayes survived a shark attack and reignited his love for the ocean

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Keane Hayes scanned the depths of the ocean for lobster on a foggy fall morning in 2018, about 200 yards from Beacon’s Beach in San Diego. He dived 10 feet to inspect a ledge with potential as a shellfish hideout. Returning to the surface empty-handed, his tense body shook violently.

Keane thought his dive buddy might play a prank on him. Then blood flowed from his torn jumpsuit. The 13-year-old screamed and kicked through the water to a kayak with three men, including an off-duty police officer and an off-duty lifeguard, who paddled Keane to shore.

As a baby, Keane cried when he was pulled out of pools. Later, the ocean became his refuge, from the top of a longboard, a craft reminiscent of the origins of surfing. But soon he found himself captivated by what was under the water. In the days before lobster diving, his first shellfish hunt, he was browsing scuba videos on YouTube.

On that day – September 29, 2018, the opening day of lobster diving season – his mother, Ellie Hayes, had reluctantly allowed him to dive lobster, looking over a cliff top. When screams came out of the water, her father, Ben Hayes, had joked on the phone that “‘it was probably just Keane getting eaten by a shark,'” she recalled. She rushed to the beach, the dark quip largely true.

The shark’s bite pierced so deeply that the rescuer saw its rippling lungs. Keane was airlifted to Rady Children’s Hospital in critical condition. He was operated on for five hours, received 1,000 stitches and spent about a week in hospital.

The shark bite fractured his humerus in his upper arm and left him with multiple back injuries: a torn rotator cuff, a fractured scapula, and missing parts of his deltoid and latissimus dorsi muscles. After the hospital stay, there were demanding physiotherapy sessions and constant medical appointments.

Throughout his ordeal, however, Keane harbored what might seem like an unlikely desire: to commune with the sea again. He then decided to spend 301 days in 2021 in the ocean, whether surfing, fishing or swim.

The 17-year-old didn’t just want to rediscover his passion. Continuing an ocean-filled year, he aimed to inspire surfers and non-surfers alike. “Even if something bad happened, you can find a way to do what you love, no matter what it is,” Keane said.

For him and his family, it has meant struggling with physical and psychological scars.

Different from other trauma

In the days following the shark bite, Keane was overwhelmed with all the attention and his family wondered if the shark would haunt him.

The family’s outlook improved with the visit of Bethany Hamilton, who in 2003 lost her arm to a tiger shark but later successfully returned to competitive surfing.

Hamilton was proof that it is possible to thrive after a shark attack. She also helped Keane understand that the bite was likely due to the shark’s poor eyesight, not a predatory act. (A 2021 study, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, suggests sharks confuse humans with seals.) For Keane, the distinction made the bite less personal.

As they were talking about him diving into the ocean again, Keane’s mother cut them off. “I said, ‘No, you’re not coming back,'” Hayes recalled.

Shark attacks can traumatize more than the person bitten. According to a 2018 study by researchers at the University of Sydney, almost a third of shark bite survivors and their families said they had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder within three months. an attack.

The miniscule likelihood of another bite — for surfers, there’s a 1 in 17 million chance of being bitten by a great white — didn’t offer Hayes enough assurance that his son would be safe in the ocean. . But her resistance crumbled when Keane asked for just one Christmas present: a return to the water.

Three months after the attack, on his first return to the ocean, Keane swam in choppy waves and at short intervals. Not ideal conditions – but “it felt like coming home”, he said.

A form of exposure therapy came in 2019 from Keane being inches from a great white off the island of Guadalupe in Mexico. From a diving cage, he felt more curiosity than fear.

Over time, his oceanic escapades allowed Hayes to confront his fears and painful memories. “It’s immersion therapy,” she says. She lost her compulsion to watch it from the beach or from a distance with online video feeds of surf spots. “I started to trust the ocean more and more,” she said.

In some ways, a shark encounter differs from other types of trauma. In the aftermath, media requests abound and the 24-hour news cycle can feel intrusive, according to the University of Sydney study. It can also be difficult to deal with entrenched feelings of being a food source.

“How they perceive their attack can lead to different outcomes,” said Della Commons, a clinical psychologist who volunteers with Bite Club, a support group for shark bite survivors and their families.

The Hayes family joined the group to find others who could identify. Dave Pearson, an Australian who founded Bite Club after a bull shark ripped off his arm, said Keane internalized a key lesson early on: acceptance.

“No matter what injuries you have, no matter what you have left, you have to keep pushing forward,” Pearson said. “You have to accept that your life will be different, but it will be better.”

A return to a beloved place

Last summer, a light breeze ruffled four-foot waves at Swami’s Beach, two miles south of where the shark left Keane in critical condition. He’s beefed up his single-fin longboard wave after wave – all without a rubber leash, a standard accessory that keeps loose boards from being swept onto the beach. But Keane – shirtless, in blue boxer shorts, ribbony red scars lining his neck and a shoulder that hasn’t fully recovered – remained in control, even walking towards the nose of the board.

It was day 193. Keane had decided to spend 301 days in the ocean in 2021, after realizing pollution from school and rain wouldn’t let him get in the water every day .

He was more in love with the sea than before. But beyond worshiping the ocean, his resolve was meant to inspire all who face formidable circumstances. Keane – who speaks to a wide range of groups – finds audiences relate to the struggle to overcome a challenge, even if that challenge is as rare as a shark bite.

Keane recently told 500 teenagers at a religious event that setbacks are part of any journey. Apart from physical and internal mental struggles, Keane also suffered bullying from some classmates who called him names related to the attack. But the Hayes family pointed out that the community as a whole — mostly schoolmates, lifeguards and doctors, and messages of goodwill from strangers — lifted them up.

When one of the teenagers asked him if he was mad at God, Keane recalled his answer: Every once in a while a feeling of why this happened to me hits him. But then he sees all the good that came out of the encounter, including deep connections.

In September, Keane returned to Beacon’s Beach for his third “shark versary”. A highlight of a year at sea, he shared a glassy, ​​chest-high wave with one of the kayakers who helped him to safety and his friend who dived with him that day.

“It was good to be back there and make some good memories,” Keane said.

He ended 2021 with 351 days in the ocean.

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