Keane Hayes scanned the ocean’s depths for lobster on a hazy fall morning in 2018, about 200 yards from Beacon’s Beach in San Diego. He dove down 10 feet to inspect a ledge with potential as a crustacean hiding spot. Surfacing empty-handed, his outstretched body violently jerked.
He never saw the shark.
A haven turns dark
As a baby, Keane would cry when pried from swimming pools. Later, the ocean became his haven — from atop a longboard, a watercraft that hearkens to surfing’s origins. But soon he found himself captivated by what was below the water. In the days before the lobster dive, his first time hunting crustaceans, he had been frothing over diving videos on YouTube.
That day — Sept. 29, 2018, the opening day of lobster diving season — his mom, Ellie Hayes, had reluctantly permitted him to lobster dive, watching atop a cliff. When screams came from the water, his dad, Ben Hayes, had joked over 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 deep that the lifeguard glimpsed his undulating lungs. Keane was airlifted to Rady Children’s Hospital in critical condition. He was in surgery for five hours, received 1,000 stitches and spent about a week in the hospital.
The shark bite shattered his humerus in his upper arm and left him with several back injuries: torn rotator cuff, fractured scapula and missing parts of his deltoid and latissimus dorsi muscles. After the hospital stay came demanding physical therapy sessions and constant doctor appointments.
Throughout his ordeal, however, Keane harbored what might seem to be an unlikely desire — commune again with the sea. He later set out to spend 301 days in 2021 in the ocean, whether surfing, fishing or swimming.
The 17-year-old didn’t just want to reclaim his passion. In pursuing an ocean-filled year, he aimed to inspire surfers and non-surfers. “Even if something bad happened, you can figure out a way to do what you love, no matter what that is,” Keane said.
For him and his family, that has meant grappling with physical and psychological scars.
Different from other traumas
In the days after the shark bite, Keane was overwhelmed by all the attention, and his family wondered if the shark would haunt him.
The family’s outlook improved when visited by 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 realize that the bite was probably because of the shark’s poor eyesight, not a predatory act. (A 2021 study, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, suggests that sharks mistake humans for seals.) For Keane, the distinction made the bite feel less personal.
As they talked about him plunging into the ocean again, Keane’s mom interrupted. “I said, ‘No you are not going back,’ ” Hayes recalled.
Shark attacks can traumatize more than the person who was bitten. Nearly a third of shark bite survivors and their families reported experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder in the three months after an attack, according to a 2018 study by researchers at the University of Sydney.
The minuscule odds of another bite — for surfers there is a 1 in 17 million chance of being bitten by a great white — didn’t offer Hayes enough assurances that her son would be safe in the ocean. But her resistance crumbled when Keane asked for only one Christmas gift: a return to the water.
Three months after the attack, in his first time going back to the ocean, Keane swam in choppy, short interval waves. Not ideal conditions — but “it felt like going home,” he said.
A form of exposure therapy came in 2019 from Keane getting within inches of a great white off the coast of Mexico’s Guadalupe Island. From a dive cage, he felt curiosity more than fear.
Over time, his ocean jaunts allowed Hayes to confront her fears and painful memories. “It’s immersion therapy,” she said. She lost her compulsion to observe him from the beach or remotely with online video feeds of surf breaks. “I began to trust the ocean more and more,” she said.
In some ways, a shark encounter differs from other types of traumas. In the aftermath, media requests abound, and the 24-hour news cycle can feel intrusive, the University of Sydney study found. It can also be difficult to navigate hard-wired feelings of being a food source.
“How they perceive their attack can lead to different outcomes,” said Della Commons, a clinical psychologist who volunteers for Bite Club, a support group for shark-bite survivors and their families.
The Hayes family joined the group to find others who could relate. Dave Pearson, an Australian who founded Bite Club after a bull shark tore into his arm, said that Keane early on internalized a key lesson: acceptance.
“Regardless of your injures, regardless of what you are left with, you have got to just keep moving forward,” Pearson said. “You have to accept that your life will be different, but it’s going to be better.”
A return to a beloved place
Last summer, a slight breeze ruffled peeling, four-foot waves at Swami’s Beach, two miles south of where the shark had left Keane in a critical condition. He muscled his single-fin longboard into wave after wave — all without a rubber leash, a standard accessory that stops loose boards from being swept to the beach. But Keane — shirtless, in blue trunks, ribboned red scars lining his neck and a shoulder that hasn’t fully recovered — stayed in control, even when stepping to the nose of the board.
This was day 193. Keane had resolved to spend 301 days in the ocean in 2021, after realizing that school and rain-causing pollution would not let him enter the water every day.
He was more in love with the sea than before. But beyond ocean worship, his resolution aimed to inspire anyone who is up against formidable circumstances. Keane — who speaks to a wide range of groups — finds that audiences relate to the struggle of overcoming a challenge, even if that challenge is as rare as a shark bite.
Keane recently told 500 teens at a church event that setbacks are part of any journey. Besides physical and internal mental struggles, Keane also endured bullying by some classmates who called him names related to the attack. But the Hayes family emphasized that the community at large — most classmates, lifeguards and doctors, and goodwill messages from strangers — lifted them up.
When one of the teens asked if he is angry at God, Keane recalled his response: Occasionally, a why-did-this-happen-to-me feeling strikes him. But then he sees all the good that came from the encounter, including deep bonds.
In September, Keane returned to Beacon’s Beach for his third “shark-versary.” As a standout moment in a year at sea, he shared a glassy, chest-high wave with one of the kayakers who helped get him to safety and his friend who dove with him that day.
“It was good to be back at the spot and making good memories,” Keane said.
He ended 2021 with 351 days in the ocean.