Ha‘a Keaulana: The Joyful Dancing Sea
By Alyssa S. Navares
If you asked Ha‘a Keaulana what her biggest wave was, she’d most likely tell you (while giggling), “I don’t know; I don’t usually look!” That’s because she’s too humble to really say. The 20-year-old charges her home break of Makaha and recalled one of her most memorable stand-up paddle rides during a big winter swell last year. “I just went for it and took this really big drop,” said Ha‘a, who was the only girl in the line up at the time. “All the uncles and guys were rooting for me, and I made it!”
She went on to explain how one guy out there asked her the same question I asked during my interview, “What’s your biggest wave?” When Ha‘a told him that she wasn’t sure, probably around 10-feet:
“He laughed and said, ‘The wave you caught was way bigger than 10 feet!’”
That day must have been pretty big if her dad, well-known waterman Brian Keaulana, paddled out to tell Ha‘a right after her wave that she should come in already.
But no matter what size wave Ha‘a catches on her longboard or stand-up, she lives up to her Hawaiian name, Kaiha‘ale‘a, which means: “joyful dancing sea.” Given by a family friend, the name encompasses a little bit of her mother and a little bit of her father. Her mom loved dancing hula while her dad spent much of his time in the ocean.
And Ha‘a does both. Her graceful style on the wave looks almost like a dance routine that sends her gliding through the ocean. There’s no doubt she’s having fun doing it; a huge smile on her face makes even the gnarliest wipeouts look fun!
“Makaha’s my little playground,” she said. “My dad never let us play on the road, so they’d take us to the beach.”
Ha‘a has fond childhood memories of her brother and cousins rolling in the shoreline, getting pushed into some of their first waves and swimming around with the turtles that frequent the area. Makaha was and continues to be a second home to them; a place where Ha‘a’s passion for surfing and stand-up paddling evolved into a way of life.
Getting into the ocean continues to be a part of her daily regimen. If there’s waves, then you’ll most likely find her surfing or stand-up paddling. But when there’s really big waves, Ha‘a sticks to her stand-up.
“I like stand-up because you don’t have to get wet right away,” she said in total honesty. “I think I like to surf bigger waves on it because when I’m looking at the wave, it doesn’t look as big as when I’m lying down for longboarding.”
I’ve written about quite a few stand-up paddlers before, but Ha‘a’s answer to my question of what she enjoyed most about SUP had to have been the best I’ve gotten so far. I expected her to say something about the added challenge of the board-and-paddle combo or the extra speed you get while on the wave, but instead, she made two really good points. (1) Stay dry, stay warm and (2) Big waves look smaller when you’re standing. That’s some sound logic if you ask me.
Ha‘a’s ocean-mindedness stems from a legacy of watermen and waterwomen who come from the Keaulana family. Surfer Rusty Keaulana has a few world titles under his belt while her father, dubbed an ocean safety pioneer, is the go-to guy whenever surf contests or film crews are in town. He’ll provide a group of skilled professionals to supervise all ocean-related scenarios.
But to Ha‘a, it starts with her grandfather, Buffalo Keaulana, who she affectionately calls Papa. Just recently, the state inducted Buffalo into the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame, for his dedication in perpetuating Hawai‘i as the birthplace of surfing. He won the 1960 Makaha International Surfing Championship and in 1976, held the very first Buffalo’s Big Board Surfing Classic. This year marks the 36th year of the event.
As soon as Ha‘a turned 13, she surfed in her Papa’s contests and still has many of the trophies she has won over the years. Actually, her house is full of trophies from her talented family of watermen and women.
“I feel very lucky that I was born into this family because it ‘ain’t normal,” she chuckled. “Not many people can say they grew up this way.”
She went on to describe her family as, “different, in a good way.” They’ve been fortunate to do a lot of traveling together and to meet several famous people in Hollywood, thanks to her father who works on set and coordinates many of the stunts we see in Hawaii Five-0, Lost and Blue Crush.
In fact, Ha‘a has already done a couple of stunts herself. She surfed in a scene for the movie Soul Surfer (although she doesn’t consider that a real stunt since she does it all the time.) But her biggest stunt had to be dangling 30 feet in the air for a scene in the television show Off the Map. And her silliest stunt? Dressing as a zombie for the show The River and tackling another person on set. Stardom and stunts seem to be in the genes.
While Ha‘a continues to get more exposure in front of the camera, she also hopes to pursue her passion on the side of the lens – taking pictures, that is.
Needless to say, the ocean’s one of her favorite things to shoot, but she tries to keep herself well-rounded, too – portraits, lifestyle, landscapes and pretty much anything that comes her way.
“I like to give people a different perspective of the west side, a more positive one,” she said. “It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world that not many people get to see, so I try to capture the beauty of it in the people and place. Hopefully it will change people’s minds.”
When you look at some of her photos, it seems as if she’s been doing this for a long time, when really she just started three years ago. Ha‘a has excellent timing when it comes to capturing a flash of a moment from unique viewpoints. There’s one photo that looks like a spider web of sand and sea coming straight at you, ready to burst right out of the frame. If you ever see her with lens in hand right in the impact zone of a nasty shorebreak, don’t fret for she’s probably just getting creative with her camera.
The west side has some of the most pristine sea life on the island; something Ha‘a has already devoted a few albums to. Her underwater adventures include pods of dolphins, schools of fish and turtles swimming inches from her camera. She even takes portraits of people under the water that closely resemble an underwater ballet.
All of her work can be viewed on Tumblr (joyfuldancingsea.tumblr.com). And until she gets an official website, most of her photography services have been through word of mouth. She hopes to one day have her own gallery and start selling prints of her work.
Until then, she continues to seek inspiration and tutelage from local photographer and family friend Allen Mozo and his brother, the late Jon Mozo. Allen has made a big impact on Ha‘a and serves as one of her mentors in photography.
“She’s like a niece/daughter to me,” said Allen, who has watched Ha‘a grow up and show a growing interest in photography. “She sees with her heart (and) is a shining ray of beauty that people will be inspired and drawn to, through her work and her personality. I’m really proud of her…I’m so inspired by her work now.”
Ha‘a also looks up to local cinematographer and photographer Don King, who shot a lot of the classic Makaha and west side photos we see today. He captured one of Ha‘a’s favorite photos of her Papa and her, when she was three years old. It’s also one of her earliest memories.
“We were paddling out for the Eddie Aikau blessing, and I remember dangling my feet over the side of the board, and him telling me, ‘Don’t put your feet in the water before the fish bite ‘em.’” Ha‘a reminisced. “I even remember catching a wave in after and running over the lei floating inside.”
It’s not only a photo that Ha‘a will look at for years to come, but it’s a photo that captures the memory of her Papa and encompasses the essence of her family. From grandpa to keiki, the Keaulana bloodline seems thick with saltwater. The ocean is in their veins and seems to flow just as strong through Ha‘a’s as well, whether she is standing on it or deep within it.