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Father and son reflect on their relationship after a harrowing shark attack off Maui

Daniel and Tristan Sullivan
Courtesy Daniel Sullivan
Daniel and Tristan Sullivan

For photographer Daniel Sullivan, the day began as normal. He took his camera and his kayak off the coast of Maui last year in hopes of photographing the seasonal whale migration.

Daniel’s son Tristan, who was 15 at the time, paddled with him in the two-person kayak.

“I just remember how pretty a day it was,” Daniel Sullivan said. “We saw a couple of dolphins jumping around. And as we were watching the dolphins, a mother whale came out of the water with a newborn calf. It was amazing.”

But their peace was short-lived when the older Sullivan suddenly felt something crash into the kayak.

“My son flew out of the front of the boat, the boat flew into the air, everything in the boat flew out,” he remembered. “And as I looked down as this was happening, I saw the jaws of a shark on either side of my legs crashing into the kayak.”

Daniel Sullivan was knocked into the water. He fought off the shark with his paddle. Once the shark retreated, the father and son realized that the shark had bitten into the bottom of the boat. Water poured into the kayak.

Courtesy Department of Land and Natural Resources

“We were back in the water,” he said. “We were completely terrified. And I said to Tristan, 'We’re just going to have to swim for it.' We were a mile out.”

Swimming to shore proved itself to be more nerve-racking than surviving the shark itself.

“The scariest part was the uncertainty of if it was going to swim up and grab one of us,” Tristan Sullivan said. “You know, life or death.”

Still, the adrenaline of the shark attack pushed them to shore. They fell into a rhythm, swimming at the same pace and breathing at the same time, relying on one another.

“I definitely felt like we were saving each other out there,” he said.

After 45 minutes of swimming, they made it to dry land.

For Daniel Sullivan, watching his son navigate an emergency so calmly was a moment of pride.

“He had just survived and he had completely composed himself,” he said. “So for me, it was kind of like he had become a man through this experience. It definitely brought us closer together.”

Daniel Sullivan's next book, "Maui: Mauka to Makai," is slated for release later this year.

The Conversation intern Emily Tom adapted this interview for web. This interview aired on The Conversation on June 16, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Russell Subiono is the executive producer of The Conversation and host of HPR's This Is Our Hawaiʻi podcast. Born in Honolulu and raised on Hawaiʻi Island, he’s spent the last decade working in local film, television and radio. Contact him at talkback@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Emily Tom was a temporary digital news producer in summer 2023 and an intern in summer 2022.
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