KAILUA-KONA — The wind picked up around 10 a.m. Tuesday and Michael Bernstone conducted an about-face in his outrigger, turning back north toward Anaehoomalu Bay where his day began. That’s when he felt something thump the back of his canoe.
In the middle of Keawaiki Bay — or rather “the middle of nowhere,” to borrow Bernstone’s words — the longtime paddler knew he hadn’t rolled over rocks or sand. Upon contorting his body to inquire, he noticed a fin in the water. A fin that began to circle.
Bernstone had set out with three companions but they were a considerable distance south. For all intents and purposes, and for at least the immediate future, he was alone. And there was a shark in the water.
“He comes back to my canoe and latches onto the back end of it. He’s not about to let go,” Bernstone recalled. “So I turn around and start beating him with my paddle.”
Finally, the animal released the canoe from its clutches. But it wasn’t finished. The shark made a third pass, this time capsizing the watercraft and sending the 74-year-old Bernstone spilling into open ocean.
The moment, he remembered, was absent of fear. It was bursting instead with adrenaline and survival instinct.
“He was right there (when I was in the water),” said Bernstone, who couldn’t discern identifying details about the shark aside from that it was roughly the size of the canoe itself. “I was beating him over the head with my paddle to get him to let loose.”
Bernstone can’t recall if being knocked out of the canoe was the cause of a laceration to his right calf and the more than a dozen subsequent stitches required to close the wound, or if the injury was caused directly by the roughly 12-foot shark he encountered.
“It doesn’t look like a shark bite,” Bernstone said. “It looks more like a knife wound. I think he either hit me with his fin or brushed up against me or something, but there are no puncture wounds.”
Fear arrived on the scene after Bernstone scrambled atop the hull of his overturned canoe, glancing sharply in all directions and preparing for a fourth charge from the shark that never came — even despite the presence of fresh blood in the water.
When he felt comfortable the ocean surrounding him was clear, Bernstone hopped back in the water and turned his outrigger upright. Upon climbing back in, he found the rudder disabled. Then, glancing down, his eyes fell on an even more disconcerting reality.
“I looked down into the footwell and I saw it was all bloody and full of red water,” Bernstone said of the moment he noticed he’d been hurt. “I saw this cut on my calf. In the meantime, Keawaiki is in the middle of nowhere so there’s really no good place to get out of the water and get help.”
Luckily for Bernstone, whatever gashed his leg had missed any arteries. He realized he’d be able to make it back of his own accord with a functional watercraft. Around then, his paddling mates arrived to his position. One of them unjammed his rudder and the group of four made their way safely back to Anaehoomalu Bay.
Ed Texeira, head coach at the Waikoloa Canoe Club, said Bernstone was met by a doctor upon his return. It was determined Bernstone was fit for travel and a friend transported him to North Hawaii Community Hospital, where he was treated in the emergency room over a period of hours and released the same day.
It was then he finally had some time to reflect.
“(The attack) was all within maybe two minutes at the most, so most of it was just adrenaline and reaction to get rid of the shark,” Bernstone said. “After, I had time to think about how lucky I was to not be injured worse. In the moment it was just a reaction.”
Texeira believes Bernstone’s familiarity with the water — 20 years paddling and 15-20 years as a diving instructor with Jack’s Diving Locker — was crucial to his survival.
“He was audacious and, I think, smart enough to strike at the shark with his paddle (and scare it away),” Texeira said.
According to a release by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, the Hawaii Fire Department scanned Keawaiki Bay and nearby areas from a helicopter Tuesday but saw no sign of sharks. A follow-up flyover was conducted Wednesday. The county had not issued any shark warnings or closed any beaches as of Thursday afternoon.
During that time, Bernstone has become something of a local celebrity.
“My phone has been ringing off the hook for the last couple of days. Just about everybody I know on the whole island has called me,” he said. “I’m just happy for all the help I had and am glad I’m OK.”
Bernstone added that beyond the time it will take to repair the damage to the hull and deck of his outrigger caused by the shark’s jagged jaw, he has no plans to allow the attack to derail future paddling excursions.
“I got to get my canoe fixed,” he said. “But I’ll be back.”