Legendary Waterman, Lifeguard Captain, Surfer, Stuntman, and Stunt Coordinator—Brian Keaulana's entire life revolves around the water. And he’s made it his life’s ambition to share his understanding of the ocean with others. Using his knowledge and skills to improve water safety practices and awareness, Brian has helped save many lives, worldwide.

Aerial view of O'ahu, Hawaii. Photo: Nick Kelley

Hawaii.

Blue skies and blue water. Sun warming the sandy beaches. Palm trees swaying in the breeze. The joyful calls of surfers, families, and gulls—punctuated by the thrilling crash of waves—creating an invigorating backdrop of commotion.

A vacationer’s paradise and thrill-seeker’s utopia.

An outrigger canoe sits in the bright sun on the active beach outside of Makaha, Hawaii. Photo: Nick Kelley

But, often neglected by visitors, are the potential dangers of the ocean that laps at the island chain's shores.

And the tragic consequences of dismissing them.

A sign positioned at the water's edge, warns beachgoers to be aware of the strong current. Text at the bottom of the sign reads, "If in doubt, don't go out." Photo: Nick Kelley
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All it takes is a split second before you’re at the grasp of mother nature…

A surfer appears to be caught off-balance as he catches a wave in the waters off of Makaha Beach.
A member of the Hawaiian Water Patrol grasps the arm of an individual that is struggling in the water. Preparing to pull them to safety.
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…and, hopefully, a lifeguard will come—grab your hand—and whisk you away like an angel.

Brian Keaulana scans the water, seated aboard a Hawaiian Water Patrol jet ski.
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…and that’s who Brian Keaulana is.

Visitors and locals enjoying the sand, sun, and water at the beach outside of Makaha.

Born in Hawaii, Brian grew up on the beach near Makaha where he spent his days with siblings and friends, playing on the beach and in the water. For Brian, however, the ocean was the playground and the classroom.  Brian’s father, Richard ‘Buffalo’ Keaulana, was employed as Park Keeper and, later, Lifeguard Chief. Living and working so closely with the ocean, Buffalo made sure that each of his children and many of the local children knew, from an early age, how to swim before they could even walk. And how to respect and coexist with the ocean around their home.

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I became a Waterman because I wanted to be like my dad.

He would jump in the water and dive deep and pound through the biggest waves … seeing my dad was like seeing something superhuman.

Brian Keaulana

A legendary surfer and Waterman, himself, Buffalo Keaulana was recognized for his natural talent and skill in the water. However, he may have been more well-known for his devotion to his family and his community. Working closely with the community, Buff noticed that his people were facing hardship and losing connection with their heritage. Intent on helping his people rediscover an appreciation for their home and their cultural pride, he began working to help improve life on Makaha Beach. One of his most effective achievements was his idea for the 1977 Big Board Classic. An extremely unique surfing competition at the time, it simply focused on the joy of surfing and celebrated the Hawaiian way-of-life. The surf-meet was so successful that it became an annual event that has been running for over 40 years, now referred to as Buffalo’s Big Board Classic.

A view underwater as Brian Keaulana, surrounded by the blue atmosphere of the ocean, swims to the water's surface.

With such a strong influence and proud heritage, a love for the ocean was in Brian’s blood.

Brian’s admiration for his father led him to beginning his lifeguard career as a young adult. Working right alongside Buff, Brian learned various lifesaving techniques and strove to understand every facet of the ocean. His father taught him what to watch for in the dynamic environment. The subtleties of the surf, winds, tides, and currents. How to work with the water—not against it—respecting its forceful energy. And how to use all of this to his advantage.

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The ocean is forever changing. So, to embody what it means to be a Waterman—you’re forever changing. You’re changing with the tides ... And you’re just in-touch and in-tune with all of it.

Archie Kalepa | Waterman Hall of Fame Inductee

Brian progressively worked his way to becoming an exceptional lifeguard, reminiscent of his father’s legacy. And it was not long before Brian began looking for ways that he could expand upon the skills and techniques that Buff had taught him.

A stack of surfboards and paddleboards sit, strapped, atop a vehicle. Photo: Nick Kelley

Before the 1980s, the lifeguards of Makaha Beach depended upon their ocean expertise and just a few primary rescue tools–rescue tubes, swim fins, and personal watercraft, such as surfboards. And, though Brian and the other lifeguards were extremely skilled at their work, the average rescue could often take more than 30 minutes.

A jet ski and rider effortlessly darts through the water. Photo: Nick Kelley

It was in 1981 that Brian and Terry Ahue, a fellow lifeguard and friend, first saw a jet ski zipping through the water.

The two men were immediately interested in the small, motorized, watercraft. With its speed and maneuverability, they recognized the advantage that it could have in high surf. The time it took to perform a water rescue could be decreased exponentially. It could allow them to save more lives.

A Hawaiian Water Patrol jet ski and rider race toward an individual signaling for help. Photo: Nick Kelley

So, over the next several months, Brian pushed strongly for funding for their idea. And, soon after, he co-founded the Hawaiian Water Patrol with his friend Terry Ahue. Together, the two men became the pioneers of jet ski assisted rescue and even devised the first Jet Ski rescue sled, a unique bodyboard designed specifically for ocean rescue that would attach to the back of a jet ski. Revolutionizing the world of water rescue and surfing.

Photo: Nick Kelley
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And, now, they use Jet Skis in every type of sport. They use it in wave pools. High dive competitions. On movie sets, like we do. And if you’re at home, watching the Olympics—you don’t know it—but you’re seeing some kind of Brian’s impact.

Craig Davidson | Hawaiian Water Patrol

From there, Brian centered his entire life around the water and his skills as a Waterman. Now a renowned lifeguard, professional surfer, water safety advisor, stuntman, stunt coordinator, and even movie director – Brian has had the opportunity to share his knowledge worldwide. He has trained big wave surfers and shared his water safety expertise with groups and organizations from all over. Performed as a stuntman or stunt coordinator in many major motion pictures (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Point Break, and Jurassic World, to name just a few). And has earned global recognition as a highly respected water safety advisor and a true Hawaiian Waterman.

Photo: Nick Kelley

Today, Brian continues to share his knowledge of the ocean and his skills with others; developing and promoting better safety practices and tools utilized throughout the water sport community. His goal to educate and empower others with the knowledge of how to respect the dangers of the ocean, while still appreciating its marvels.

Photo: Nick Kelley