ENCINITAS — Last December, Ellie Hayes found herself reflecting on the what-ifs had her then 13-year-old son Keane not survived his shark attack at Beacon’s beach.
“He was very close to death, I mean within seconds of death,” she recounted in a phone call of the attack last year on Sept. 29. “I just thought, gosh, if we would’ve lost him we probably would’ve had a funeral or a celebration of life. And so, as a mom that was so glad (he was still here) I just thought, why can’t we do that with him being alive. Let’s celebrate his survival.”
This Saturday, that’s exactly what will happen with a paddle out in Keane’s honor. The celebratory event is being held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sept. 7 at Moonlight Beach.
Hayes says the event will not only celebrate her son’s survival but other shark attack survivors they’ve come to meet as well.
Hayes says the free event is expected to draw several hundred people and will include many of the people who have supported them over the past year.
Hayes said the actual paddle out will begin around 1:30 p.m., with surfers, kayakers and paddle boarders uniting in a circle. She said there will also be an onshore ceremony around 2:30 p.m.
Hayes said her family, which includes her husband Ben and 7-year-old daughter Aspen, have been through quite a journey in the past year since the attack. One thing they’ve learned is that the damage the great white shark caused when it bit Keane on the upper left side of his body is even more extensive than they originally thought.
“A couple things that we found out, that we didn’t know to begin with, is that he is missing part of his shoulder,” she said. “And he was missing part of his lat (muscle), but he was able to build that lat back. So, life is different for him, it’s not back to normal.”
Hayes said the lasting damage means he can no longer play baseball or football, but he just joined his freshman beach volleyball team.
While he might have to get used to some new physical changes, she said mentally he’s doing really well.
“Keane is very resilient and he’s proven to be mentally tough through this,” she said. “He really understands that it was a mistaken identity by that shark, the shark thought he was a seal pup. He hasn’t had any huge signs of PTSD — no nightmares or flash backs — which is remarkable.”
Hayes, who was at the beach with her son the day of the attack, said it’s been a different story for her — she has major PTSD, including night terrors.
Describing the events of that morning — one she said felt eerie — Hayes said it was Keane’s first time ever lobster diving and he had talked her into waking up at 5:30 a.m. and taking him.
“He said to me at one point, ‘Mom, you can just drop me off and come back in a couple hours,’ and I just thought there’s no way.”
She kept an eye on him by her car in the parking lot and was on the phone with her husband when she says she heard the most gut wrenching screams she’s ever heard.
“And you could tell that it was a child,” she recalled, her voice breaking with emotion. “And I told my husband, I said, ‘Just a minute, there’s screaming.’ And my husband actually said to me, ‘Oh don’t worry, it’s just Keane getting eaten by a shark’.”
A joke he had no idea would hit so close to the mark.
Hayes rode with Keane in a helicopter to Rady Children’s Hospital. She said they had to irrigate him for an hour to get all of the sand out, “and then they started reattaching muscle to bone and just put him back together like a seven-layer cake.”
Keane was in surgery for at least five hours and needed 1,000 stitches to repair his torn upper back, shoulder, torso and face- but luckily needed no skin grafts or hardware. Hayes said he was extraordinarily lucky the shark did not hit any major arteries and revealed that the bite was a millimeter away from Keane’s jugular.
Amazingly Keane — who started swimming at 9 months old and boogie boarding at 1 year old — was back in the ocean less than three months later, on the day after Christmas.
“I didn’t really think much of it, it was just like, ok, let’s just go swim,” Keane said.
He’s since gotten really involved in the dive community and even works in a dive shop. And he’s done a lot of cool things, like going to the World Series, throwing out the first ceremonial pitch at a Padres game, and meeting famed skateboarder Tony Hawk and pro surfer Bethany Hamilton, well known for losing her left arm in a shark attack in Kauai when she was 13, the same age as Keane was.
Hayes said the family couldn’t have gotten through this without the “huge act of kindness” they’ve received from the community.
As for little Aspen, who Hayes said has been immensely affected by what happened to Keane, she’s just glad her big brother is okay.
“I’m thankful for my brother being alive,” Aspen said.
Tawny McCray is a native San Diegan and graduate of San Diego State University. She has known she wanted to be a journalist since writing for her Jr. High School newspaper in 1991. She has worked at The Star News in Chula Vista, The San Diego Union Tribune and ABC 10News San Diego. She has recently freelanced for Scripps Ranch News and The Poway Eagle and is a longtime freelancer with creators.com. She is working on authoring books with her twin sister, Nyla. She and her husband have two kids and live in South Park.