Duke Kahanamoku – The Hawaiian Waterman of the Ocean

Oahu, Hawaii – When I was kid, I saw a black-and-white movie about a Polynesian boy, Tico, who lives in a remote seaside village in the South Pacific, where he befriends a helpless, baby shark. He names his shark Manitu. He raises it secretly in a lagoon, feeding it with the help of his girlfriend. When the shark grows too big, Tico reluctantly frees it back to the ocean. Tico grows up in the rush of civilization that changes his village. People eagerly adopt the new ways of living. But Tico, now a young man, remains true to his love of the ocean. He lives alone by the lagoon. He becomes a pearl diver. One day Tico nearly dies in the waters. His shark, now grown to its full adult magnificence, saves him. The film ends with Tico and his girlfriend, and his shark, Manitu, abandoning the home island in search for a more peaceful existence.

That film, Tico and the Shark, embedded a strong impression in my childhood heart. Since then I romanticized the pure ways of living with the ocean. Evermore so now because I live on the island of Oahu, which is sadly overrun by the rush of modernization.

Recently, I read a book by Susan Casey, The Waves. One of the themes in her book is the lives of the world’s big wave surfers. She equates their ways of living with the Polynesian ways of the “waterman.” Casey describes the waterman as a person who is totally confident in the ocean, could swim for many hours in rough waters without fatigue, would risk his life to save the lives of others from the perils of the ocean, would paddle for hundreds of miles if he must, and could commune with the creatures of the deep, including the sharks.

Ah, Tico and the Shark.

There are countless men in the world, who like Tico, could stand proudly in the spirit of the Polynesian waterman. But amongst all of them, one stands out in my mind as their King.

Duke Kahanamoku.

Duke Kahanamoku with Longboard

Duke Kahanamoku with his longboard

Duke was not only the “father of international surfing,” but he was also an Olympic swimming gold medalist. When Duke Kahanamoku, 21, won his first Olympian gold medal, no one could match his swimming style, which he had honed and sharpened in the wild waters of Oahu.

Of all his exploits, all legends of a true Hawaiian waterman, one event strikes my mind. Duke Kahanamoku’s legendary surf ride in the waters off Waikiki, on a giant wave called “Bluebirds.” Gliding on the massive face of tons of rushing waters, under the curling power that could snap a man’s bones, Duke tamed the beast, balancing on his longboard, riding the wave for a mile and three-quarters. People on the beach watched awestruck. When Duke landed on the beach, he lifted his longboard, walked through the cheering crowd, without words, deep in his thoughts. He sat down to take in all that had happened. It is told, now a legend, that to the day he died, he kept that one ride shining in his memories.

Where to Find Duke Kahanamoku:

Walk south along Kalakaua Avenue, which is the Waikiki boulevard, until you reach Kuhio Beach Park. There you’ll find Duke’s bronze statue. Much has changed since Duke’s time. But if you ignore all the hustles and bustles of the modern Waikiki, close your eyes, feel the breeze in your face, you can perhaps still hear the distant echoes of Duke surfing that roaring Bluebirds.


  1. Bonnie Rose

    Hi James – there is so much heart and inspiration in this. I loved the three stories woven together – Tico and the shark, the waterman, and Duke. I felt the power of that wave and imagined it as too holy for him to speak about – words probably would not do it justice. Thank you for sharing this. – Bonnie

    1. J Almon Polk (Post author)

      Hi Bonnie – Thank you very much for your kind words. I’m flying to Molokai tomorrow with my wife, Sharon, to visit the former leper colony and the grave site of Father Damien (now a Saint). Hawaii has so much to offer, so much more beyond beaches and water sports and tropical cocktails. Ciao, James


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