The Danger of Blowholes

This photo was taken moments before the man behind the water spray was sucked down a blowhole on Maui last week:

Photo from the article in the Daily Mail.

Sadly, he only came back up to the surface once before being dragged under again and disappearing for good.  At the time the article was written, his body had still not been found.

It’s an odd way to go, death by blowhole, but that’s not what grabbed me.  My eldest brother was also sucked down a blowhole, decades ago now, also in Hawaii only on Oahu, not Maui.  It was during a high surf alert generated by an earthquake on the Asian side of the Pacific rim and, as soon as they heard about it, Bro (an occasionally professional surfer), his girlfriend, and another surfer friend drove up to Waimea Bay to check out the waves.

They weren’t going there to surf.  The waves were coming in around thirty feet and big wave surfing wasn’t yet as popular as it is today.  No. They were just heading up to watch, because waves that big are a rare phenomenon and, like solar eclipses, tornadoes, and eagles mating, sightings are a privilege and opportunities shouldn’t be wasted.

The three were standing up on the cliffs overlooking the bay, admiring the monster surf, when they first noticed it.  Huge spray coming out of a blowhole none of them had ever seen before.  It clearly had a long tunnel, starting down in the bay and running all the way up through the rock to its exit farther out on the point, and no one had noticed it before because it was inactive in smaller water.  It took seismically generated waves to finally send water all the way up and out the top, and Bro and company were understandably excited by the discovery.  They wandered out to take a closer look.

Now understand, these were experienced island people.  They knew about blowholes.  They understood how strong and deadly water that only reaches up to your ankles can be.  But somehow, in spite of keeping what they thought was a safe distance, the wash coming out of the hole suddenly snaked across the cliff, wrapped around Bro’s feet, whipped them out from under him, and sucked him struggling and clawing back to the mouth of the hole, over the edge, and down inside it.  Just like that.  Blink of an eye.

The Hawaiian Akua are known to be mischievous.

He had just enough time before going under to grab a lungful of air and, because he was a surfer and accustomed to spending long periods of time held under by powerful waves, his lungs could hold a lot.  He began the descent and traveled deeper and deeper down the wormhole, with no idea where it would come out or even if it would remain large enough to allow his passage all the way through.  What he did know was a long, narrow, hurtling slide down through water, rock, and darkness, with a steadily growing pressure in his chest as his air started to run out.

Finally, as he was beginning to think he might not make it, he felt himself whoosh out the bottom of the tunnel into open water. He immediately struck for the surface and when he broke into open air, found he was so far out in the bay he was actually past the surf line.

Needless to say, Bro’s girlfriend and friend were freaking out back on the cliff, and they failed to spot him where he came up because they were looking closer to shore.  But eventually someone sighted him and called the Coast Guard who quickly launched a rescue.  I’m delighted to tell you that my brother survived to tell the tale.  Because he was a strong swimmer, and because he didn’t lose his head, and because our Aumakua were protecting him, and because…well…it just wasn’t his day to die.

Working with hospice is about working with those who die slowly, navigating the process as it gradually unfolds, step by step, over a period of time.  Sudden death is different.  When a person dies abruptly the laws that govern the dying process are moving so fast that it becomes impossible to see the underlying physiological sequence in action.  It’s still taking place mind you.  Every physical body has to go through a shutting down process on it’s way to death.  But while a wasting disease takes us through those stages one at a time, sudden death strikes every point along the sequence simultaneously.

Why is this important?  Because even though these stages of the dying process are the only part we have any control over, we leverage this control into an illusion that we actually have some power over death itself. (We can save lives!  We can!!)  But when a sudden death comes along and collapses the various stages into a singular, catastrophic event which is beyond our ability to influence, then our illusion of control over death is instantly vaporized.


The shock of this is absolutely terrifying.  As a people we are very, very, committed to both our denial of death and our illusion of power over it. Pretending like we can somehow conquer it by throwing billions and trillions of dollars into ever-escalating research, treatment, surgeries, medical insurance, regulations, legislation, screenings, hospitals, and drugs has become one of…if not the…central tenet of our modern society.  The pursuit of this illusion has actually now taken over the bulk of our economy.  It’s consuming more and more of the healthy parts of our individual lives.  It’s really, truly massive.

Which is, of course, what makes those moments when the illusion shatters so horrifying.

While medical/technological advances are granting us a greater level of confidence and control than we’ve ever known before, that control is not…and never has been…over death.  It’s over time.  Yet we constantly forget this.

What I’m trying to say here is that dying is negotiable, but death is destiny.  When it’s time to die, it’s just time, whether it’s at the end of a long illness or on the lip of a blowhole.  I realize that saying something like this sounds superstitious in a society that prizes rational thinking, analysis, and control as much as ours does, but only as long as we’re speaking in today’s relatively young scientific language.  In other, older languages this understanding of death as destiny is common.

Try talking to soldiers who’ve seen active duty on the battlefield, or emergency room personnel working long shifts in busy, urban hospitals, or 8,000 meter mountain climbers who’ve seen a lot of companions die climbing, or morticians, or clergy who work with the bereaved, or anyone else who’s been around it a lot and gained an intimate knowledge of the mechanics of sudden death.  They’ll say pretty much the same thing I am; while devastating to watch, the experience also grants one an expanded perspective of reality, an aching grasp of the limits of life, and a deeper understanding of mystery, than all the long, hallowed hallways of science strung together will ever be able to deliver.

To close, here’s an outrageous video from Neptune Surfing.  It was evidently taken at Waimea Bay in 2009 during a storm surge that was creating more monster waves.  Yeah, baby.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011