Makaha, the fabled surfing area near Ko Olina resort on the Waianae Coast, is home to living legend Richard “Buffalo” Kalolo‘okalani Keaulana and his family of watermen.
At 77 years old, he traces his roots to Hawaiian royalty. Yet his early years were challenging.
“I lived on the beach… My life of surviving was in the ocean. When I went to school, I never had lunch money. So I would hide my spear, then jump in the ocean, poke a few fish, bring them back to the cafeteria, give them to the lady there and trade the fish for lunch.”
Later, following service as an Army lifeguard in Hale‘iwa, Buffalo’s reputation as one of Hawai‘i’s top surfers grew. In 1954, he won the body surfing division at the Makaha International Surfing Championship, the world’s most prestigious surf contest. He went on to win body surfing three more times.
In 1960, he married Leimomi Whaley and landed a live-in, park-keeping job at Makaha. “People would pound on my door upstairs at night, and yell for help. ‘Please help! My wife is out there.'”
His lifesaving skills won him the first-ever lifetime lifeguard position at Makaha, the same year that he won the International’s surfboard division. He remained a top five surfer for the next five years and held the lifeguarding job for 35 years. In the mid 1970s, Buffalo expanded his ocean-going horizon by studying Polynesian sailing. He was selected as steersman for the 35-day maiden voyage to Tahiti of the double-hulled canoe Hokule‘a. Years later, crewmates still praise Buffalo’s ability to surf the canoe.
In 1977, he returned to his surfing roots, founding Buffalo’s Big Board Surfing Classic, an event that included old-style surfing on boards over 10 feet long, as well as a royal court, live Hawaiian music and hula.
Thirty-five years later, the Classic is held the last two weekends of February. It now includes eight disciplines of surfing, from body surfing to canoe surfing. For the past seven years, he’s also been putting on the Buffalo Japan Classic. But his biggest legacy as a waterman is his family.
Buffalo and Momi raised their five children at the beach: Brian, Jody, Lehua, Rusty and Jimmy. All were taught how to survive in the ocean and eat from the sea. Some followed in their father’s footsteps. Brian became a water safety expert; Rusty a three-time long-board world surfing champion, Jimmy a body-board champion and throw-net fisherman.
“The ocean is the glue of life. I think that was my success, being kept so grounded in the ocean and surf. That gave us the opportunity to bloom,” said Brian, who now shares his father’s duties as surf contest director.
“The ocean is the biggest teacher for our family…You become one with that part of nature, that ocean. That’s always been something I love. Now, my son is doing it—that’s the scary part.”