Growing up in the small beach town of Makaha on the Westside of O'ahu, Rell Sunn went on to become the first female lifeguard in Hawai'i and a pioneer on the international women's professional surfing tour. She was a single mother, yet she managed to go back to school for a degree in cultural anthropology while raising her daughter Jan, working as a lifeguard, studying hula, taking judo and competing on the professional circuit. Her godmother called her Rella Propella because she was such a whirlwind of energy. When she was born, her grandparents gave her the Hawaiian middle name of Kapolioka'ehukai, which means "heart of the sea." That name would capture the essence of her life and inspire her to become a passionate protector of the ocean.
As a professional surfer, Rell made trips around the world, competing in international contests and bringing home trophies and exotic stories. In 1976, she started a surf competition as a birthday activity for her daughter and friends. She handed out her old trophies as awards. The kids had so much fun that it became an annual event known as the Menehune Contest. The contest would help launch the careers of aspiring professional surfers like Makaha's Duane DeSoto, who began competing in Rell's contest when he was four years old. Now with his own kids competing in the contest, he still remembers how Aunty Rell always encouraged the kids to clean up the beach and has incorporated her lessons into his own life.
"At her contests, Rell used to get us to pick up the rubbish and make sure the beach was clean," Duane says. "She just led by example primarily. I remember her walking up and down the beach, cleaning up on her own. She was just someone who cared about everything. It was the ocean, the beach and the people. She was a passionate person." Duane credits her with helping him become a pro surfer by teaching him about competition and sportsmanship. By the time they were in their late teens, Duane and local surfers like Sunny Garcia and Rusty Keaulana picked up sponsorships from the top international surf companies, thanks to Aunty Rell's guidance. But she also taught them about the importance of taking care of the ocean.
During the peak of her career, Rell was competing in Huntington Beach, California when she felt a lump in her breast. She went to the hospital to get it checked out and the doctors told her it was malignant cancer and that she probably had less than a year to live. But Rell was determined to fight her cancer and try to find out what had caused it. While going through radiation, chemotherapy and later, a radical mastectomy, she began doing research on water quality. Rell suspected that ocean pollutants might have been the cause of the cancer that had stricken her and her best friend, fellow lifeguard Pua Moku'au.
Rell's daughter Jan says that her mother had always been intrigued by the ocean and even used to hold Easter egg hunts on the reefs and teach kids about the marine ecosystem. "Early in the mornings at low tide we'd go to the tide pools at Makaha and flip over rocks to see what was under, feed the baby lobsters and pick limu," Jan says. Rell would often tell the kids malama i ke kaiŠtake care of the ocean, because she knew that the ocean reflected the health of the people and the land.
"She really focused on the children. She knew that if she could reach the younger generation and educate them about the environment, her work would continue long after she was gone," Jan recalls. "I remember her teaching them about the water cycle: how the ocean water evaporates and forms clouds, how clouds gather by mountain peaks and then fall as rain. She said that the water would be cleaned by the land as it works its way back to the ocean. I can hear my mom tell them that we must not only clean the beaches but the land also. If not, then the water that is going back to the ocean will be contaminated and affect the fish that we eat and the ocean that we love."
After a really rainy night, she would always keep Jan away from the ocean the next day because the storm water runoff would flush all of the pollutants on land into the ocean.
As a child, Rell used to run behind the trucks spraying DDT in the area. After the onset of her cancer she began to wonder if these types of toxic agricultural chemicals explained the high rates of breast cancer in Wai'anae. "She didn't know that the DDT sprayed to control the bugs and mosquitoes was a carcinogen," Jan says. "No one knows how much and for how long chemicals and pollutants were being dumped into the side streams, making their way to the ocean. She didn't know that people would be dumping oil, grease and gasoline into our storm drains. These are all things that she found out later. Did she get cancer from all these things? I'm sure it didn't help."
Rell had spent most of her life in the ocean, surfing, swimming, diving and spearfishing. Although the ocean was her playground and church all in one, she began to realize that she and her best friend Pua must have contracted their cancer from pollutants in the water. That was when she decided to join the newly founded Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group based in Southern California. Based on her reputation as a talented waterwoman and dedicated environmentalist, she was later asked to join the Board of Directors, serving for two years.
Dr. Gordon LaBedz was a laidback family physician, yet also a fierce environmentalist who remembers when Rell first joined the Surfrider board. "Anytime Rell walked into the room, everybody just fell in love with her. She had that kind of charisma and a smile that would just knock you across the room," Gordon says with a laugh. "I went surfing with her a couple of times and she was just an exquisite wave dancer." She was always extremely fit and she continued diving and surfing even during her cancer. "What I learned from Rell was that diet and exercise are the most important parts of cancer treatment and prevention," Gordon says. "Rell was a poster child of that. She was so healthy that she was able to prolong her life for years and years.
"Although she saw herself as a surfer, she was really more of an environmentalist," Gordon observes. "Her issue was chemical pollution of the reefs and the ocean. I think she was most passionate about poisons like pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. She felt they were killing the reefs, killing the ocean and frankly, killing her."
Gordon helped create the national chapter network of the Surfrider Foundation and says that the organization was at a turning point when Rell got involved. "We were going through an identity crisis with the Surfrider Foundation. The profound issue was whether we were going to be a national environmental organization or a surfers' rights advocacy group. There was a big vote about whether the Surfrider Foundation should remain small and oriented towards surfers or whether we should try to go big and become a coastal environmental group," Gordon recalls. "She was the last vote, and it came down to her. And she voted for the big coastal environmental group. That's how I remember Rell SunnŠshe was the woman who helped save the Surfrider Foundation."
Although Rell seemed to have beaten her disease, she decided to leave the board when her cancer came out of remission. She always looked so vibrant, healthy and happy that her friends didn't think of her as being sick. Rell had to go back into heavy treatment, and at one point, she slipped into a coma. She would later talk about a dream where she was surfing in Waikiki, unable to catch any waves for the longest time. But she finally caught one and was able to ride it to the shore, and that's when she woke up. "That kept me occupied while I was in a coma," Rell said, "I've always said that surfing saved my life." She continued surfing, diving and running the Menehune Contest for a few more years, but the cancer kept coming back.
During Rell's last month, her closest friends began making pilgrimages to her cottage to say their final goodbyes. After making it through Christmas, Rell vowed to hang on till New Year's Eve. Coming in and out of consciousness, she could hear the fireworks in the distance, and she lived to see the dawn of a new year. But on the evening of Jan. 2, 1998 at the age of 47, Rell Kapolioka'ehukai Sunn finally took her last breath and passed from this world to the next.
Two weeks later, on January 17, Rell's memorial service was held at Makaha. That morning, thousands of people from the Westside, across the islands and all over the world began arriving for the service, coming to pay their last respects. Friends and family had set up a big tent on the beach and had been working hard all week to decorate it with pictures of Rell from different times in her life. There were photos of her surfing, diving, fishing, hula, paddling canoe and posing with the menehunes. Her surfboard, fishing spear, throw nets and mementos were placed all around the tent. In the center, her ashes lay in a glass fishing ball, which had been carved with images of fish, waves and an octopus, along with the words, "Aloha, Queen of Makaha."
When Rell was just a girl, she had found a glass ball washed up on the beach at Makaha and asked her father what it was. He had explained that it used to be tied to a fishing net, probably from Japan, and had floated all the way across the ocean. Years later, Rell would remember his words and wonder if he was telling her what her life would be like. During the service, they took the glass fishing ball with her ashes and poured them into the ocean. The Heart of the Sea had returned home, the place she served to protect throughout her life, where she always wanted to be.
Stuart H. Coleman's most recent book, Fierce Heart explores the lives of Hawaiian icons like Rell Sunn, the Keaulana 'ohana and Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.