Archive for the ‘Diary of a freediver’ Category

We ended up diving only on the second day but all in all the Roi Roundup proved a great success. Catch total for the entire event was 199 fish, 114 for Saturday and 85 Sunday. Our team of 3 divers, including myself, speared 17. I personally lost 4 but landed 5. A diver from Maui speared 28 on the first day, using only a 3-prong pole spear. Craziness!
Conditions weren’t the best with a tide change in the middle of the dive from high to low so getting back over the Puako reef with little wind swells breaking, was a bit of a challenge.
The event took place along a 1.5 mile stretch of coast line. We jumped in and swam 3/4 mile north (against the current) and finding the largest concentrations as we pressed northward. The reef at Puako is fairly long and extends out from the shore about 200 yds at a depth of 6-8 feet, then plunges to 50-60 feet as you come over the ledge. The bigger fish were down in these depths and the continued 50-60 foot dives took its toll on me quickly and I was only able to maintain a 25-30 consistency after that. We dove the buddy system which was one up one down (tournament style) which minimizes the risk should a diver have SWB (shallow water blackout).
Viz once over the ledge was about 75 feet with an upper layer of haze due to the wind. There are also fresh water spring up wellings which made for intense cold spots as well as blurry water columns.
There were about 10 other divers from Oahu and Maui and we all had a wonderful time talking fish and such.
It is mind boggling to think that we removed close to 200 fish from such a small section of coastline. Roi are considered top tier predatory fish with no real natural predators to keep them in check (think Lionfish in the Caribbean, but not nearly as devastating). The shear number of fish that the Roi consume on a daily basis are less then say an omilu (bluefin trevally), but it is the number of Roi in a given area that does causes so much damage to the reef ecosystem because they are so prolific. They love to eat small parrotfish, goatfish and yellow tang. Anyone would be hard pressed to find 200 of any other top tier predatory fish of any kind in that small amount of coast line, and that is something to think about.
The UH researchers were very pleased as they were able to take plenty of tissue samples.

Malama o kekai!

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Anna likes Barracuda Bay (not its real name) because it has a tiny beach. When I say tiny I’m talking about a patch of sand no bigger than a kiddie swimming pool. Such are the hardships of living on the youngest of all the Hawaiian Islands; proper beaches are few and far between. Needless to say, she had hounded me all week to go back so that she could get in (via the tiny beach) to try out her new underwater camera housing, again. So we loaded up the truck and headed back down to BB.

This time I was better prepared for my blue water excursion, electing to bring my smaller blue water gun (with which I have a love/hate relationship with) instead of my reef gun, because the former has more range and power. Instead of spoons I brought a half dozen, ten inch long bait fish which are irresistible to anything with lips (including myself) that I planned on tossing out, ala the spoons, to lure the bigger game. Known as opelu, these bait fish are commonly named mackerel shad, and if they weren’t so damned hard to shoot, I would hunt them exclusively because they’re so tasty!

The conditions were much nicer today than they were last week. There was no noticeable swell, and despite a rising tide and a full moon, there weren’t any freakish tides or otherwise petulant surges to add to the mix. The sun was out, there was no wind and standing on the rocky outcropping that overlooked my entry point, with my polarized sunglasses on, I could see clearly to the bottom. Things were looking good.

I suited up and jumped in, letting the gentle action of the tides carry me out past the inshore reef toward the sandy bottom of the outside, toward blue water.

One BIG secret to any sort of diving (whether it be blue water or reef) and landing fish is to not act like a human. Meaning, don’t splash around and hyperventilate into your snorkel. Don’t point your gun at everything that swims by and absolutely DO NOT swim with cadence. Fish don’t swim with any sort of measured rhythm, they dart here and there, sometimes they stop and nibble on something, or they hide under a rock. Never do they just swim about in a straight line. If you plan on landing any fish, neither should you. Let the current take you a bit. Kick one leg gently and drift, then kick with the other leg. Stop and just float. Then, maybe for a short burst, kick with both feet, before you stop and drift along with the current. This way the fish won’t get (as) spooked when they see you and may even swim closer to investigate. It takes a very long time to uncover such knowledge, believe me, I used to swim like a motorboat and often wondered why the fish were never around.

Today the haze layer that plagued me last week was minimal. Floating at the surface I could see all the way down to the bottom, some sixty feet below. Sixty feet is considered shallow for blue water, but it is blue water nonetheless. You know when you’re in blue water, because like I had mentioned earlier, something changes in the clarity of the water and you suddenly feel as if you are hovering in the center of an enormous blue room. The viz was so good that I could see striations in the sand from the action of the ocean; row after row of perfectly uniformed lines like a mountain range as seen from space. I yanked the first opelu from my float and tossed it into the briny sea.

It floated for a moment at the surface before it began to descend, slowly toward the bottom. This fish was a teaser. Generally, unless there are fish within the immediate vicinity, the first fish will go unnoticed. When using fish or spoons to draw in bigger fish it is a good idea to also bring along a bag of palu, or chum. This is generally made by chopping up fish, squid or octopus or utilizing the innards of cleaned fish, mixing with cans of mackerel and flour and making a kind of ‘dough’ that you can form into softball sized globules and toss out with your spoons or whole fish. I didn’t have time to make palu today, so I went without. My bad.

The teaser fish settled to the bottom where it languished in the sand as if it were sleeping off a hard night of high seas living. A couple of triggerfish swam by and tried to wake him up but got nowhere, so began to nibble on the sleeping fishes face. Since most fish don’t sleep in the daytime, these triggerfish were obviously haters. But this is all a good thing. Feeding fish attract other fish, thus the Byzantine complexities of the inner workings of fishdom are revealed. I used this opportunity to toss out another opelu.

An uku, or blue-green snapper passes by underneath me as I tossed the fish out. As the opelu began to sink I remembered that I brought along Anna’s small underwater camera and decided to try and snap some shots. Pulling it from my float I immediately questioned my reasoning for bringing the gadget, as my gloves were ill equipped to push the fantastically small power button. For what seemed like forever I wrestled with the camera until it finally came on. When I looked back into the water, I wish that I had done so sooner.

The two opelu were lolling back and forth in the sand, like two drunken college roomies, surrounded by a horde of trigger fish intent on, I don’t know what, when gliding into view, a few feet off the bottom, like a pair of brunette Victorian-era wigs, came a pair of octopus. Octopus (I am refraining from using the word octopi, because this ain’t no nature show, dammit!) do not swim with their arms, nor do they swim like a spider would walk, nor do they swim like a fish. Octopus, when not being chased, curl their legs, flatten their bodies, and just sort of glide through the water like a flying carpet. It is a very regal and purposeful sight to see and if you squint just right you can imagine a flying wig.

Wasting no time, the pair of octopi (crap!) hovered over the baitfish before enveloping them (each ‘pus taking its own fish) and then proceeded to swim away with my bait. I tried to get a picture of it all but since they were fifty feet below me, and the camera had a max depth of twenty feet, by the time I reached twenty-five feet down I realized that I could damage the camera and so managed to only snap a picture of one of my fins, I think.

After twenty minutes, nothing of note had materialized and I was out of opelu. I tried to dive on the uku but it since it was still a baby– maybe fifteen inches long, maybe three pounds– I decided to head into the shore and see if I could find some action. On my way in I saw the only barracuda of the day, which was the same punk that had laughed at me last week and he must have recognized my displeasure at being ridiculed because the moment our eyes met he sped off into the deep.

Patrolling the inshore zone I came across a nice sized lai (queenfish) that I took a late shot on and hit. Lai are an interesting fish because of how they were utilized for the purpose of fishing, back in the day as well as now.

A member of the Jack family, lai are a top water fish meaning that they spend a majority of their lives near the surface of the water where they eat tiny fish fry and other tasty bits of whatever it is that they like to eat. They are silver in color and it is this shiny and resilient skin that makes them ideal for creating fishing lures with. Did I also mention that they are very delicious, best eaten raw? Well, they are.

Anyway, once the skin is removed from the fish and dried in the sun it becomes not unlike cowhide, that is, leather-like. Cutting the skin into strips and securing it to a hook is how the old timers would use the lai skin. Cast and retrieve fishing (colloquially referred to as ‘whipping’) is a popular style among shore fishers and given its strength and (if cut correctly) tendency to move through the water like a slender silver fish, lai skin makes perfect use of normally discarded part of the fish. Lai skin was also used in the very first trolling lures, which were often made from resin and allowed insetting flashy bits into the lure to add realism. Big fish are no different than little fish, mynah birds and yard sale enthusiasts in that if something is shiny, it’s going home.

Now before any PETA-philes  (goes together like peanut butter and chocolate lab) lambast me for killing Sea Kittens (no, I can’t make stuff like this up: )know this: I only take what I can consume, and I do not over fish. And, I make sure to eat all of the Sea Kittens that I catch. With a generous helping of baby seal jelly.

The lai struggled for a moment before I took out my knife and ended its futile attempts at trying to evade me. Lai are also tricky because they have four semi-poisonous spines right in front of their dorsal fin that leave a painful welt whenever they break the skin (another reason to not let it flap around on your stringer like a whirling dervish).

Looking back to shore I saw Anna waving to let me know that it was time to head in. I secured my catch and began swimming back, visions of raw Sea Kitten dipped in wasabi and shoyu making my stomach grumble.

As I was pulling my fins off while trying to maintain my balance as the tide pushes me back and forth over jagged rocks filled with sea urchins, I decide that we should give Barracuda Bay a rest for a while. And maybe wait for the kittens to turn into cats.

Today I was determined to get into the water.


Over the past month I’d upgraded a lot of my dive equipment–something that is wise to do often–and was eager to get in and try everything out. It’s better to test out new gear in a place that will afford you the time to fiddle and adjust things, should it be required, so I decided on a place about 10 miles south, down a dirt road, that had a nice deep bay that was relatively calm. Anna wanted to come and try out her new underwater camera housing, so we piled our gear into the truck and headed out.


Driving down the road I kept an eye on the water, checking to see where the wind line ended and watching the current. About half way to our destination the conditions began to improve as we drove further away from the wind blowing in from the northeast.


As we turned off of the main highway and onto the dirt road, I could already see that there was no one at the spot, we would have it all to ourselves!


I parked the truck and we walked a short dirt trail to the water. As we went, I listened to the ocean and the sound that it made as it crashed on the rocks. The ocean sounded somewhat calm, with only a slight surge as the tide came in breaking lazily over the rounded boulders near the water’s edge. When the ocean came into view I noticed that on the outside, in the blue water where I planned on diving, a slight wind chop had started as the gust from the northeast began to change direction. The ocean wasn’t glassy but it wasn’t the worst that I had seen for this area. The water was a little shaky, but it would have to do.


Anna decided to go on her own once we came to where the dirt trail ended. She kissed me and told me to be safe. I walked down toward the water, across the black lava rock that was toasty warm from the afternoon sun. I wasted no time. I suited up and jumped in.


I swam along the shore for a while waiting for something to malfunction before I turned and went out to deeper water. It didn’t take long before I felt me new knife come loose from my arm begging me to mess around with it.  The thing about fixating on a task while in the water, that requires you to concentrate on something while trying to ignore the moving water around you, is that it will quickly lead to wanting to barf. I have never done such a thing in the water, although a friend of mine threw up in his snorkel once after he surfaced from a deep dive. But the fact that he had a lip full of chewing tobacco may have played a small part as well. No, I am not making this up.


To avoid this predicament, I do what needs to be done as quickly as possible. Taking off gear and packing it on my float takes only seconds. But putting a dying fish onto your stringer when you’re bobbing up and down in the ocean, especially in the blues, where you have no reference points because the reef is just a black and green smudge underneath you, is a good way to make yourself hurl. I take off my knife and stuff the straps into the pocket on my float. I slip the knife onto my belt and head out to the blue water. I’m in no mood to test my equilibrium.


Visibility is poor and hazy, maybe 100 feet when I reach blue water. I float above a wide patch of sand that is 75 feet below me. Because of the poor viz, which was most likely caused by the wind, the usually crystal clear blue water now lies in a column twenty feet below me. I swim in through the haze and when I look out toward the open ocean I am looking through the haze. I don’t particularly care for these conditions, although pelagic fish use the cover of the hazy water to come closer to shore, which can be a good and bad thing.


At this point I figure that I would toss out some flashers, which are just bent spoons, to see if anything decides to come in and investigate. I have three.


I toss the first one out and it hits the water and begins to tumble like a wounded fish as it heads to the bottom. I look out in the blue and see nothing. My mind begins to play tricks on me and suddenly, through the haze I’m seeing flashes of silver and quick, dark shadows. I watch the spoon nestle in the white sand below. A nosy triggerfish swims over to investigate, then swims away. Suddenly, my heartbeat quickens and I get the ‘fish feeling’.


The fish feeling is hard to describe, even to other divers. Hell, I don’t even understand it myself. All that I know is that when I get the feeling, I should prepare myself. It has never let me down, although I’m sure that at times I may have been too out of touch to recognize it. At any rate, the feeling came over me and for some reason I began to think Rainbow Runner.


I love RR, they are also called the Hawaiian Salmon because their meat is red, but they are a member of the jack family and are found off shore in schools. They can reach four or five feet in length and weigh upwards of 40 pounds but generally those size fish are rare. So, like an idiot whose mind is overcome with visions of ruby red slices of sashimi stacked high in my refrigerator, I toss out another spoon because, well, I have the fish feeling.


This spoon hits the water, and like the one before it, begins to tumble downward like a wounded fish, to the bottom of the sea. I ready myself, looking out into the haze to see if anything has noticed my cheap tactic. I see a flash of silver and another! And then something materializes out of the haze. Before I can congratulate myself for being a fish psychic, I see another shape appear and then another. They aren’t rainbow runners although they share a similar shape. In seconds I’m surrounded by a school of Great Barracuda, or as they are know in Hawaii, kaku.


Firstly, kaku are solitary fish. The most that I have ever seen together are 3, and they weren’t so much together as they were in the same vicinity. I count 8. And although they aren’t huge kaku, which would be an animal 6 feet or more in length, they aren’t small either; four footers mainly, but I see a five-footer swimming out at the edge of visibility. These fish probably weigh 20-30 pounds I would guess.


Secondly, if you dive a lot and come across these fish often you will know how they approach you once they’ve decided to investigate. If they were people, they would be considered rude, face talkers. You know the kind that don’t give a rip about personal space that like to get all up in your face when they talk to you. Kaku are like that.


They approach you slowly, head-on, making them difficult to see outright. With their head angled slightly downward like a growling dog, it’s down right creepy. Add to this the fact that kaku are amazingly stupid, devastatingly fast predatory fish, that are attracted to flashing objects and swift movements. So much for my fish feeling.


Like playground bullies they surrounded me, closing the circle ever so slowly until they were so close that I could see their missing scales and parasites. I thought about shooting one, particularly the biggest one who had come in for a closer look and didn’t seem to want to leave. I contemplated having to deal with its gnashing teeth and ‘fight-to-the-last-breath’ attitude and decided against it. Kaku, although delicious, often carry ciguatera, a nasty little protist that taints the meat causing symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea, reversal of heat/cold sensory, that is incurable once the threshold for ingested tainted fish has been reached. Besides, the last pesky kaku that I shot, tangled up my gear and almost bit my finger off and it was only 18 inches long.


So I floated, surrounded by a school of kaku. I looked back at the shore and saw the speck of Anna sitting calmly, taking pictures of something. The water churned and I with it. Calmly, the predatory fish circled looking for something interesting. I poked at one with the tip of my speargun.


After a few minutes they became bored and slowly disappeared back into the haze. I tossed my last spoon at them to see if they would some back but only one did. As it swam by it gave me a look like I was wasting its time.


I swam around for another hour, just looking at the fish. I took a half-hearted shot at a parrotfish but that was all. As the tide came in, so did the wind and swell. I saw Anna sitting on a boulder by the shore smiling at me. I decided that it was time to call it a day.


My fish sense was telling me that I needed to eat some lunch.

The old saying goes, “Once you enter the water, you’re entering the food chain”, or something along those lines. Surfers throw this axiom around as if they hope to obviate it through repetition. But then again when you’re floating along on a chip of foam in the ocean, splashing around like wounded prey, accepting the truth is far more advantageous than denying it. At least when something tugs on your leg, or bumps your board you’ll know that you have a few extra seconds to make your peace with the world before sliding down the gullet of some prehistoric predator.

For a freediver things are a little different.

Where as a surfer enters the water as potential prey, the spearfisher enters the water at the top of the food chain. And barring any freakish circumstance or stupidity on the divers part, that position can be guaranteed to never change.

Or so we hope.

Often, before I even dip a fin into the water, I have already determined which type of fish to target. I find that this discipline helps me to remain focused on a goal rather than just shooting at whatever comes along. Being a proponent of sustaining the resource, I also find that having predetermined targets also means that I harvest only what I need and nothing else.

On this particular day I had targeted the mamo (sergeant major), a plankton eating damselfish, which are great in soup or fried in a pan. As the largest of specimens are roughly the size of an open hand, they are slightly challenging to catch especially when using a spear gun as opposed to a pole spear. I often target these abundant fish because of the fact that shooting at such a small target helps to improve my aim. The conditions were near perfect that day, with no surge or swell, a light off shore breeze, with the tide on the rise.

Mamo aren’t a fish that are effected by the phases of the moon as much as other species and can be found congregating around boulders, coral heads, and caves at all times of the day. During spawning season they are literally swarming everywhere and make easy targets.

But sometimes, regardless of the amount of fish in the water, landing one, even the smallest one, can be a herculean task. That is why spearfishermen have coined the phrase, “Better lucky than good” which pretty much sums up the sport in four short words. Although possessing technical skill is a bonus, it doesn’t always guarantee results.

After triple checking my gear I slid quietly into the water and slowly swam out to one of several target areas where I knew that I could find some mamo. As I drifted with the feeble current I saw a dozen or so of the silvery green fish hovering about in mid water over the coral crusted hulk of what used to be a cargo ship’s motor. Mamo, like most fish, tend to congregate in areas where they can quickly hide from predators and an old engine makes a perfect shelter.

After several shallow dives I had managed to spear three fish before the school got wise and took off for a better hiding place. When targeting specific fish, it’s good to know where these hiding places are so that you can plan your attack accordingly. If done correctly a dive can consist of merely swimming between these places and harvesting fish.

I did just that, and in a little over an hour I had ten fish on my stringer which was more than enough. I always think that it’s good to work for your fish rather than not, and that day I felt that I had done a decent amount of work.

I began to swim back to where I had entered the water, which was sheltered boat landing, popular with locals and tourists alike for its easy water access and lack of depth. Children were playing and splashing around as usual and I was momentarily lost in the tranquility of it all when I felt a tug on my float line.

When spearing fish, unless you are using a pole spear, the typical set up is to have a float attached by a float line to your gun. This way if you shoot a big fish you can let go of your gun and the fish will fight the float, everything being attached. Having a longer float line, sometimes up to a hundred or more feet in lenght, ensures that when you attach your harvested fish to your float, that the whole rig can be kept at a distance from your body just incase anything swims up to investigate. A stringer full of dead and dying fish is a magnet to almost everything out in the sea.

My first thought then, was that it was a shark. Getting taxed by ‘The Man’ is something that happens often and is all part of the sport. Letting a shark have a fish or two is merely paying a toll. Protection money in a way.  Besides, you shouldn’t really try to punish an apex predator for being lazy. Especially those with razor sharp teeth and a brain no bigger than a nickel.

I turned, expecting to see the tenacious critter pulling at my string of fish, but instead found a pair of eyes gazing back at me. They weren’t the soulless yet penetrating eyes of a shark, but rather the dark expressive eyes of a juvenile monk seal. I instantly recognized its expression. It was hungry.

The seal plucked a fish from my stringer like it was picking an apple from a tree. It then swam away in a curtain of bubbles.

At that point I considered myself lucky. I got the chance to see one of the rarest most endangered species in the world, in its own habitat, and it only cost me a fish. I turned and resumed swimming back in. Then I felt another tug.

I turn to see my new friend, flippers wrapped around another one of my fish like it was holding a tuna sandwich. It was as if it where smiling with its eyes. Not so much a friendly smile as a smug one. It yanked the fish from my stringer and began swimming in circles around my float.

At this point my float is still roughly forty feet away from me but judging by the size, this seal looks to be in the neighborhood of two hundred pounds, maybe five feet long. A full grown adult can weigh upwards of six hundred pounds and over eight feet in length. Monk seals by nature are very reclusive and avoid human contact. They can also be quite aggressive. All of these thoughts are running through my mind as I watch it grab another fish from my stringer.

I look in toward the landing and see the kids playing and a tourist getting into the water with a pink rash guard and yellow fins. It wouldn’t be a good idea to lead the seal into the shallows around all of the people, so I decide to stand my ground and see what happens.

I turn back just in time to see the seal swimming directly toward me, still holding the fish. Several yards before it reaches me, it dives down and glides underneath me turning over on its back as it cruises by. Its eyes betrayed what was really going on in the creature’s head. I could tell that it was thinking of how it was going to get the rest of my fish from me. I can’t explain it other than it was simply a feeling that I had peering into those shiny black orbs.

It made me feel like a clod, an alien, something not worthy of being in the ocean, the way it seemed to fly through the water like a giant bird. I suddenly felt the awkwardness of the snorkel in my mouth; the way the air rushing out next to my ear sounded like a dull hack saw on glass. My mask also seemed too restrictive and I noticed the imperfections in the lenses, like I was peering out of a fish bowl. My long fins seemed like cheap imitations–toys at the ends of my feet. I was embarrassed.

My heart rate increased because I knew now that there was some species on species competition going on that I couldn’t avoid even if I wanted to. So I did the first thing that came into my mind, which the last thing I should have done. But being a competitive creature myself I wanted to protect what was mine, so I began pulling my float in closer. Some part of my lizard brain figured that maybe the seal would understand that by my actions I was intending to assert that the fish were mine and to leave them alone.

The seal, unfortunately, had other ideas.

As I pulled my float closer the seal swam off toward my right and disappeared from view. Thinking that my ploy had worked, I pulled the float up to within arms length.

Float line, as the name implies, is essentially a very thick monofilament line encased in a buoyant rubber sheath. It is meant to float on the surface of the water and not sink. It is also very strong, my particular line had a breaking point of over five hundred pounds of pressure.

The problem is that when you pull in fifty feet of float line, unless you are winding it into a spool (which I wasn’t), it collects on the surface of the water in a big tangled mess. As soon as I realized that perhaps I had not made such a good decision, the seal was back.

It was in my face, my float was the only barrier between myself and the spunky pinniped. It was so close that I could see the decay on its dog-like teeth. The thought of getting bitten by its disease-ridden mouth horrified me. It grabbed another one of my fish in its mouth and bit it in two. Then it started on another. As it was feeding and somewhat distracted, I snatched my pole spear from my float. A pole spear is just what is sounds like: a long thin pole, made of graphite, fiberglass or aluminum with a three-pronged spear head attached at one end and a rubber sling, which propels the device through the water, at the other end. My intention was to poke the seal with the spear to try and get it to move away. This tactic works well with sharks, which only require a slight bump on the nose or body to get them to back off. I would have gladly traded this seal for three sharks any day.

I turned the spear around so that the loop of rubber was facing the seal, then thought twice about the seal getting caught up in the loop and so turned the pointed end of the spear at the creature. It probably sensed something because it immediately began swimming toward me. All I could do was hold the spear out in front of me as it closed the short distance between us.

As the head of the spear touched its body, the seal began to swim toward me with more conviction. Its rubbery skin seemed to envelope the spearhead without causing the seal any discomfort whatsoever. In fact, the contact seemed to energize the seal and it began pushing toward me to such a degree that my spear began to bow. It began snapping its jaws in a playful manner. By the time we were face to face I had dropped my spear and had nothing but my hands to defend myself. It began swimming in tight loops right in front of me, tangling itself in the float line. This seemed to make it angry and it began splashing around and bumping into me. I had no choice but to use my hands to keep it from getting us both tangled up. I pushed at it, kicked at it, at one point I remember punching it, but my actions were futile.

I heard someone yelling for their kids to get out of the water and I saw that I had a small audience watching from the safety of dock. The seal was becoming more entangled and was growing more and more frantic. I didn’t know what else to do so I grabbed my spear gun from my float and tried to push myself away from the seal with the butt of the gun. It seemed that the more I tried to distance myself, the more the seal would try and close the gap.

At this point I began to lose my cool. I was scared for my life and scared that this thing would drag me to the depths of hell while nibbling on my dying carcass. So I hit it with the butt of my gun several times using all the strength that I could muster. The first few blows to the body seemed to get its attention. Then I held the butt of the gun under its chin and pushed it backwards. It didn’t like that one bit!

It was if the seal had finally got the message. It looked at me as if to say that it was hurt that I didn’t want to play with it anymore. I jabbed it one more time to make sure it understood my intentions. Then it untangled itself with no effort, grabbed another fish from my float and disappeared into the blue.

When I climbed out of the water there I had four fish left out of ten. Actually four and a half, because there was a head still attached to the stringer. People were asking me what had happened and that it looked like I needed help. I told them that there was nothing anyone could have done and it was good that no one tried to jump in because it probably would have made matters worse.

I drove home contemplating my position on the food chain and decided that I would be lucky to be at the top.

Several weeks later I drove by the landing to check out the water and saw a guy from the DLNR (Department of Land and Natural Resources) sitting on a rock looking out at the sea. Feeling somewhat unnerved at having assaulted an endangered animal I decided to tell him of my encounter. I opened with the sentence, “A few weeks ago I was diving out here and I had an encounter with a monk seal.”

His eyes lit up and he replied, “Was it the juvenile female? Did she have a yellow tag on her flipper?”

I remembered that it did.

“Great!” He said, “That’s why I’m here. We’ve been looking for her.”

I proceeded to tell him about the entire experience including the punching and kicking and the part about using the butt of my gun. He laughed.

“Oh, you did the right thing. You did what you had to do; it’s not a big deal. As a man of the ocean, you know what you should and shouldn’t do. You protected yourself, that’s what I would have told you to do anyway.”

His words made me feel better. At least I wouldn’t be prosecuted.

He chuckled and said, “But you had it easy.”


“Well we’ve received several phone calls in the past few months of that seal harassing people. One person was trying to climb out of the water and the seal swam up behind them, grabbed them with its flippers and pulled them back in. They were tourists from like, Kentucky or something. They don’t have seals out there. So they were pretty shaken up.

Another lady was trying to feed it part of her sandwich while she was in the water and it pulled her down by her feet. It was her own stupid fault trying to feed it anyway.”

He then went on to tell me that the seal had been raised on the other side of the island on a small public beach. Not wanting to disturb the mother, the state constructed a rope barrier around the mother and her pup to cordon off the area. This didn’t stop people from stepping over it to feed the seal and take pictures with it. He said that this early contact with people was why this particular seal had no fear of humans. He also told me that they have tried on three separate occasions to relocate the seal, deploying helicopters and a transfer boat complete with all personnel at the cost of over 100K per incident. But the seal always found its way back, even from other islands!

The last I heard about the seal, they were attempting to take it to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands some 1500 miles away. Hopefully she’ll find whatever it is that she’s looking for out there.

Whale season in Hawaii occurs during the winter months, mainly from mid to late November and tapering off before spring. Lately because of the strange weather that we have been experiencing globally, the season has started later and lasted almost through April!

Whale season also means that spear fishing is not as good, not only because of the weather and rougher sea conditions, but because the whales make so much noise and are so close to shore (in some cases less than 50 yards) that they scare all the fish away! Another factor is that because the whales are mating and giving birth and generally making a commotion in the water, all of this activity attracts sharks. Winter is also when certain shark species mate in Hawaiian waters as well. Needless to say, freediving and spear fishing during this time can be as exciting as it is unproductive.

Yet such things do not deter us. We dive because that is what we do. We connect with nature and graciously accept any gifts that the ocean may offer us. We are humbled by the beauty and power of the sea. The creatures therein are all part of the chain of life that we are also a part of. When we hunt, we take only what we need to sustain us. Perhaps we will take something extra for the older folks who can no longer dive for their favorite fish. Our philosophy is that of the Ancients:  take the medium sized fish and leave the larger ones to reproduce, so that there will be fish for all.

Four of us set out one day to dive a favorite and rather secluded bay on the northwestern part of the Big Island. The area is unusual in that it has a sand bottom, which extends some 300 plus yards from shore until it ends in about 175 feet of water where the outer reef begins. Sand beaches are not common on the Big Island since it is the youngest of all the islands. The northern tip, being the oldest part of this young island, has the highest concentration of sand. Sand bottoms are good for hunting, in that larger fish swim in from the deep and travel along the sand areas looking for an easy meal since there are no places for the smaller fish to hide. Sand is also a place where benthic crustaceans such as crabs and lobster tend to congregate, another food source for hungry fish.

That day I decided to bring my big blue water gun, since we had anticipated swimming out past the sand. It is a 62″ monster of a thing that weighs close to 6 pounds. With the shaft in it, it measures 72″. I had it rigged with 4, 5/8″ bands, which gave it a range of about 30′. This gun is my favorite because it is so accurate. Because of its size I rarely use it on a swim out, only if I’m diving from a boat.

We also decided to bring palu (chum, burly) that consisted of several cans of mackerel mixed with flour and chunks of squid. Palu is good for bringing in fish and keeping them around long enough to get a good shot off. We paired off and entered the water.

The rule when we dove in pairs was that if one person shot a fish, the other would become the spotter. Spotters are crucial when diving in the winter, for obvious reasons.

While we swam out, I took time to assess the fish to see what kind of mood they were in. By observing how the fish are reacting to human presence on any given day, is a fair indicator of how much pressure they may have been experiencing. If the area has recently been visited by other spearfishermen, they may act skittish and swim away into deeper water. The same goes if there have been predatory fish coming in and trying to eat them. It’s a survival thing. Understanding this is key if you want to land any fish. It sounds metaphysical, and it may very well be, but any good hunter attempts to gain a better understanding of their quarry and fish are no different.

Much of the way the fish react has a lot to do with your particular hunting style and frame of mind, as well. If you are desperate to spear a fish, they seem to know this and will not give you a chance to get near them. Fish can sense many things through the water, things that we as humans have long forgotten how to understand.

The fish seemed to be unfazed by us as we headed out toward deeper water. A few e’nenue (highfin chub) swam up to inspect us, then darted off. I began to throw palu into the water as we swam, creating a chum line. Smaller fish came up from the bottom to accept the free meal, which often attracted the attention of the larger fish. Black triggerfish (humuhumu ele’ele) are the scavengers of the ocean and ascend, en masse, upon the falling bait like a flock of ravens.

As I watched this spectacle, I noticed a small school of red goatfish (weke ula) foraging in the sand below with their slender whiskers. They moved like a herd, combing the sea floor in search of anything edible. Goatfish are a prized food fish of much of Polynesia and Asia. The Whitesaddled goatfish or kumu as it is called, is still one of the most highly prized fish in the islands, because of its taste and the fact that they are so difficult to catch.

I kept one eye on the goatfish and the other on the chum, as we continued to swim further and further out into the open ocean. My partner dove on the weke ula and fired a shot, but missed. The fish didn’t seem at all bothered by this and continued feeding, a good sign. As we continued heading out, the depth of the water increased to about 60 feet. At this point I decided to dive down and take a shot on the school of goatfish. As I descend, I slow down and level out at about 40 feet. I noticed that the goatfish were larger than I had initially thought, probably close to 3 pounds each, about 18 inches long. I aimed at fat one in the middle of the school and pulled the trigger. As was usual for this gun, the recoil kicked my arm back with tremendous force. When I looked down, I could see that I had hit my mark! The goatfish was pinned to the sand, slowly convulsing. The rest of the school had hardly noticed and continued mining the sea floor for food. I pulled up on my shooting line and felt the heft of the fish as the barb on the shaft took up its weight. I looked around for any sign of something attracted by my actions and saw nothing but clear blue water stretching out for hundreds of feet. I looked for my partner and saw that he had swam up ahead of me to keep an eye out. I quickly brought the fish up and slid it onto my kui (stringer) that was attached to my float. I reloaded my gun and swam after my partner who was busy throwing palu into the water.

Our other two friends had decided to head back toward the shore, I saw the flags on their floats waving in the wind, as they made their way slowly toward the rocks, which now seemed very far away. For a moment my heart began to race as I contemplated just how much distance was now between myself and the shore. I stuck my head back into the water so that I wouldn’t think about it anymore. I continued to follow my partner out into the sea, a steady stream of chum flowed around me like torn pieces of paper in gentle breeze.

Now we were in roughly 120 feet of water. You can tell when you get out to this depth because the surface of the water seems to disappear, it becomes so clear that it it’s like being suspended in air, falling through the sky. Visibility is such that it seems like you can see on forever.

Then I felt a tug on my float line, the buoyant, 50-foot line that connected my float to the back of my gun. I turned to see that the goatfish was swimming in circles, with what was left of its life. I saw a shadow materialize out of the blue, then another and another. It was a small school of Great Trevally (ulua), predators who undoubtedly were drawn in by the palu and perhaps the dying goatfish on my kui. They were cautiously staying out of range but still had their sights set on my goatfish, which anyone of them would have devoured in an instant. I slowly turned and dove down to about 20 feet, attempting to come up underneath them. As I did this, the ulua swam closer. The biggest one was about 30 pounds. I drifted closer, aimed at the second largest and pulled the trigger.

It was a good shot, right through the mid section, and by the way that the fish was pulling on my gun, I guessed it to be about 20 pounds (it actually weighed out at 16). I let go so that the fish was now fighting the weight of my gun, which was slowly being pulled down with it. I looked over at my partner who gave me the thumbs up. Because the fish was expending so much energy–but mainly because of the hole in its body–the water was quickly becoming clouded with blood. What was a second ago crystal clear ocean was now opaque. With the chum falling all around us, it was almost as if we were watching snow falling during a sunset. I made the mistake of looking back toward the shore. The 30-foot kiawe trees along the water’s edge looked like little green dots and I could see the coast in both directions, stretching out for miles.

I decided to pull up the fish and get it onto my kui. I grabbed the float line and began pulling.

As I was doing this, I saw the tip of my partner’s gun come over my shoulder, out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look at him and see that his eyes are like saucers, as he pointed in front of me. I turn. Through all of the blood and chum I couldn’t see anything. But for some reason the water around me seemed to be moving. As I continued pulling the fish closer, my partner began to gesture frantically. He kept pointing out in front of me. I turned to look and noticed that the ocean wasn’t necessarily moving, as much as something was moving in the ocean. Quite like when you look out of the window of a car as you pass close to a building and all you can see are a blur of bricks going by. As I began to focus, I saw a forked-shaped tail pass not more than 10 feet in front of me. It had a darker upper margin and as it passed I saw that it is almost as tall as I was. I’m 5’11”.

Then it registered. I looked toward the direction that the tail was headed and saw a very large pair of pectoral fins as well as a sizable dorsal fin. The head of the shark was not wide but purposefully slender. It was a Galapagos shark, about 14 feet long. Not considered to be aggressive, but the only known attacks have been on spearfishermen.

By this time I was tangled in my float line, surrounded by blood and chum with a good sized fish kicking on the end of my spear shaft which I was now holding in my hand. I turned to my partner to motion for him to keep his eyes on the shark, but found that I didn’t really need to. He was holding his gun out in front of him like a lance, his eyes darting back and forth. I stuck my head back into the water and through the blood and chum, saw that the shark had turned around and was now headed back toward us. It retained its distance, still only ten feet, as it slowly cruised past, assessing me with it cold black eyes. At this point all I could do was laugh, or more accurately, that was all that I could manage to do. If this was going to be my time to go, so be it. I took from the sea, so it would only be right if it took me (my partner wasn’t so accepting, I would later find out). I was now on automatic pilot. I was accepting of my fate and so didn’t care anymore. It’s amazing how one can go from feeling safe, having a good time, to accepting death and ready to go, all within a distance of several hundred yards.

Like a robot, I pulled the ulua closer and grabbed it by the tail, turning it upside down. This technique is good when shooting large fish because it instantly makes them docile. I don’t know why exactly, but it works. Then I took out my knife and drove the blade into its head, above and behind the eye into its brain. It kicked a few times then became still. I popped my head out of the water and my partner did the same.

“What the fuck!” he said.

I shook my head. My voice had escaped me.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here!” he added.

I nodded and we slowly began swimming toward the shore.

As we did this, I never looked back to see if the shark was following us. I figured that if it was, there was nothing that I could really do about it. My gun was useless, and I was still tangled in my float line. I couldn’t use my bang stick because the way that I had it configured, it would need to be deployed via my spear gun’s shaft which was still in my hand, not in my gun. As the sandy bottom drew closer and closer, I began to feel more at ease. A school of small baitfish swam by like a curtain of silver coins and I realized that in the world that they live in, what had just happened to me and my partner was all just another day.

I climbed out of the water feeling humbled and very, very grateful.