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Spearfishing in Hawai‘i: Now And Then

We have guns and gear. They had spears and kukui nuts.

Spearfishing-hunting2 (1)

With the skyline of Town rising up behind us, we cruise out of Kewalo Basin on O‘ahu’s south shore. It’s a clear morning, the seas relatively calm. The boat stops just beyond the surf breaks off Ala Moana Beach Park. Rob and I suit up, jump in, and swim out. The gun is at my side, the tip of the spear pointed behind me.

From the surface looking down, I can barely see the bottom. The currents aren’t crazy, but they are kicking the sand around, and everything is shaded and murky. Yet Rob seems to be having no problem. He keeps lifting his head and looking back at me. “See him down there?”

Rob Ryan has spent enough time in the water that he doesn’t need crystal-clear vision to spot fish. He easily identifies them simply by their shape, looking at the outline of the body and tail. To me, a rookie spearfisher, this is incredibly impressive, and a skill I immediately recognize as imperative to become a good hunter. I suppose you can’t shoot something if you don’t know what it looks like in the first place. I quickly realize that recognizing unfamiliar fish species in the shadows is a little different than spotting familiar animals of traditional hunting, like deer and pigs and goats.

But as my guide, Rob is happy to locate potential targets for me. He tells me to relax, that there’s a school of fish right below me, that I should just head down and check it out. These are all very simple tasks for an experienced free diver and spearfisher like Rob. But for me, I’m still trying to ensure I don’t accidentally shoot myself as I tread water. Rob comes over and shows me how to switch off the safety. “Dive down,” he says, “And nestle up to that reef.”

I have never shot a spear gun before, but I have been spearfishing as an observer. I went once with a few friends on Maui, and I watched my friend stab a he‘e (octopus) from his hole. I watched the ensuing wrestling match that ended with my friend biting out the brain (seriously, that’s what you do with octopus). I had fished plenty of times where I’d kept my catch, but that was different. This isn’t wait-and-see. This is straight up hunting, stalking, finding, and killing your dinner. I’m not ready to bite out anything’s brain, but I’m ready to take a few shots. I draw in my breath and dive down.

A Shore Thing for Ancient Hawaiians 

For those that came before us, spearfishing was a way to put food on the table. But it probably didn’t look much like the modern-day version, says Marques Marzan, Bishop Museum Cultural Advisor. Whereas we have technology that enables us to hunt from the water and on the ocean floor — like goggles and wet suits and weights and mechanical spear guns — Ancient Hawaiians were most effective from the shore. They used a long, thin spear with multiple prongs called a kao. One is currently on display at the Bishop Museum, if you’re curious.

Hawaiian_man_spear_fishing,_Hana,_Maui,_ca._1890 (1)

Though they didn’t have goggles, they did have tactics to help them spot fish. One way was to hunt at night with kukui-nut torches. Known as “lamalama fishing,” the fire would light up the surface of the shallow water, attract fish, and coax them into a sort of trance, making them easier targets for the awaiting fishermen. Even more impressive is how Hawaiians used kukui nut to “calm the water” and improve visibility. Marzan said they would chew the nut and spit the oily mixture onto the surface, which would create a “lens” that allowed them to see better. Free-diving was used to pick urchins and lobster, but not to spearfish.

Back then, there were more big fish in shallow water. “In many chants and stories, they talk about it looking like a walkway,” Marzan said. “The fish were so close together, so many of them in one place, and so close to the surface that it looked like rocks on top of the water.”

Today, there are two main spear weapons for us to choose from: 1) A speargun, whose trigger is loaded by a taunt wire, that is aimed and fired like a gun (what I’m using) and 2) a polespear, a spear propelled manually by an elastic band, similar in design to the kao that Ancient Hawaiians used with multiple prongs.

An Exhaustive Combination of Skills 

This is not to say that today’s version is soft because it utilizes new technology. Quite the opposite, actually. The gear allows us to push the limits, and along with that comes a whole new set of required skills and safety issues, mostly surrounding breath holding and ocean endurance. Rob, for example, tells me he stays out for a few hours when he’s spearfishing commercially. That’s a long time in the water.

I swim towards the bottom, holding the gun out in front in my right hand. Halfway down, at 15 feet, I hold my nose with my left hand and blow to equalize the pressure. I reach the bottom and head for a nearby rock, trying to cuddle it and let my weight — and the weight belt around my waist — stick me to the bottom. By the time I settle, raise the gun and look up I’ve already been under water for 20 seconds.

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Spearfishing gun and buoy. 

I tuck the butt of the gun into my body and shoulder, trying to stabilize it. I see the fish swimming back and forth in front of me, within range at 7 or 8 feet. It’s like I’m playing a game of underwater Duck Hunt, but it doesn’t prove to be so easy. My first shot misses and clangs into the rocks. I tuck the butt of the gun into my body and shoulder, trying to stabilize it. I see the fish swimming back and forth in front of me, within range at 7 or 8 feet. It’s like I’m playing a game of underwater Duck Hunt, but it doesn’t prove to be so easy. My first shot misses and clangs into the rocks.

It’s not until I’ve gone up and down and shot and missed four or five times that I finally get the hang of steadying the gun underwater and aiming at a moving target in the moving water. Rob explains that you want to extend your arm and the gun, not keep it in tight. With new knowledge, I settle in behind the coral, extend my arm out in front, and pull the trigger. My shot goes straight through the head of a roi, or peacock grouper. It’s an invasive species and good target practice, Rob says. We remove the fish, put it on the buoy line, and I continue diving down, looking for more. On one of the next few dives, I realize something: I’m tired.

Most people can hold their breath for a minute or two before becoming uncomfortable. In theory, it sounds like plenty of time to get down there and fire. But don’t forget that you have to do it over and over again. Think of a weightlifter on the benchpress. He lifts his max weight once or twice,  and does reps at a much lower weight. You don’t have that luxury when spearfishing. You either have the lung capacity and stamina to keep diving, or you don’t. For me, this becomes the biggest problem. Factor in the currents and the strength it takes to reload the gun at the surface and the constant testing of the lungs, and it’s not long before I find myself huffing and puffing, my breath-holding endurance, or lack thereof, severely exposed. I think Rob is trying to make me feel better when he tells me that even experienced spearfishers have this trouble. But he’s just shining more light upon its dangers. “A lot of freedivers have underwater blackouts,” he says.

Shallow-water blackouts happen when people overbreathe at the surface before diving down. Overbreathing lowers your CO2 levels, which then confuses your body. Instead of feeling the need to breathe at the end of your breathhold, you pass out without warning. Without a buddy, you’re toast. Rob says, “You choose your friends based on safety.”

Tired and treading water, I become paranoid that maybe I’m starting to overbreathe, and decide to call it a day. I’ve chosen my friends well, and Rob agrees to go back to the boat. I have a fish to show for it, and I’m humbled by the experience. It’s one thing to read about how Hawaiians only spearfished in tide pools and shallow water. It’s another to get in and experience one of the reasons why.

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Take a Spearfishing LessonTake a Spearfishing Lesson

Ocean Legends on Nimitz Drive (near Costco) offers freediving and spearfishing lessons. But their main operations are as an International Diving Academy with a full range of outings and classes. Through its Veteran’s Program, it encourages retired military members to use their GI bills to become a certified dive instructor. General Manager Charlie Allen used his Post 9/11 GI Bill to do all of his dive training and start a new career.

“Diving helps many people in many different ways, for some it’s an adventure, and for others it may be an escape,” Allen says. “I want to help those people build life experiences and knowledge so that they can go out and pass on the same to someone else.”  Learn more at oceanlegends.com.

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