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.

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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.


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.


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.

A Problem With Airbnb in Hawai‘i


The concept of “living like a local” and renting a “local property” via websites like Airbnb and VBRO was supposed to be a good step towards “responsible travel” — take money away from international hotel chains who funnel the money to their headquarters outside of the destination, and put it directly into the pockets of residents, the people who should benefit most from tourism, by giving them an avenue to rent out their extra rooms for extra cash.

On the visitor side, this goal has been accomplished. Travelers using Airbnb get the experience of staying in a residential community outside of the hotel districts. They can get a sense of what it might be like to live in the place they are visiting.

But the noble concept has come with major unforeseen drawbacks for residents. Landlords and homeowners around the world are forgoing long-term rentals for the more lucrative short-term vacation-rental market, pricing locals out of desirable areas, creating pockets of transient tourists where there were once purely residential communities.

In other situations, the “residential house” a visitor rents on Airbnb is actually owned by a property manager who does not live in the community. Meaning that while you might be staying in a local house, you are not necessarily contributing to the local economy.

This is not just a Hawai‘i problem. It happens all over the world, and I have seen it first hand throughout my travels. Walk through any city and look at the front gates of apartment buildings. You will most likely see a long line of lock boxes, signaling a constant stream of visitors. In these buildings, your neighbors are not your neighbors.

A flat I stayed at in Cartagena was owned by a Spanish woman, who owned a half dozen properties in South America. A six-bedroom house I rented for a friend’s bachelor party in Loveland might have once been a residential property, but not anymore – there were instructional signs hung up all over the house, and the guest book let me know that no one had lived there in a long time.

The concern among many local communities, both here in Hawai‘i and elsewhere, is that the earning potential of short-term rentals is disrupting local life. A Hawai‘i watchdog organization, Airbnb Watch Hawai‘i, recently put out a video to call attention to the issue, feeling that locals are being priced out of their own neighborhoods and that, thanks to Airbnb’s marketing efforts, visitors believe they are doing a good thing when in reality they are furthering a problem.

“Airbnb’s story is that it’s your uncle, it’s your cousin, it’s your auntie, who is making a little extra money by renting out a spare room,” the video begins. “The reality is that the bulk of Airbnb’s hosts are major operators who have multiple listings who are renting out entire homes or apartments. So Airbnb’s impact makes it incredibly easy to get short-term profits from the visitor market at the expense of long-term rents for local residents.”

To be fair, the own-to-rent concept is not new. Beach communities, for example, have done this for decades. I grew up going to the Ocean City New Jersey, where 90% of the properties were rented by the week and owned by someone who lived elsewhere. No one at the Jersey Shore is going to rent to you on a month-to-month lease unless you’re willing to match what they could make in the week-to-week visitor market.

It’s basic economics and investment. I think everyone understands that. I don’t think anyone “blames” someone for making a smart investment in the modern housing market. I also don’t think anyone would confuse Ocean City for a residential community these days.

There are consequences to consider. What will Kailua look like in twenty years? If we are serious about “responsible travel,” do we need to draw a distinction between renting a room from a local resident and renting an entire house from a non-resident owner? Sure, I went to Cartagena and I stayed in a “local house,” but my money went to a Spanish woman, who lives in Spain.

At some point, if we want to try to get back to the ideal, noble potential that Airbnb initially held, we’re going to have to address these realities.

Further reading:

Did Airbnb Kill the Mountain Town? (Outside Magazine)

Airbnb Versus New York City (Mashable)

Airbnb, VBRO Rentals Have Residents Upset (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

The Good and Bad of Airbnb (Metropolis Magazine)

Looking for Love at Pu‘u Pehe

A romantic stroll in the wake of a romantic story.


View of Sweetheart Rock in Lana‘i.

There’s one rock formation in particular that stands out from the rest. It stands alone, rising up from the water in the shape of a pillar, a stone’s throw from the main coast. It’s called Pu‘u Pehe, or Sweetheart Rock, and appreciated first and foremost for its natural beauty. But its backstory is one for the hopeless romantics.

From Hulopo‘e Beach Park, facing the ocean, walk to the left along the rocky coast. Look for critters and crabs in the tide pools as you go around the corner and reach the vista shown in the photo above. At that point, you can look down over the ridge and find a little beach below (it’s not recommended you climb down the cliffs, but it’s wonderful to access the beach at low tide via kayak). Take a moment here and look across the small bay at Pu‘u Pehe. It’s a great place for a photo, both for couples and friends. From there, follow the cliffs up to the high point to where you can look across and down upon Pu‘u Pehe.

As the legend goes, a Hawaiian maiden named Pehe from Lāhainā on Maui was courted by a young warrior from Lāna‘i. He was so blinded by her beauty that he came to be called Makakehau, or “Misty Eyes,” because her brown body “shone like the clear sun rising out of Haleakalā,” her curly hair bound and tied back with the lehua blossoms of the ‘ōhi‘a trees.

They lived blissfully in a sea cave below Pu‘u Pehe on Lāna‘i, where she was out of sight from other warriors (you can look for the cave when you’re kayaking). But one day a storm hit while he was upcountry getting supplies, and he returned to find the cave flooded and that Pehe had drowned. Destroyed by grief, Makakehau asked the gods to help him summit the steep rock offshore, the 80-foot high Pu‘u Pehe, where he buried her. He then jumped to his death.

Okay, so, you know, pretty sad story, but hey, that’s love for you, and I guess that’s what you get when you keep a beautiful woman trapped in a cave. Anyway, when you get close, you can see a rock formation on top of Pu‘u Pehe. According to the legend, this is her grave. According to researchers, it’s a heiau, possibly a tribute to the sea or the birds, and there are no human remains there. So is it really her grave? No, it’s not.

But as Hemingway would say, isn’t it pretty to think so?


Camping on Lāna‘i Camping on Lāna‘i at Hulopo‘e

Visitors to Lāna‘i don’t have much choice when it comes to where they stay. There are only three hotels, after all. Campers have even less choice if they want to set up at an official campground with bathrooms and tables — there’s only one, at Hulopo‘e Beach Park on the south side, next to the Four Seasons.

It’s not the best homebase if you are looking to move and shake around the island, as Lāna‘i City and the main roads are more than 1,500-feet up the dry hillside. But the isolated area is a great place to vege out, especially as an overnight from nearby Maui. You could do much worse than renting a kayak to explore the coast here, including Pu‘u Pehe.

Hulopo‘e Beach Park is the best-kept on the island, and the coastline has a variety of cliffs and small coves. One of the funny things is that you’re sharing the same scenery with people who have paid out the wazoo to be there. Camping here is not cheap — it is a $50 permit fee plus $15 per night per person — but considering that rooms at the Four Seasons start at more than $1,000/night during the summer, you feel like you’re getting a deal.  You can find more details on the campsite here.

Volcanic Eruption: On the Front Lines at Kilauea Military Camp


Last week, I had the chance to stay at Kilauea Military Camp in Volcanoes National Park. It’s not a base, it’s a recreation center built by the military as a leisure-stay facility for its members on leave. Generally, it’s not open to the public – only active and retired military can stay. But there are a few loopholes. I’m here with a group tour, which was able to arrange an overnight as part of the Road Scholars Program.

I’m actually a guide on the tour, not a guest. Guiding has long been an interest of mine – partly stemming from the investigative story I did on guides in the Grand Canyon – and I sought out the opportunity to do it part-time in 2018. I see it as travel writing in person. I’m able to directly interact with the guests, explain things that interest me, and help them learn, explore, and experience.

Kilauea Military Camp is set up like a small village. It has the feel of a campus, a central cafeteria, bar, and game room within a short stroll of the cottages. As the crow flies, it is only two or three miles from Halemaumau Crater. At night, I can see the smoke from campus, the fiery lava exhaling like a chimney next door. It feels like I’m on the front lines or something, with an eerie sense of impending doom. Its looming presence, its power, its tinted-red color, humble me as I walk in its shadow.

Next door, beside the Visitor Center and the Jagger Museum, is the source of the smoke:

Big Island-30

Halemaumau Crater. Photo by Ryan Popiel.

Halemaumau Crater is known for its lava lake shown above. It’s been there since 2008, part of Kilauea’s ongoing 35-year eruption that began back in 1983. When you visit at night, you can catch glimpses of splattering lava (bring binoculars if you have them) and learn about the history and observation of the volcano at the Jagger Museum.

As for a stay at Kilauea Military Camp, you’ll have to take my tour.

Wake and Wander Editor Named Travel Writer of the Year


Hawai‘i Ecotourism Association Names Travel Writer of the Year

The Environmental and Culturally-Focused Tourism Organization Will Honor the Winner at its Annual Awards Lunch on November 13th at the Hilton Waikiki Beach Hotel.

HONOLULU, HI – The Hawai‘i Ecotourism Association, the organization that runs and sets the standard for Hawai‘i’s Sustainable Tour Certification Program, will be honoring the best in Hawai‘i’s ecotourism landscape at its awards luncheon next week.

In addition to the top operators and guides, HEA also recognizes a writer who shares the values of ecotourism with readers through newspaper or magazine articles on personal travel experiences. HEA wishes to underline the impact that travel writers have on visitors to Hawai’i – they are the first line of influence in determining how a visitor views, interacts with, and experiences a destination.

This year’s Travel Writer of the Year is Will McGough from O’ahu. Based in Waimanalo, Will is the publisher and editor of Wake and Wander Hawai‘i, Hawai‘i’s Travel Newspaper. Started in October 2016, the free monthly newspaper has grown to more than 70 locations on O’ahu in its first year and expanded onto Maui, Kaua’i, and the Big Island, including five locations at the Honolulu Airport and a partnership with Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf for distribution at locations throughout Hawai‘i.

As he writes in his opening letter from the editor, the drive behind the paper is to get away from the sensationalized, headline-driven stories of the modern-day travel writing industry and use long-form, narrative-based storytelling to inspire deeper, immersive travel. Only then will locals and visitors alike be able to explore Hawai‘i with a sense of understanding, appreciation, and respect, he says.

“Modern-day journalism wants you to think of travel as a collection of superlatives. The best beaches, the top five hotels, the ‘one meal you have to try before leaving Honolulu,’” he writes. “I want to help people view and share experiences as experiences, not as good or bad or best or worst but as individual grapes that together, the good alongside the bad, add up to a beautiful bunch.”

Will writes, designs, and delivers all the papers himself (with a little help from his friends), and works with a cultural ambassador, Maui’s Kainoa Horcajo, and historian, DeSoto Brown of the Bishop Museum, to ensure sensitivity and promote cultural awareness.

Through the first ten issues, Wake and Wander Hawai‘i has done many stories that involve ecotourism, aiming to inform and inspire people to seek out these experiences for themselves. He has written stories about local ecotourism companies and nonprofits, such as Hawaiian Paddle Sports, travel2change, Paepae o He‘eia, Hui o Ko‘olaupoko, Hanalei Taro, Kaua’i Food Tours, Kaua’i Hiking Tours, and many others. He has also written several stories for mainland-based publications about ecotourism in Hawai‘i, including AFAR, Travel Pulse, Travel Weekly, and Alaska Airlines Magazine.

Will has been a guest travel expert on Hawai‘i News Now, KHON, KITV, and Think Tech Hawai‘i. Wake and Wander Hawai‘i has been featured on Hawai‘i News Now and in Civil Beat. Will has been to more than 70 countries on assignment. He is a former assistant editor at Conde Nast and his travel-related contributions have appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, AFAR, Travel Channel, Forbes Travel Guide, Outside Magazine, Backpacker Magazine, Men’s Journal, AAA, TravelAge West, Travel Weekly, Paste Magazine, Alaska Airlines Magazine, Inspirato Magazine, Elevation Outdoors, the Brewer’s Association, and Sherman’s Travel, among many others. He writes regularly for Frolic Hawai‘i.