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On O‘ahu’s verdant North Shore, I wiggle my toes at the ocean’s edge and bite my lip as I scan for the flick of a shark’s fin or other harbingers of doom. Beside me, Matt Sproat, a 43-year-old Hawaiian musician with an easy smile, by contrast, looks completely relaxed.
Sproat grew up here among the faded, low-slung cottages of Hau‘ula, where neighbors pass evening hours on lawn chairs, telling stories under the soft glow of string lights while children play in the grass. When he was three years old, his father taught him to fish at this very beach. In turn, Sproat has offered to teach me how to hunt he‘e (octopus) here with a spear.
“Spearfishing is something that my ancestors did,” he says. “When I’m in the ocean, I become aware of my surroundings, and I recall the things I was taught, even from küpuna [elders] who have passed. I know that their legacies are being taken forward because the things I learned from them I still teach to my children, with the hope that they will teach it to their children.” Among the waves, out there hunting for fish, Sproat finds a sense of fulfillment that he describes as spiritual.
To the average outsider, spirituality and spearfishing seem like an odd match, but I’ve learned that many people in Hawaii, like Sproat, feel that the two are intrinsically linked. Their explanations for that connection differ, but there’s something about going deep beneath the surface of the ocean and hunting in an environment where humans don’t naturally have a survival advantage that affords spearfishers an unexpected perspective on their existence and place in the world.
“When you’re looking at a beautiful fish, a creature that’s full of life, something in you has to be able to pull the trigger,” Kellen Parenzin, the first spearfisher I met, explained as he styled my hair at a salon in Kailua. For Parenzin, this is about joining the circle of life and participating in an ecosystem, eating a fish that he caught himself. His belief in the concept of the spirit eases his conscience, too: “There’s an energy within the fish that’s prevailing—something that I can’t shoot, that will never die. … It reminds me that this body,” he gestured to himself, “is just a vehicle.”
At the beach in Hau‘ula, I follow Sproat into the choppy water and slip on my flippers. The reef forms a rectangular enclosure about 300 meters out, breaking the waves and reducing our chance of encountering sharks. Even so, with the recession of each swell, we feel the strong current threatening to carry us toward an opening in the reef that drains into deeper water.
It takes me a moment to adjust to the ocean, my brain reprioritizing my senses. My breath resonates like Darth Vader’s in my snorkel, a welcome distraction from thoughts about sharks. Ripples of refracted light, traveling in progressive patterns of white and yellow below the surface, amplify my sense of the water’s movement. I survey the craggy ocean floor through my diving mask, noticing large, spherical brain corals and small, discarded fishing weights that glint silver between the rocks. I see pufferfish and angelfish and a dozen other colorful species, including a school of mullet that flash past like streaks of quicksilver squirting along the shoreline. But the he‘e are nowhere to be found.
Sproat probes holes with his 1.5-meter aluminum spear, hoping to find the threshold of an occupied he‘e den. His tool is a lighter, easier-to-use version of the early Hawaiian spears at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu. Some ancestral spears more than four meters long that resemble medieval pikes were used to fish with from the shore; other spears, shorter at two meters long and barbed at the tip, may have been used for underwater spearfishing, though nobody knows for sure. Most of these implements have been lost to time; wood artifacts are more vulnerable to erosion and the effects of weather than pottery or metal, and written history in these islands only goes back to the mid-19th century, when Protestant missionaries codified the Hawaiian language.
Much of what Hawaiians know about their early ancestors was passed down through oral tradition. The stories imply that Hawaiians have always fished with spears, on the shore and underwater, along with other methods such as pole and line, nets, and foraging by hand, not only in the ocean but also in the fishponds they created to farm the bounty of the sea.
In the traditional Hawaiian view, the ocean and the land are spiritual realms, and all inhabitants—plants, animals, and humans—are spiritual creatures, each connected. Early Hawaiians composed songs and stories about the ocean and made offerings of fish to ancestors and gods, such as Ku‘ula, the patron god of fishing grounds. They revered some fish as the incarnations of deities and celebrated top fishermen for the mana kupua (supernatural power) they were believed to possess.
They also became intimate with the life cycles, fluctuations, and nuances of the marine species on which they so depended. This knowledge helped them establish strict laws known as kapu to enforce aloha ‘aina, or stewardship of the land, founded on understanding that with limited resources, if anything became spoiled or depleted, there was little hope of getting it back.
Many of the tenets of the early Hawaiian belief system persist in these islands. Sproat tells me of his aumakua (totem) that protects him while he’s in the ocean: on the night he was born, his father caught a tiger shark in his net and, marking the occasion, cut the animal free. An elder proclaimed a spiritual connection between the creature and the boy. Throughout the islands, some fishermen still lay freshly caught fish out on the stone ko‘a (fishing shrines) that overlook the shoreline, asking the gods for protection and a good catch.
“There’s something about spearfishing that gives it this kind of primordial sense of hunting, compared to just throwing your line in the water and waiting,” spearfisher ‘Olu Campbell explains to me by phone. Born on O‘ahu, the 25-year-old law clerk lives on Maui. His family, however, has a long history in the area of Honolulu known as Kaimuki, which is part of the Waikiki ahu.pua‘a. The term ahu.pua‘a refers to an early Hawaiian district system used to divide natural resources from mountain to ocean among the people who lived within the ahu.pua‘a boundaries. Campbell’s father taught him how to spearfish in the waters of Waikiki when he was 10 years old.
Currently, one of the busiest sections of O‘ahu’s 180-kilometer coastline is Waikiki Beach, a 3.2-kilometer stretch fronting the most densely populated area of Honolulu. Off the shore, the overall fish biomass, a measure of fish number and size, has decreased by nearly two-thirds during the last 40 years. Hawaii’s government closes the Waikiki-Diamond Head fishing grounds every other year to help fish recover, but populations have never rebounded to historic levels. As a result, state legislators introduced senate bill 1377 this year, proposing to ban spearfishing in Waikiki indefinitely.
Campbell and many others have submitted written testimony in opposition to the bill. Some, like Campbell, raise the issue of their rights as native Hawaiians to continue traditional cultural practices like spearfishing. Some wonder if hotel owners in Waikiki who are in favor of the bill are more concerned about pleasing snorkelers than about preserving the reef. They argue that there are other insults to the reef—sunscreen, urban water runoff, and climate change, for example—which makes it unjust for lawmakers to single out spearfishers. And they point out that spearfishing is inherently more sustainable than other types of fishing because, when done properly, it generates no by-catch.
However, Bill Walsh, an aquatic biologist with Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, points to a study published in 2007 by the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology that found spearfishing accounted for 70 percent of the overall catch in this area and noted that spearfishers generally target the biggest fish. Big fish are more fecund than smaller fish. The bluefin trevally, a favorite of spearfishers, for example, attains reproductive maturity at a size of 33 centimeters and can grow to lengths of 80 centimeters or more—about the size of a skateboard. If a spearfisher takes a trophy adult, Walsh explains, the effect on the reproductive potential of the overall group is equivalent to taking 86 of the smaller mature fish.
It’s a complicated issue that raises passionate debate—so the legislature has deferred bill 1377, for now.
Most amateur fishermen in Hawaii prefer to spearfish without SCUBA gear. They use free-diving techniques instead, consciously slowing their metabolism to extend the period they can stay submerged with a single breath. It’s meditative but risky. A handful of free-divers die every year due to shallow-water blackout; a diver who hyperventilates before submerging can run out of oxygen without sensing the need to breathe and then lose consciousness and drown. Cautious divers venture out with a partner for safety and can stay under for surprising durations.
“Jessea” (pronounced Jess-ie) Wenjie Lu lives on O‘ahu and teaches free-diving to spearfishers, surfers, and snorkelers. She holds competition records for depth (more than 60 meters) and breath-hold duration (more than six minutes).
Free-diving requires ultimate relaxation, Lu explains in a soft voice with the hint of a Chinese accent while we sip tea in her garden in Waipahu, on O‘ahu’s arid west side. Her loose, long, black hair blows in the breeze as she offers me a basket of cheese, cookies, and wasabi-seasoned dried peas.
“A lot of people like this sport because they realize that there are things that they originally thought were impossible that they can actually accomplish,” she says, noting that many of her students get a boost of confidence when they free-dive and that the experience changes their self perception.
Though a person might feel the urge to breathe perhaps after only 30 seconds, she says, the true limit of our oxygen supply with a single breath is much longer. She has learned to ignore the diaphragm contractions and the fears and negative thoughts accompanying them through focus and repetition, pushing past the instinctive urge to breathe.
“When I’m on a breath hold, it’s brief, but it’s so special that I want to go back and get more of that feeling,” she muses. “It feels … it’s almost, timeless. Your sensation and perception almost goes beyond your body as an individual. You feel the whole environment and you’re part of it, like everything is connected.”
I’ve begun to understand that spirituality through spearfishing can happen whether you’re Hawaiian or haole (Caucasian), whether you’re religious or not, and it doesn’t hinge on a dead fish. It certainly has nothing to do with the badass image often depicted in ads for spearguns and camouflage-print wetsuits. Spearfishing—or perhaps for some, just the precondition of free-diving—involves entering a foreign environment, one in which the natural laws favor those who are slow, calm, and above all, humble. That change lends clarity to some people, as well as a new perspective on life.
The sun is high over Hau‘ula when Sproat and I stumble onto the narrow beach to remove our flippers. Thick white clouds have formed over the Ko‘olau Range behind us, and before us, the ocean is corrugated with choppy waves. Somehow, an hour in the water felt much shorter; now it’s lunchtime and I’m hungry. “Even a day of spearfishing without catch is a good day,” Sproat concludes, “because we spent time outside, getting exercise in the beautiful ocean.” Still, perhaps we should have followed his advice from earlier in the morning: never speak aloud about fishing or the spirits will hear you and warn the fish to stay away. “We say holoholo, which means, we’re gonna go cruise,” Sproat explained with a playful grin. “Or sometimes we’ll say, ‘We’re gonna go mauka [to the mountains].’”
For now, I’ll do just that—cruise home, where I’ll spear canned tuna for lunch instead. The he‘e are safe in their underwater realm for another day.