Issue 11.2: April / May 2008

The Life Aquatic

story by Rufus Kimura
photos by Brad Goda


There were four of us, on an uninhabited island off the coast of Papua New Guinea. We were huddled in a makeshift shelter—a windbreak we’d fashioned by lashing an old sail to a breadfruit tree—and we were playing cards in the rain. The older two among us were winning, although it’s possible that they were cheating.

Perhaps as a diversion, one asked the other, a publisher by the name of Gaylord Wilcox, if he had any new books coming out.

“I’ve got this book called Spearfishing on the Island of Hawaii by Sonny Tanabe,” Wilcox replied. “He’s an amazing fellow. And he has all of these great stories.”

“Like what?”

“Well,” said Wilcox, “you’ve just got to read the book.”

But when I got back to Hawai‘i two weeks and one cyclone later, a trip to the bookstore was the last thing on my mind. Then my editor called. “We’d like you to do a piece on this amazing fellow, Sonny Tanabe,” she said. “He’s just written a book.”

So I went to the bookstore. I read the book. I met the amazing fellow. And I discovered that, as great as Spearfishing on the Island of Hawaii is, it is only one of Sonny Tanabe’s many accomplishments. The guy is truly a legend: Olympic swimmer, renowned spearfisherman and celebrated mentor to a whole generation of watermen.



It all started in post-World War II Hilo, where Sonny grew up. A local boy, he learned to swim and dive shortly after the 1946 tsunami decimated much of the town’s coastal real estate. Early sepia-toned photos of Sonny from those days show a handsome, confident young teenager standing or crouching by the sea, spear in one hand, just-caught fish in the other. It was a time when the ocean in Hawai‘i was still pristine and abundant—filled with marine life, untainted by runoff. Sonny learned to fish from his Uncle Jerry Tanabe, and he remembers watching his uncle spearing large uhu and nenue swimming right along the shoreline. Living in unison with the sea, Sonny and his peers would feed their families simply by heading to the ocean. He had wooden goggles, a Hawaiian sling. “I was amazed,” he recalls, “at the world beneath the water.”

Sonny was strong in the water. In the ninth grade he began to swim competitively in the pool, to dive deeper on the reef. He remembers swim practices and fishing expeditions with bonfires and lobsters cooked in the coals. After high school, he made his way from Hilo to Indiana University. There he excelled in swim meets, so much so that he won a spot on the US Olympic Swimming Team. He competed in the ’56 Olympics in Melbourne, marching into a stadium filled with 100,000 cheering spectators and also meeting Hawai‘i’s great Duke Kahanomoku, who had been appointed an Olympic ambassador.

Duke was not the only aquatic luminary to make an impression on Sonny during this time. In his freshman year, Sonny attended a lecture by the famed French ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. Cousteau showed his film Silent World and Sonny was inspired. He got hold of an Aqua Lung scuba tank, took it home to Hilo, taught himself to use it and began to dive with it. Spearfishing still held him in its thrall. In fact, in college he’d even won a tournament held in a frigid Indiana lake, an impoverished student using a sweatshirt for a wetsuit and a Hawaiian sling rather than a big speargun. No matter: Sonny brought in the four largest fish of the tournament.

Sonny’s decision to swim for his country in the Olympics had an unintended consequence: His training interrupted his college education, thereby making him eligible for the draft and forcing him into the Army. When his military service was over, he returned to college and finished his degree in health, physical education and recreation. He taught for awhile in Illinois, then in 1964 returned to the Islands and spent the next thirty years sharing his love of swimming and diving as a teacher at Kamehameha Schools. He dove every chance he got, immersing himself in the big blue all over the Big Island. “I went diving with my brother Roy as often as possible,” he recalls. “We drove a VW which held six spear shafts, Hawaiian slings, four scuba tanks, two backpacks, a big ice chest, two scuba regulators and anything else we needed to include. We would hop in the VW and drive to South Point to spearfish There were times when we could not fit large fish like an ulua into the big ice chest, but somehow we always managed to get everything home again.”

As the years passed, Sonny worked closely with the YMCA and served on numerous boards and committees, all to further the sport of spearfishing in Hawai‘i. He knew and dove with everyone. In recognition of that fact, in 1997, the Big Island YMCA renamed its tournament the Sonny Tanabe Invitational Freediving Tournament.


A large man, Sonny nonetheless still moves with the ease of someone who is used to the fluidity of the ocean. He is unassumingly humble despite the fact that he was recently inducted into both Hawai‘i’s Swimming Hall of Fame and its Freediving and Spearfishing Wall of Fame. He has an office brimming with plaques, trophies, certificates and awards—or as he refers to it, “all that junk.” His wife Vicki laughs. “Most people only have one trophy,” she says. “Sonny has a whole roomful.”

It was that collection of moments, of narratives, of memories—that ephemera of a life well-lived—that led Sonny to begin to think about creating Spearfishing on the Island of Hawaii. The book is an affectionate tribute to the skills and stories of many of his diving colleagues, and it has the personal feel of a photo album or a scrapbook. It chronicles the early history of spearfishing in the Islands, replete with photos of malo-clad Hawaiians as well as the at-times unbelievable adventures of Big Island watermen today.

There are, for example, tales of spearing ‘ahi in the Wailoa River and a huge ulua in the Wailuku River. There are stories of spearing ulua while freediving in the caves around Puako. There is the 1975 story of the seven young freedivers who managed to spear a 540-pound marlin off ‘Upolu Point and the 2006 tale of two divers who succeeded in bringing in a 457-pound marlin. There is the tale of the now-married couple who, while out diving together, shot an ‘ahi (his) and mahimahi (hers). There is the tale of the record-breaking 17.5-pound he‘e, or octopus, speared right off the back of a boat docked in Honokohau Harbor. There are dozens of stories, most short, but all are accompanied by photographic evidence that the sought-after prey didn’t escape.



Although spearfishing existed for centuries as a means of subsistence, only recently has it become a leisure activity. What was once a method of gathering food from the ocean has now become a sport. With this surge in popularity, Sonny sees a need for caution. Although not always a conservationist, he has always been a subsistence fisherman. “You should only catch what you are able to eat,” he admonishes. “There is no sense in shooting five or six uhu when one is good enough for dinner.” The future of the sport, he says, is up to those who practice it, for it is their actions that will have a direct effect upon the health and plentitude of the sea.

“I love the ocean environment,” Sonny tells me at one point as we talk. “In the pool, all you see is the other swimmers, the lanes below you and the sides. It can become lonely after awhile. The ocean is never lonely.” I think back to my recent days on the ocean in Papua New Guinea, time spent following the tides, moving with the waves, and I think how fortunate all of us—Kahanamoku, Cousteau, Tanabe, me, you—are to be surrounded by the sea. HH