Issue 9.1: February/March 2006

The Great Wet Hunter

story by Rufus Kimura
photos by Wayne Levin

 

If you have a window seat, glance outside just after takeoff and you’ll see how the ocean changes. Close to land, long white breakers mingle with the pale greens and mud-like patches of the shallow inshore reefs. Next come the coral fingers and sandy trenches, running perpendicular to the inshore reefs, stretching and darkening into cobalt hues as they reach greater depths. At their end is a mass of shadowy blue where the edge of the reef drops into oblivion. Rob White and I are out past this edge, out where the water is almost purple. Sheathed in form-fitting neoprene, we slide over the side of his boat into water 1,000 feet deep. It’s warm, womb-like, welcoming in a way that helps quell any unease. With a breath, I clear my snorkel and look around. Muted shafts of sunlight cut through the water at an angle, reflecting the ocean’s surface, dancing across its emptiness. I float, weightless, getting used to life in the deep blue. And I try my best to be silent. I am tagging along behind a veteran spearfisherman who is in stealth mode, looking for something to kill.

Spearfishing was once just a means to supplement the dinner table. Now it has evolved into a sport, a discipline, a lifestyle. There are television shows, magazines, local and international contests all dedicated to the idea of capturing the next big fish. “Diving is not like winning a race,” Rob reasons, “it’s not a one-time deal. And, best of all, you get to eat your trophy.”

As one of Kona’s premier spearfishermen and the owner of the dive outfitting shop, The Bluewater Hunter, Rob spends hours upon hours upon hours in the ocean. It is, he says, part of his being now, “my medicine, my church and my religion.” Then he adds, a little less philosophically: “If I don’t dive, I become a real jerk.” Standing six feet two inches and sporting Kona’s ubiquitous triathlete physique, Rob is the type of guy who regularly walks off with dive tournament trophies. He also holds the local record for the largest yellowfin tuna ever speared: 148 pounds.

Earlier he’d told me how it all started: He was a boy of ten in Santa Barbara when he overheard a group of scuba divers raving about the amazing bat rays loitering right offshore. Intrigued, he borrowed a mask and, with a friend, paddled a board out through the murky California waters to reach the rays. It was such a transcendent experience that he’s been hooked on the underwater world ever since. Thirteen years after meeting the rays, he landed on the Big Island’s southwest side and decided to call it home. He’d learned to free-dive in California; in Kona, he quickly fell under the tutelage of local icon Bruce Ayau. “I remember watching Bruce make effortless dives to 110 feet,” says Rob. “It blew my mind. I didn’t know anyone could do that.”

When he took over the operation of The Bluewater Hunter, Rob began clinics with free-dive champion Brett LeMaster to further his ability to dive. It’s a quest that continues, and Rob still spends a great deal of time conditioning his body: Aside from weight training, he uses static and dynamic apnea and depth training. In other words, he holds his breath a lot. “Now,” Rob said, “I think about spearfishing every day. It is my job to talk to people about diving. So I get to relive it every moment.”


 

Next to him, I felt like a landlubber. I had never considered diving a lifestyle—for me, it was more a pastime encouraged as a positive alternative to adolescent drug use and general tomfoolery. Now, I was in the water with one of the speardiving community’s foremost representatives, miles out to sea alongside Rob’s twenty-foot boat—named, not surprisingly, The Bluewater Hunter. Rob’s plan was to execute a number of drift dives up-current from the FADs, or Fish Aggregation Devices. The FADs are large, sun-yellowed buoys moored in the open ocean for the sole purpose of creating an environment that provides shelter for smaller fish—which in turn attract the larger pelagic fishes.

With all of those fish, of course, there are sharks. I asked Rob what his thoughts were on the apex predators. “We see a lot of sharks,” he said, “because we chum a lot. You’re only afraid of the unfamiliar. A television producer once told me that she broke up with a guy because he didn’t care if he died in the water—that was too intense for her. But I think that I’d almost be thankful if I was doing what I loved when my number was called. However, I know enough not to be stupid.”

Hovering next to the boat, above the blue void, I watch as the shafts of sunlight shift their geometric patterns. There are no signs of life. Reaching out of the water, Rob scoops a handful of slightly thawed sardines and sends them tumbling in disarray. Their small, silvery bodies sink through the water in slow spirals, like fighter planes in tailspins. I can see oily scent plumes exiting the rapidly thawing flesh.

We entered up-current, and the direction of our drift is taking us—and our cloud of chum—right past an FAD. Tethered to the sea floor by rope and chain, these buoys are barnacle-encrusted oases in the otherwise landless sea. Suspended like Death Stars, they bob slowly, orbited by hordes of little fish. As we pass the FAD, we see a school of pinstriped damselfish, then a grip of triggerfish. We watch as the triggerfish leave the safe shadow of the buoy and bomb in, chomping away at the sardines. From the darkness below, five slender shapes detach themselves like Imperial Cruisers and rise to investigate the commotion. They are wahoo, also known as ono, a fast-swimming pelagic fish armed with rows of razor-sharp teeth. Unfortunately, they are just babies: under ten pounds and not quite in range.

Since the pubescent ono seem to be the biggest fish around, we swim back to our drifting boat, climb in and head back to shore to do some reef diving. There are two arenas to spearfishing: the reef and the bluewater. The inshore reefs provide a varied terrain where skilled divers can hide and stealthily stalk prey: Accordingly, reef divers tend to favor smaller, more agile guns. Those in the bluewater, on the other hand, are often far from their quarry and compensate by carrying virtual cannons. Rob’s speargun is somewhere in between, a customized Riffe 4X that can be fitted with shafts for both types of game. Rob’s the kind of guy who understands that wherever you are, it’s best to be over-prepared.


 

From our vantage point we can see miles down the Kona coastline. The dark mass of a semi-recent lava flow cascades into the ocean, adding new square footage to an ever-increasing island. We are headed towards the cliffs, to the thin strips of living reef that break the monotony of the blue water into a dichotomy of color. There are no landmarks where we pull up. The shoreline is barren and inhospitable, a jagged onyx moonscape peppered by a few stubborn shrubs. But the water is clean. And below, the reef glows. The Big Island’s coral reefs are world-renowned: Living gardens of coral make up the infrastructure where hundreds of species of tropical fish play tag.

I hover on the edge of the reef and watch as Rob dives down, nestling himself among the corals. In his camouflaged wetsuit, he blends well with the seafloor. Nearby, a gaggle of parrotfish are feeding—obliviously scraping away at the rocks with their beak-like mouths. Rob watches as they pass and then slowly ascends. Parrotfish—not quite the trophy that he’s
looking for—will not be on the menu tonight.

A few yards inshore from us, a rocky spire rises from the depths as if struggling to pierce the ocean’s surface. Given a few millennia and the help of piggybacking coral colonies, it could succeed. Just as the wind and rivers contour the land, the constant motion of water shapes and reshapes the reefs. Every large storm or swell rearranges large boulders and shifts sandy patches. After both Hurricane ‘Iwa in the 1980s and ‘Iniki in the ’90s, many local divers noted a near-catastrophic damage to the local reefs. Since then, the corals have grown back, but with an increase in the shorter sturdier varieties.

Through it all though, the fish have remained. I marvel at the sheer volume of living creatures that mill about below. Bluish long-nosed bird wrasses pursue their harems while frantic damsels defend their mustard-colored egg patches from hungry lemon butterflyfish. I’m entranced—until I catch sight of an enormous black shape flanking my position.

It is a giant manta. Effortlessly, it glides along, two little remoras trailing from its chin like twin goatees. Its underside is a milky white, contrasting neatly with its jet-black top. Its large lip-like appendages curl inwards, creating a giant scoop for unlucky plankton. Thick gills pulse and with a smooth flap of its ten-foot wingspan, the creature is gone.

Back on the boat there is no lunch break. Instead, we make do with a few hurriedly gobbled cereal bars and half-smashed grapes as we bounce along to our final dive spot of the day, another FAD. We have already traveled over eighty miles today and done multiple drifts past four different buoys in search of a spot holding fish. This is Rob’s last chance to find an edible trophy, something worth writing about.


 

When we pull up to the buoy, I am instantly disheartened. Three fishing boats are trolling circles, their monofilament lines stretched out 100 yards behind. Apparently, the fish are not biting. All three boats make a final pass and leave, heading back towards the harbor, their day done.

We are alone with nothing but a few sea birds perched on top of the buoy to keep us company. Rob kills the engine and we let the boat drift, slipping over the side into the blue. For me, it is like coming home again. The deep water is no longer unfamiliar.

Rob gathers the remaining chum and creates his largest bait cloud of the day. Fish-bit confetti rains down as we drift towards the buoy, and right on cue a horde of triggerfish rushes in—this time joined by twenty or so rainbow runners. Taking a full breath, Rob casually descends on the feeding ball of fish. He aims, fires and immediately has a two-foot-long fish impaled on the end of his spear. As he resurfaces, Rob lets the rainbow runner swim feebly below. A wounded fish often attracts predators.

I’m armed with a spear gun also, so as Rob plays his catch, I make my dive. It’s hard to judge the depth out there in the blue, but at about thirty feet down I began to make out the shape of some very large fish. Attracted by the dissipating chum and dying rainbow runner, six big mahimahi are coming to feed. They are just out of range and as I head to the surface for another breath, an enormous bull male comes blitzing in below. That’s when I hear Rob.


 

“Hey Rufus, can I borrow your gun?”

Let me pause.

There are moments in life when decisions are no longer black and white, when we experience an intense feeling that can only be described as a conflict of interest. Rob has been kind enough to let me shadow him today, trusting enough to divulge things that have taken him years of trial and error to learn. And we’ve both been hoping that he’ll get a fish today, a fish big enough to back up his Bluewater Hunter moniker, a fish big enough for me to write about in this story.

“Sure, here it is.”

I’m just the writer I remind myself as Rob drops down and levels off with the big bull.

He’s the diver, I repeat as Rob lines up his shot.

When he squeezes the trigger, the forty-pound fish is already twenty-something feet away—quite a distance for a spear powered by large rubber bands.

The stainless steel shaft surges forward, but the mahi is already bolting. The spear nears the end of its tether and slows in an arc. Then, since Rob White truly is one of the best bluewater divers out there (or the luckiest), the spear somehow finds the last three inches of the fleeing fish’s tail. The spear’s detachable head punches through easily, and Rob’s trophy is secure.

At the surface, the mahi cycles through its pre-mortem kaleidoscope of colors, a profound visual litany. Every hue of blue and the entire range between green and gold flashes in unparalleled display. With a climactic shudder, the fish slowly pales, its colors muting as life drains away.

As I watch the brief struggle, I remember what Rob had said about death and the ocean: “I would almost be thankful if I was doing what I loved when my number was called up.” Now, I understand him. The ocean’s ever-present possibility of death enhances life tenfold. Every time a freediver goes beneath the surface on a single breath, he is surrendering himself to a state of limited animation, severing him completely from the necessity of a breathable environment. It takes faith to trust that a lungful of air will sustain you. I would be thankful, too, I thought, if I passed doing what I loved. But not, however, until I’d gotten my own big mahi.HH