This is fishing photographer Jon Schwartz reporting on some BIG FISH NEWS from Hawaii with amazing video and photos!
A big game spearfishing expedition turned into the catch of a lifetime for Hawaii's Wendell Ko when he swam down 60 feet on a single breath to lie in wait for his dream fish, a huge yellowfin tuna ('ahi' in Hawaiian). Ko is a rare breed of sportsman called bluewater freediving spearfishermen: waterman, athlete, and ultra selective and ethical deep water hunter who possesses equal amounts of patience, skill, and daring. All these qualities came into play when he bested a massive 188 pound ahi tuna on July 24 off the Kona Coast of Hawaii's Big Island.
Kona is one of the world's top big game fishing spots, and Ko took a weekend with some friends from Oahu to continue his lifelong quest to spear a monster tuna that began when he was 9 years old. As Ko and his partners continually dove down to 60 feet and waited with breaths held for minutes, hoping for a chance at seeing a giant tuna swimming by, a trio of oceanic white tip sharks gathered ever closer, curious if they could catch a free meal of freshly speared fish.
Miles offshore in water thousands of feet deep, divers Ko, Mike Shimabuku and Nate Kaneshiro took turns fending off the increasingly interested sharks by poking them with their spear tips when they got too close for comfort. Captain Bomboy Llanes waited nearby on the Lana Kila with mate James Kataki.
Llanes, a well known Kona big game fishing captain and lure maker, had been hired to bring the 51 year old Ko and his Hawaiian partners to various offshore bouys that act as "FADs" (Fish Aggregation Devices) which are maintained by the State of Hawaii. Bluewater spearfishing enthusiasts like Ko target hard to catch, fast swimming open ocean pelagic fish like wahoo, tuna, and dorado ( known in Hawaii as ono, ahi, and mahi in Hawaii), but they usually don't swim miles offshore by launching from the beach and simply hoping to stumble upon them.
Their prey can swim upwards of 45 miles an hour and freely roam the sea; FADs provide them with some fish-attracting structure and at least some hope of finding these fish. In fact, FADs are thus a common spot for both rod and reel and "spearos" and as the group took great care to only dive at FADs that weren't crowded with too many boats hoping to catch ahi with more traditional methods. Just when they thought no big fish were present, a school of mahi mahi swam by, providing the spearos with a chance at some action, and me, with a chance for some more photos for my fishing photography collection.
I write for fishing and travel magazines and usually don't get to see many free swimming fish so I snapped away with a grin under my mask. I was also excited to get some great oceanic white tip photos and video. Although just like many other wild animals these sharks can be aggressive when provoked, Ko and his buddies and I were mostly concerned with keeping them calm by not letting them get near any speared fish. Sharks are commonly encountered by spearfishermen and are a part of the sport.
As legendary freediver and pioneering spearfisherman Terry Maas said in an interview today with me, "Sharks and spearfishermen are competing predators in the water" and spearfishermen must set the tone and discourage sharks from getting too close by setting an aggressive stance in the water. In fact, spearfishermen are much more likely to get hurt by boats running them over that don't see them, equipment malfunctions with their huge multi-band spearguns that are under a tremendous amount of tension, and shallow water blackout.
In fact, says Maas, because spearfishermen usually swim in clear water and the sharks won't mistake them for their usual prey of fish or ocean mammals like seals, they are much less likely to have negative experience with sharks than recreational swimmers so.
I'm not going to go into my diatribe about how people are more likely to get killed in a car crash on the way to the beach than by a shark in the water (true!), nor will I rant about how millions of sharks are killed each year by people simply to make soup out of their fins(true!), and I won't carry on about how dog bites send thousands of people in the US alone to the hospital each year while there are only about 100 shark attacks reported annually on average and the great majority of them are NOT fatal), but I will say that although sharks can certainly be dangerous, I felt safer swimming with Ko and his partners that day than I would if you were to put me on a motorcycle (you'd have to force me, because them things are really dangerous!). Sorry to kill your buzz if you are a shark week fan...
Back to the giant tuna story..Ko, a former USA National Spearfishing Freediving champion, speared a mahi mahi and eventually brought it back to the boat. Although it was exciting for me to see the sharks and the mahi mahi, Ko and his partners were just about to hop back on the boat and try another location when we saw the the yellow sickle-shaped fins of several HUGE ahi tuna below us.
I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I knew that it was very rare to for spearfishermenspearos, and here I was seeing them on my maiden spearfishing photo shoot! Here's where the greatness of the sport kicks in for me, and where I truly began to appreciate what it would take for a freediving spearfisherman to get one of these huge fish. Floating at the surface with a snorkel and camera, I could afford to let my excitement get the better of me, and when my adrenelin started pumping and my breathing and heart rate increased, it didn't matter, other than I thought I might die of excitement.
The spearfisherman has no such luxury. Because they've got to swim down to incredible depths and then lie in wait for sometimes over 2 minutes, and do this repeatedly in the hopes that they just might get close enough to the tuna, they have to maintain strict control of their heart rate and breathing. If they don't they can blackout on the way back up, and at the very least, their quarry can sense their nervousness and run, and they can run out of air quicker. So to swim down that deep and wait patiently and calmly with only the oxygen you have left in your lungs?
That's so beyond extreme! Oh yeah, it gets even wilder: I mentioned that Ko is a selective and ethical hunter, so let me explain. Like most spearfisherman, he knows that with such big fish in open water, if their spear doesn't hit the fish in the right spot, it will only hurt the fish and it will get away. He and others like Maas detest this idea of waste- they only want that special one, and will only pull the trigger of their speargun of they feel they can take the fish.
I know that this isn't baloney because when the big ahi tuna showed, Ko did another "drop" and, as proven by the video I took, he went down extremely deep, leveled out, passed on several shots at the tuna because he didn't think he would be able to deliver the spear correctly, and only let the spear fly when the giant fish passed a third time. You realize that by passing up the first two opportunities, he could have seen the biggest tuna of his life ( his previous best was 120 pounds less!) disappear forever, right?
That takes serious composure, and to do it with basically no air in your lungs? OMG. Ko was so deep when he let his spear fly at the giant ahi tuna that I could barely make out the fish, and so mostly trained my camera on the giant speargun that he made for himself. Next, I heard a faint "thwick" sound like a toothpick breaking. Did he actually hit the fish, I wondered? I stopped wondering when I looked over at his the floats that were attached to his gun.
See, in big game spearfishing, the fish are so big there's no way that the a man even as fit as Ko could wrestle a fish of that size to the surface once the spear hit home and it sounded for the depths. To tackle fish this size, they attach a series of floats to their guns and when they spear the fish, the spear, which has a breakway tip, keeps the fish attached to the floats, and now the fish fights the floats until it tires out enough for the spearfisherman to pull it up.
To my delight and amazement I saw Ko's lines go tight and whine under the strain of a giant fish pulling down on the floats. The floats were actually being pulled down and gas was being forced out of them by the power of the fish sounding over 150 feet below! Ko swam up just as calmly and slowly and controlled as he had done with all of his previous drops, so it seemed incongruous that he could have just speared the fish of several lifetimes, but when I saw his partners come over with looks of joy on their faces, I knew it actually happened.
A long battle ensued and Ko triued to bring the fish up, only to have to stop puling and attach more floats to the two that he started out with. This fish was like a locomotive! Wendell told me that it would be awhile before the fish might come up, so I swam back to Bomboy's boat to change lenses in my underwater housing and hopped back in the water. The sharks were still there, and in fact, now that there was a sense of urgency in the water, it felt like they were getting a bit closer, so Nate and Mike continued to protect Wendell by staring the sharks down and poking at them with their spears when they got too close.
As Terry Maas told me, that is every wingman's job in spearfishing: to protect the man who's fighting the fish so they he could focus 100% of his attention on raising it.Interestingly, at this stage of the game Maas calls the sharks and the spearfishermen "competing predators" who both want the fish. Maas said the shark might be thinking, "The diver won the first round, but the game isn't over yet" and of course, with several white tips coming ever closer, this scenario unfolded in front of my own eyes in dramatic fashion.
After about half an hour, the fish grew tired of pulling down against the floats and came up to where we could see it. It was still beating it's tail and swimming rather heartily, and as Ko brought the fish up little by little, the sharks took many close passes at the fish, but for some reason never attacked it.
The sharks might have been as stunned as I was, for I can't otherwise explain how they managed to let the tuna be pulled right through them (see the video!)
Ko finally managed to bring the fish to the surface and with his last reserves of energy, swam the fish to the boat while his friends stoodd guard for the sharks. Once he got the fish to the boat the mate James gaffed the fish and hoisted it aboard, and when it hit the deck, everyone's eyes almost bulged out of their sockets!!!!! Everyone was hooting and hollering.
This celebration continued until we got back to the certified scale back at Honokohau Harbor's Charter Desk. Here is Mike, Wendell, Bomboy, and Nate:
I've seen a lot of really wild stuff on the ocean, but this was far and away the gnarliest thing I ever witnessed. For example I used to catch marlin from kayaks, but that is child's play compared to big game spearfishing. It being my first time on a spearfishing photo shoot, I think I might just stop here, because it's gotta be all downhill after Wendell Ko's 188 pound giant ahi tuna! ....FAVOR TIME......
If you liked this story, PLEASE do me a favor and "Like" my Facebook Page Jon Schwartz Fishing, Photography, and Travel by clicking HERE. That way you can stay current with my latest photo adventures and also be eligible to win my next photo giveway worth $400.00 ************* About the Author************** Jon Schwartz contributes to fishing and travel magazines worldwide, specialzing in big fish photos and yacht and travel photography, has been featured on Nat Geo TV, and blogs at http://bluewaterjon.blogspot.com. He lives in San Diego his wife and daughters, teaches elementary school, and enjoys teaching technology, fish science and art, and blues music to his students. Below is one of his student's tiger shark renderings! First Grade Blues Band (they were on TV y'all!) and his student blogging site Kids Like Blogs. Here he is on stage with some of his first grade bandmates: