Sea You Underwater!

As COVID shut down businesses and prevented us from laying out at the beach, I turned to spearfishing in Hawaii.

Let’s roll it back to the beginning. It was April of 2020, and the State of Hawaii was under stay-at-home, work-from-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Restaurants, shopping malls, and indoor activities were shut down, tourism was at an unprecedented standstill, and outdoor activities were prohibited. The Mayor literally declared “no peaches on beaches” but could not regulate the ocean itself, so watersports and fishing continued.

PC: @MayorKirkHNL

It was in this environment that my husband Jason and I, plus a couple of our friends, dusted off our fishing poles, which in an ordinary year would have only come out during camping trips. Batting the pandemic woes, we adventured to new beaches every weekend, shore-casting for popular Hawaii reef fish like ooama, papio, and oio – all of which also made for delicious meals and the fun of trying new recipes.

Fishing off a pile of rocks far out into the ocean – May 2020.
Steamed papio with sizzling hot oil and soy sauce.

A Whole New World

Standing in shallow waters waiting for a bite or strike soon wore on my patience, so I next grabbed my snorkels from storage and found myself swimming for hours on end while Jason continued to whip or dunk for fish. This was my introduction to a whole new world. I found a profound sense of peace in the underwater silence, floating and skimming along the water freely. I was also curious to explore, and excited to come across all kinds of sea life.

Always in the water.
Cuttlefish
Ooama and papio

The Hunter In Me

My observations evolved to scoping out the underwater landscape, such as where the sandy bottoms or reef structures were, to inform what kind of fishing pole set-up and bait to use. A flame was reignited, and I was once again attracted to the challenge of becoming better at fishing, and learning something entirely new: spearfishing. I took to YouTube for study and jumped at every offer to get in the water with experienced friends. My love for being underwater and an innate competitiveness to try to do what most cannot set me off on a journey to spot and catch octopus, coveted as a delicacy to eat and to use for fishing bait.

Tako Eye

The hardest part about hunting for octopus is spotting them in the first place, and it’s believed you either have this skill, “tako eye,” or you don’t. Here is what I’ve learned to look for:

Messy eaters – A common signal for an octopus home are crab claws and empty shells, strewn about and sometimes even leading to a hole.

Rock walls – Imagine a little rock wall built around a hole or cavernous section of reef. Even though the reef itself is covered in sandy silt or seaweed, these rocks will be clean, often revealing colors unlike the rest of the surrounding areas. Rocks may appear overturned or arranged in a way that does not seem random or natural.

“Blinking” skin – It’s not unusual for me to spot the eyes or body of an octopus as it sits just inside its den. If the sun’s out, you may notice its color changing skin which appears to be “blinking.” If it sees you, it may turn to a dark reddish-brown hue as it slowly retracts deeper into its den.

Without any one of these clues evident, I won’t even bother looking into a hole, since the chances of coming across an unwanted resident, like a moray eel, are too high for my comfort. Once I do find an octopus den, I’ll gently slide my three-prong pole spear in to see if anyone’s home. You’ll know there’s an octopus because you can either see a burst of sand being spit out, or you’ll feel a soft body followed by a tug of your spear deeper into the hole. With a few wiggles of your spear tip, the octopus will be tickled out of its hole, providing an opportune time to grab it – or for it to escape, often under the cover of darkness, inking as a defense mechanism.

Octopus hole with surrounding rocks.
Octopus spitting sand out of its den.
Closeup of “blinky” tako (octopus).
Octopus inking.

More to Explore

It’s been less than a year since I was able to spot and catch my first octopus, and what an adventure of patience, adrenalin, and learning it’s been. There’s nothing quite like sharing a gift of fresh fish or an octopus with a friend, colleague, or family member. Yes, there’s real fulfilment in being able to use the hashtag #caughtnotbought! What’s next? I’m a week away from my first freediving course for beginners, hoping to learn more about safety protocols and tips for holding your breath longer underwater. I’m also eagerly awaiting the ideal 3-pound octopus, caught on a beautiful day in good company, to memorialize with a Japanese fish print, known as gyotaku. (My father happens to do this as a hobby and small business. Check out his octopus print here.)

Personal record - 6¼ pound octopus – November 2020.

While I’m sure we all have found a silver lining in this pandemic, which for many was the great outdoors, during these wild and wacky times, I can’t help but think back to my own moment of reflection, posted to my Instagram in September of 2020:

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