In the early 1950s I belonged to the Outrigger Canoe Club on Waikiki Beach. In those days Waikiki had only two large hotels, the Royal Hawaiian and Moana. The Outrigger Club was between them, at the very heart of the beach. I spent nearly every free day there, playing doubles volleyball on the sand courts, surfing when the waves were up, spearfishing on the reefs offshore, training and paddling in six-man canoe races and, perhaps most time-consuming of all, chasing after girls staying at the hotels. A group of six or eight of us hung out together. We were 13 or 14, just breaking into high school sports, starting to drink a little Primo beer and trying hard to convince ourselves and anyone else who would pay attention that we were kids no longer.
Once, when I was 14, I had a chance to prove how much of a man I had become. I had arrived at the club early, about 8 a.m., which was long before I could expect to see my friends. As soon as I had changed into my swimming shorts, I walked through the passageway from the clubhouse out between the canoe sheds to the deserted beach. The sea was unusually calm, the tide was low, the water very clear. It was no day for surfing, but conditions were ideal for spearing fish.
I was considering going out alone when Sammy came along the passageway behind me. Sammy was a beachboy, a powerfully built Hawaiian of 30 or so, an easygoing sort who was willing to laugh at nearly anything until he had a few drinks, when he quickly became a person well worth avoiding.
"Good day to spear," he said by way of a greeting. "See that? Low and clear. Want to go?"
July 14, 1985
"Who else? Nobody else around here, bruddah."
"Sure, I'll go."
Five minutes later we had loaded spears, slings, fins and masks, a bailing bucket and an anchor into a two-man canoe.
"We got a long way to go," Sammy said not long after we left the beach. "Can you dive 30 feet?"
I was used to spearing in depths of six to 12 feet. "Sure," I said. "I think so."
We did go a long way out, far beyond the reefs I was familiar with. The water was deep, clear blue.
"Drop it," Sammy finally said.
I lifted the anchor overboard and let it go, watching the rope play out and down. We were out so far that the pink Royal Hawaiian and white Moana looked small, and the club could barely be seen. The beach itself was a thin white line, glaring in the sunlight.
"The ledge is close by here. Plenty kumu, maybe an uhu, too." Smiling widely, he worked the swim fins on. Then he spit into his mask and rubbed the saliva over the glass to keep it from fogging with body heat, washed it out, pulled it on. He grabbed his spear and sling. "Follow me, bruddah," he said. He swung his legs over the gunwale, then dropped feetfirst into the sea.
I followed Sammy. About 50 yards from the canoe he found the ledge, which was cut so deeply into the floor of the reef that it might have been called a cave. The opening was at least 20 feet across, three or four feet high, and fish of all kinds could be seen across the length of it, swimming slowly in and out of shadow. It was an ideal spot, because there was no other cover nearby. Except for a few small coral clumps, the bottom was flat and gray around the ledge as far as I could see.
Distances under water are deceptive, but it looked like 50 feet down to me. I had doubts about reaching the bottom, but I knew I'd have to try.
First I watched Sammy dive, and he made it look easy. Kicking smoothly, pulling hard with his free right arm, spear and sling held out ahead in his left hand, he glided quickly downward. About halfway to the ledge, he held his mask hard against his face and blew, relieving the ear pressure. Then he kicked again, leveled off and held to the roof of the ledge with one hand as he peered into the opening. He was at the middle of the ledge, and he looked both ways. After a few seconds he swam to his left, quickly drew his spear back in the sling, took aim, let it go—and hit something. Two feet of the six-foot metal spear protruded from the ledge, vibrating from the struggles of the fish. Sammy grabbed the spear, but he didn't come up. He fitted the notched end back in the sling, and then slowly worked from left to right across the ledge. Twice more he shot, the last time near the right-hand edge, before he finally surfaced. Three fish were impaled on his spear, two red kumu and a small blue uhu. I guessed he had been down at least two minutes. When he broke the surface near me he smiled from behind the mask, thick, dark hair matted wet against his forehead. "Your turn, bruddah."
"You can go again," I said. "If you want I'll take those back to the canoe."
"I can do that. First I watch you." I began taking deep breaths to clear and expand my lungs. I dived, trying to relax, trying to imitate Sammy, kicking and pulling smoothly, slowly with controlled power, conserving oxygen. More than halfway down, I popped my ears. The pressure was partly relieved, but in the last few feet down to the ledge there was steadily increasing pain. Near the ledge, the water was very cool. I grabbed the roof of the ledge with my left hand, the rock rough and cold, and, head pounding, ears aching, lungs already straining toward another breath, I looked back into the shadow. And shadow was all I saw. The fish had scattered to the sides of the ledge or farther into it. I really had no idea. I released my grip, and because Sammy was watching, I drew the spear back in the sling and shot it uselessly into the darkness. It hit a fish. Before it had gone three feet, the spear thudded into living flesh. I quickly grabbed at the end of the shaft and held it tightly, kicking hard for the silver surface far above. Reaching it, I barely heard Sammy beside me as I gasped for breath.
"What you want a palani for?"
Still panting—and trying not to—I looked at my fish. It was a four-pound palani, considered a trash fish. No one ever bothered with palani. "Couldn't tell what it was," I managed between breaths. "Looked like an uhu to me."
"Yeah?" Sammy said. "Sure. That can happen. Let's get these back to the canoe."
Before we swam to the canoe, I emptied out my mask. There was a fair amount of blood in it. Something in my nose had ruptured from the pressure. I felt vaguely sick to my stomach. Perhaps I had been down for a minute, certainly no longer than that, and it had nearly done me in. It was wild luck that I had hit even a palani.
We dumped the fish into the canoe, then held to the gunwale for rest.
"Did you see that moray?" Sammy asked me.
"Maybe five feet. Big."
"I didn't see it."
"He's way back. You ready to spear 'im, bruddah?"
"Sure," I said.
I followed Sammy back to the ledge. That was only 50 yards, but it gave me plenty of time to remember every moray I had ever seen, and all that I had read or heard about them. They were evil-looking creatures, nothing to them but needle-sharp teeth and powerful muscle. When you saw a moray come out of a hole in a reef, the head with its wicked little eyes and its mouth opening and closing rhythmically, you knew it was time to move along, and quickly. Morays were known to defend their territories. Once when two of us were gathering lobsters along a shallow reef, a small moray had struck like a snake, its head crashing into my friend's mask, shattering the thick glass. The fragments slashed his nose and both cheeks.
I wanted nothing to do with spearing a five-foot moray, though nothing could have made me admit that to anyone but myself.
We were over the ledge. I could see the fish again, many of them, drifting in and out of shadow.
"I'll dive first," Sammy said. "I'll get him in the head. If he takes off from the ledge across the bottom, you dive. Try to get him again. If he stays in there, you wait till I come up. O.K.? You got that?"
Sammy dived. Why did he do it? Was he showing off? It wasn't likely he would bother showing off for me. He probably wanted the moray out of his favorite ledge; that made sense. I was praying that he would kill it and was terrified at the prospect of having to dive again myself.
He flattened out against the bottom, this time at the left end of the ledge. Slowly, using his left hand to pull himself along, he worked his way across. Just past the middle of the ledge, he slipped in under the roof until he had disappeared to his knees. He had been down for more than a minute. Then he moved farther in. All I could see were the tips of his swim fins, motionless, far below me. When the fins completely disappeared, he had been down about a minute and a half.
Another full minute after that he came out head first. His spear was gone, and his right arm trailed blood, a pinkish stream that spread quickly and disappeared.
When he broke the surface next to me, he barely paused for breath. "Gimme your spear, bruddah!"
"What about your arm?"
"Only a coral cut."
He dived again, this time kicking straight in under the roof of the ledge at the spot where he had come out before. About two minutes later he appeared, slowly now, pulling a spear. Then I saw the moray behind him. It was at least five feet long, and both spears had pierced its head. Sammy dragged it to the surface.
"That's enough for me," he said. "You want to spear some more? Want to stay?"
"No, thanks," I said. I was staring at the moray. I'd never seen one nearly so large.
We paddled slowly toward shore. "Short trip," Sammy said. "Bleeding's stopped. Tough moray. Wore me out in there. I sell it; you keep all the fish. O.K.?"
I never asked Sammy what exactly had gone on back under the ledge. Somehow I didn't really want to know.
And all the way in, I thanked God that I hadn't had to try for the moray myself.