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The Waterman

Zen and the lost art of spearfishing with big-wave surfer and all-around badass Mark Healey

Freediving is the inverse of BASE jumping. Instead of catching air at terminal speeds, one holds and savors it, plunging methodically deeper into the abyss. In many ways, it’s infinitely more challenging, requiring a combination of physical, psychological, and emotional strength that can only be built up and honed over time.

“Some of my earliest memories are being in the ocean,” says 34-year-old professional big-wave surfer Mark Healey, one of the most respected big-wave surfers and freedivers on the planet.

Healey grew up on the fabled North Shore of Oahu, where as a young boy he and his father would set out freediving and spearfishing to catch fish for dinner. “It's just been second nature and we always ate a lot of fish in our household,” says Healey. “I would wait—I just remember when my dad would go dive with his buddies and come back I'd just be waiting at the door just so excited to see what he caught, and I would just inspect the fish and look at every little fine detail on them, and ask him the stories of how shot each one, over and over again.”

As a teenager, Healey devoted nearly all of his free time to the sports of freediving and spearfishing. By his estimation, he’d spend 20 hours a week practicing and studying the ocean and his own abilities. At 17, Healey turned pro in surfing and continued his education on the waves and beneath them.

These days, Healey pinballs around the globe, hunting down big waves, tagging sharks with scientists, performing stunts for Hollywood, shooting films, and, of course, spearfishing. Quick dives to catch dinner are usually around 20 to 30 feet, but occasionally he submerges to 160 feet, where contrary to a common misconception, a shallow-water blackout is a much more deadly threat than an encounter with a shark.

“You need to be aware like, ‘If I dive down 100 feet, I can only use this much energy because I need to use X amount to reach the surface again,' ” says Healey, who can hold his breath for six minutes. “I can't think of any other active pastime than freediving, where you have to internalize as much.” It’s a constant physical chess match with a pace that is largely dictated by the ocean and the animals.

For Healey, the dangers, while very real, fall behind his pure excitement for the pastime. He enjoys feeding himself and the independence that comes from being self-reliant when it comes to your food. “You don't want to walk through life being numb. Not only am I going out into the ocean, I'm going into a wild place that's unbridled by man. I never know what's going to happen. I could run into anything. I'm learning something new every time I put my head in the water.”

Get Started: The Beginner's Guide to Spearfishing

Spearfishing is challenging and takes some serious practice, but it’s also one of the coolest things you can do in the water. Here’s everything you need to know to get going.

  1. Start with freediving: There’s no way you’re going to out-swim a fish, so you’ll have to learn how to dive in a way that lets you conserve energy and avoid scaring them off. To try it out for the first time or perfect your freediving skills, visit Dive California in San Diego, Florida Freedivers in North Palm Beach, or Deep Freediving Instruction in Honolulu or Kailua Kona, Hawaii.

  2. Learn to spearfish: Once you’re comfortable underwater, it’s time to focus on the main event. Freediving Instructors International has locations in California, Florida, and North Carolina where you can learn the basic skills you’ll need, including fish identification, equipment, safety, and hunting techniques. 
  3. Know the Rules: Spearfishing can be rewarding and fun, but it’s important to not overlook the dangers that exist when partaking in this risky sport. Each state has its own rules and regulations for spearfishing, which include things like hunting prohibited species, using certain equipment, and staying out of certain areas. Better yet, find a knowledgeable local like Mark Healy to show you the ropes before you dive in. 

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