Sunday, July 25, 2004

Firefighters from Engine Company 14 arrived yesterday at Haleiwa Harbor with the body of state and national spearfishing champion Gene Higa, who was participating in an organized competition when he was reported missing. Higa was diving from an orange diving kayak approximately 3/4 of a mile off Haleiwa Beach Park.

Diver dies
in tournament

A search turns up the body
of a champion spearfisherman
in 80 to 90 feet of water

A 38-year-old championship spearfisherman who was widely known in the free-dive community died yesterday while participating in a spearfishing tournament off Police Beach in Haleiwa.

Gene Higa, of Waikele, was found dead in 80 to 90 feet of water about three-quarters of a mile offshore at 4:02 p.m., the fire department and friends said.

Organizers of the U.S. National Freedive Championships notified the fire department at about 3:30 p.m. that Higa had not come into shore along with the rest of the 93 divers in the tournament.

Shortly afterwards, free-divers who were participating in the contest gathered a search party to look for Higa.

The divers found Higa's empty kayak. Some 30 minutes later, they found his body.

Fire Capt. Emmit Kane said fire department divers helped volunteers bring Higa's body to shore, where he was identified by family members.

Some divers speculated that Higa may have suffered from shallow water blackout, a sudden loss of consciousness that's caused by oxygen deprivation.

Kane stressed that the cause of Higa's death is still under investigation, but he said shallow water blackout "is a condition that occurs occasionally with divers."

News of Higa's death shocked those who knew him yesterday, and turned the North Shore tournament's mood somber.

At the contest's fish weigh-in tent, where participants gathered to see whose catch would garner the championship's top honors, conversation centered on one of the island's best competitive spearfishermen.

"He never bragged about how good he was," said Eddy Takiguchi, a spearfisherman who met Higa in 1995. "He was very soft-spoken and very humble. ... But everybody who knew him knew he was the best."

Higa, who was representing the Alii Holo Kai spearfishing club in the tournament, had been freediving for more than two decades.

He is featured in several spearfishing instructional videos and books, participated in scores of spearfishing tournaments in the islands and elsewhere and mentored the sport's newcomers.

"He was always willing to teach the less experienced people," said Lance Ohara, also of Alii Holo Kai. "The guy was a real good teacher."

Dayne, a spearfisherman who asked that his last name be withheld, said Higa was a conscientious free-diver who was "always teaching everybody here to be safe." And initially, Dayne wasn't worried when his friend hadn't checked in on time.

"Gene can handle himself in the water," he said. "He's like a water man. He would know his limits."

Family members asked for privacy yesterday and did not talk with reporters. Higa is survived by a wife and young son.


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