Monday, January 12, 1998
In memory of Rell Sunn
Of all the words that have been written about Makaha surfer Rell Sunn, her husband Dave Parmenter felt that nothing captured her essence better than this story written by Sunn herself. Parmenter wanted readers to know that, of all the things Sunn excelled at, her greatest skill was as a spearfisher. Sunn, a pioneer in women's competitive surfing, died last week at age 47.
By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
A 1983 Star-Bulletin photo of Rell Sunn.
A young woman
and the sea
By Rell Sunn
Reaction time is faster when you see bigger fish. At the instant I saw the 45-pound ulua munching on a tiny snowflake eel my Hawaiian sling hand-spear was already cranked and flying. The three prongs lodged in the back of his blunt head, and he spun once, eyeing me with reproach. But instead of screeching for the channel, he turned and went back to work on the eel.
I was faster and luckier with my back-up spear, as it found its mark between his eyes. The ulua bolted for the deep blue of the drop-off, the two spears poking like antennae from his brow and humming through the water with his furious rush.
It had been an easy, almost effortless dive day. The usually temperamental waters off of Oahu's Kaena Point were placid, seemingly beaten into laziness by the summer heat. The ocean there is full of fish, outrageous holes, and Hawaiian myth and lore. I had paddled out on my longboard, which was both my partner and diving platform, with two Hawaiian sling spears, a mask, snorkel, fins and a dive bag...all weighing no more than 15 pounds, board included.
Within an hour the 9-foot, 6-inch longboard was awash under the weight of 65 pounds of octopus, giant uhus (parrotfish), a couple of seven-pound kumus (highly prized goatfish...red, good, delicious).
I was already headed in and skipping over a mental shopping list for ingredients needed for steaming the kumu and stuffing and baking the uhu when I spotted my dream fish.
The ulua had put some distance between us despite the two spears stuck into him. I was already three-quarters of a mile out and swimming with burning lungs and muscles against the current. My board had drifted down current; it was a gamble to let it go and swim after the fish, but I couldn't afford to lose sight of my quarry for even a second. I was committed to the gamble of sticking with my fish.
The wobbling of the spear soon wore the ulua down enough so that I could use the best of my energy to surge ahead of him and herd him back toward the shallows. As my calves began to cramp I was relieved to see the fish doing flips and violent spirals... he was dying.
Uluas are beautiful fish. They're smart, good hunters and are incredibly strong. I've seen them turn vicious when injured. As this ulua fluttered to a ledge 35 feet below, I realized that he didn't know that particular crevice as well (it was a dead end) as I did. It was the stroke of luck I needed to take a chance on retrieving my board. Three minutes later I was back with my board, hovering over the crevice, and relaxing my breathing to get a good gulp of air for the descent.
The ulua was scraping the spears against the ceiling of the ledge when I reached the opening. I sunk the fingers of one hand into his eye socket and gripped the spear shaft protruding from his head with the other, and began to guide him out and up toward the surface.
He fought hardest two feet from the surface. My legs were starting to cramp and I was on the verge of blacking out. I shot out into the air, blasting the snorkel free of water, and for the first time felt the true heft of the fish, which felt like a leaden umbrella held overhead.
As I wrestled the ulua up onto the deck of my board, I heard what sounded like wind blowing through reel lines, or dogs barking. I pulled my mask off and followed the noise to a spot on the shoreline where four fishermen were jumping, yelling and pointing at me.
I grinned and raised the 45-pound trophy in a victory salute.
Then, I turned my head seaward just in time to see a 14-foot tiger shark sliding under the surface barely 50 feet away, knifing toward my board, my 65 pounds of octopus and fish, my ulua and my legs, not necessarily in that order.
A million heartbreaking thoughts and possibilities flashed into my mind, yet I had but two solutions to them all: pulling myself into the less-exposed knee-paddling position, and scuttling the ulua off the side.
I took a few pulls toward shore and said, "I'll be back...next time catch your own dinner!" I didn't have the heart to do the "panic-paddle" in, and so from a safe distance I watched my dream fish begin to sink. He wasn't even a foot under when the tiger grabbed him and tore into the midsection. My lungs, my arms and the fishermen were screaming as I paddled away from the snapping, churning orgy.
From shore the fishermen and I watched the shark finish up what could have been a mini-luau for my neighbors and me. We traded fish recipes, shark stories and other spooky stuff about Kaena. They helped clean (and eat!) the fish. Other than that 14-foot tiger shark, my day couldn't have been nicer; sharing a day's catch and making new friends.
My new friends helped me lift my VW bug and turn it toward Makaha (it had no reverse gear). I headed off to my hula class, late again.
I drove along the dirt road back to Mahaka, the sparkling afternoon sea smoldering against the rock-bound shore. In less than 30 minutes I would be back in my more land-locked world, full of Hawaiian music, dancing, and "talking story" with the girls.
But out there, under the deceptively placid surface, was a world blind to gender. Though I was taught by men, I was formed by and subjected to the rigid laws of a seemingly lawless realm that treated me and every grazing ulua or marauding shark with the same utter equanimity.
Though I was running late, I stopped along the way and picked some hinahina for my hula sisters' leis. The succulent flowers grow along the arid Kaena coast road, living on the thick sea spray. Not exactly ulua steaks, but Pua and Sweets and the girls would be stoked.
Editor's note: Rell Sunn called this story "The Woman Who Shot Ulua Valance."