Island Native: In the Deep Blue with Wendell Ko

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Wendall Ko

Whether a fish is five lbs. or 500 lbs., Wendell Ko doesn’t see his profits in dollar signs but in blessings. The 53-year-old has been spearfishing in Hawai‘i for more than four decades, but it wasn’t until recently that his wealth came packaged in such behemoth proportions.

A big, blue catch Ko recalls the experience from a few years ago, when he and his friends went on their semi-annual Big Island fishing trip. He was awestruck with the giant blue marlin he had just caught. “We were headed back to the harbor, and everyone was trying to guess its weight,” he recounts. “I couldn’t even tell how heavy it was, but I knew it was big. Some were throwing out guesses like, 300 or 400 pounds.” Turns out, “big” was an under-statement, as their estimates were about 100 lbs. shy of the actual weight. The marlin weighed in at 506 lbs., 12-feet long–becoming the world’s biggest fish ever caught with a speargun.

With numbers and measurements aside, Ko also spent time during that two-mile boat ride back reflecting on what had just happened moments before. “Even though it happened so fast, I just felt so blessed to have experienced it,’” he explains. “I don’t know how to describe it, but there was just this feeling of overwhelming gratitude that took over, and I had those excited, happy tears.”

He reflected on their day’s fishing adventure, which had began like it always did–with an early morning send off, gliding over glassy waters; it was just him and his closest buddies. This particular day had ended up being especially slow, however, with Ko admitting that they knew they would not be getting anything big that day. The most action they had was earlier that day, when a school of aku swam through the area, but nothing more.

Wendall Ko posing

“We were just about to call it a day, and here comes this 500-pound marlin, swimming by,” explains Ko, who identifies himself as a blue-water diver. “He was right there. I could have closed my eyes and shot it; it was that easy!”

The shot might have been easy, but Ko admits the battle was much more challenging. For him, it felt more like a sword fight than a struggle between predator and prey. For 30 minutes, he held on tightly to the marlin’s four-foot long bill, making sure
to steer the fish away from the boat and himself.

“I’ve seen videos of marlins spearing people on the boat and was fully aware that it could have easily turned around and stabbed me, too, but none of that occurred to me in that moment,” explains Ko. “I just saw a big, beautiful fish that I wanted to catch.”

It took a couple more shots from his speargun to subdue the marlin and finally end the fight. Ko never expected such an event, as it was the first time in his life that he ever shot a marlin.

Fortunately for him, his friend and “Hawaii Skin Diver” producer captured it all on video. “Holding that day in my memory bank would have been good enough for me, but now I am able to share it with my kids and grandkids,” he says. Ko not only shared the memories but also hundreds of pounds of marlin. After weighing in, he decided that the right thing to do was give it to the people of that area, call-ing it a “blessing that should be shared.”

Getting hooked on spearfishing Ko grew up surrounded by a family full of spearfishers, so it was only a matter of time before he also took to the sport. “I used to follow my dad, and we would spearfish with an old Hawaiian sling be-cause back then, we didn’t have spearguns,” he reminisces. One of his fondest memories is of his uncles taking him spearfishing on the north shore every Sunday, topped off with some Matsumoto’s shave ice. But the most gratifying part of their day, he says, was being able to bring dinner home to the family.

That sense of gratification eventually evolved into a career for him. Right after college, he spent a few years commercial spearfishing on the Big Island but quickly realized it was not a job for him. “I lost interest in that pretty quickly,” he explains. “It changed the way I looked at fish; instead of thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a beautiful fish,’ I found myself seeing dollar signs and began losing the joy in what used to be a hobby for me.”

While Ko still sees spearfishing as a hobby, he also sees it as an opportunity to share his philosophies on what it means to be an ethical deepwater hunter. “It’s about taking only what you need but also making sure the fish will have a purpose,” he ex-plains. “After I shoot it, I think about how this fish is going to benefit the maximum amount of people; who will I share this with? I would never just shoot for the heck of it.”

Ko gave up reef spearfishing altogether, after noticing a drastic depletion of fish in areas he used to frequent less than five years ago. It is because of this that he mostly sticks to bluewater fishing for pelagic fish, like mahimahi and ono. But even then, he says he rarely takes home a fish; unless the fish presents itself as a good shot, and he knows he can share it with others.

Wendall Ko weighing fish

A big, yellow catch That is exactly what happened just years prior to the big, blue catch. He and his friends were in Kona, again, taking turns diving down 60 to 80 ft. When it was Ko’s turn to dive down, a school of fish swam by, but instead of shooting a few, he decided it was only right to take one. He ended up taking home the right one that day–a 188-lb. yellowfin tuna.

“That fish put up a good fight,” he recalls. “As soon as I shot it, it swam down, so I spent a lot of time trying to pull it toward the surface.” He and his friends had some unexpected company, too. A couple of white-tip sharks circled their catch, but fortunately, they were able to bring the tuna to the surface.

Diving partner and friend Nathan Kaneshiro witnessed it all. “You could really see the experience in Wendell in that moment; the way he was able to keep his body calm and how deep he went to get that ahi,” says Kaneshiro, who had just started diving at the time. He continued to dive with Ko over the years, getting better at the sport while also gaining more knowledge from Ko about spearfishing and the ocean.

“I’ve learned so much from Wendell over the years,” he explains. “A lot of spearfishermen like to hold secrets, but from day one, he was very open with me.”

Ko takes great pleasure in sharing his knowledge and philosophies. It’s this kind of willingness to help and to be pono to the ocean that has distinguished him as a legend in the spearfishing community. His friends call him patient, skilled and courageous, but most importantly, they say he is someone who stands firm in his beliefs–always respect the ocean because if we treat her right, she will provide bountiful blessings for us to enjoy.