Mitsuki Hara hides 30 feet below the surface of the sea amidst the rolling kelp forests. In her arms she holds a 4ft 6in speargun – almost as tall as herself – which she trains on white sea bass, the elusive “grey ghosts” of California.
The real fight begins after she pulls the trigger. The pierced silverfish struggles to escape both its hunter and trembling greenfin sharks, which begin to pursue the bleeding fish. Hara pulls the window closed further and chases with a bated breath. This gives her only about 90 seconds to work with each time she dives into the murky Pacific.
In this hunt, the fourth freedive does, and Hara eventually emerges in one piece with the 73.4-pound beast. More than that, the Behemoth broke the International Underwater Spearfishing Assn. recording Catch for white sea bass with female harpoons by weight. Hara barely rested on her laurels before impaling another world record breaking kelp bass just a month later.
“She’s one of the bright new faces of California spearfishing,” she says Lance Lee Davisa record holder in freediving and spearfishing.
“This is an unbelievable achievement,” says Addrianna Zügenbach, President of SoCal Dive Babes — an organization for women in spearfishing and freediving. “She caught the white sea bass on a shore dive, which means she had to carry the thing up the cliffs. The world record requirements also don’t allow anyone to help you.” That means Hara catching the fish in 60-degree water with all their gear—a 10-pound weight belt, snorkel, fins, and a 2-pound EduSub speargun had to.
Even more impressive is that 26-year-old Hara looks nothing like the typical spearfisherman. She is a wispy 5 foot 1 and 105 pounds. This makes operating a speargun underwater a challenge, as it requires significant upper body and back strength to load. “The weapon I use is almost as tall as me,” she explains. “It’s so difficult to handle that I have a power tower [a fitness apparatus used for building muscle strength using body weight] in my living room to do pull ups every day.”
Hara is part of a movement of local women spears – slang for female spearfishers – dedicated to engaging with the bounty of the Pacific Ocean they live on.
The Rise of Spears (and Sustainable Fishing)
“Here in LA, there’s been a big shift in the javelin demographic,” says Davis. “I teach a lot more female eco-sustainability spears than male spearfishers with testosterone.”
Additionally the Los Angeles Fathomiers, one of the oldest spearfishing clubs in Southern California, reports that eight of its roughly 30 members are women — up from just three in 2016. “We also have more women competing for world record catches [International Underwater Spearfishing Assn.] website than in previous years,” says Sheri Daye, the organization’s past president. The formation of SoCal Dive Babes in 2020 has contributed to a noticeable increase in spears in Southern California alongside the pandemic and the need for socially distanced activities, Reitbach explained. It’s a small but passionate community.
These spears are also part of a growing global push for locally caught seafood Harvested sustainably – without endangering the ecosystem, other wildlife or the stability of the species caught. Although California a Top seafood exporter with plenty of delicious sea life, it imports most of the seafood it consumes – roughly 70% to 85% of seafood According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, Americans’ consumption is imported.
Hara is also a supporter of this view and celebrates the abundance of her local bounty in a march Instagram post. In the picture, she’s grinning from ear to ear as she sits next to her husband on a boat, her body covered in 28 California crawfish. Hara believes that Californians should be eating these native creatures instead of importing lobster from Maine.
But it’s not just about fishing locally. Spearfishing can be harmful if not approached with a sustainable mindset. Hara explained, “The spearfishing community has many unspoken rules to protect the fish population.” For example, spears guard dive sites where they have caught their prize fish to “avoid attracting too many people to a particular location, which could potentially lead to… depletion of marine resources”. Also, Davis says, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is “one of the most tightly regulated fisheries in the world. Basically, if it’s a legal catch in this state, it can be considered sustainable.”
When practiced mindfully, spearfishing can be an alternative to line fishing as there is minimal bycatch – the accidental catching and killing of other species in fishing nets. Also, no bait is used in spearfishing, and there are no residues from equipment and fishing nets. “I can carefully select and shoot only the fish I want to eat,” Hara explains.
Use everything down to the bone
Hara consumed every piece of the 73.4-pound white sea bass — “WSB” two spears — to the bone. Shortly after catching local artists Dwight Hwang, which enjoys a cult following among restaurateurs and art collectors, commemorated her award-winning fish. Using 19th-century Japanese Gyotaku art, Hwang carefully brushed onyx pine soot and water calligraphy ink onto one side of Hara’s WSB. Next, he gently pressed the fish onto a piece of washi paper to create a lifelike print to commemorate her catch – in honor of the food she retrieved from the ocean. The meat of the fish was suitable for week-long dinners and gifts for friends, and the rest went to her in-laws’ wedding venue and seafood restaurant.
Hara even repurposed the fish’s skull taxidermy art. “I follow the tradition of Itadakimasu, a Japanese faith with roots in Buddhism that teaches respect for all living things. That thinking goes beyond meals and values every part of the animal you sacrifice,” she explains. For this time-consuming project, she had to carefully disassemble the fish skull to clean each part separately before reassembling it with a glue gun.
It was this patient, detail-oriented explorer mentality that helped Hara capture the WSB. She says: “Before anyone started diving last season, I was already in the water making detailed notes and records of ecosystem changes, lunar tides, temperatures and times of day that white sea bass were swimming. I often dived five days a week. Yes, I was lucky the day I caught it, but I have spent tens and maybe hundreds of hours in the water tracking this species.”
Inspire more women to dive
Your mission is to motivate even more spears to jump into the ocean. “It makes me happy because so many women who are starting out in spearfishing tell me in frustration and they’re like, ‘How do you do it? It doesn’t work for me, the gun is too powerful and I can’t load it.’ I have so much to share because I had to find unique techniques to balance my height.”
In addition to strength training, Hara recommends looking for a community and mentors. “There are so many people willing to help,” she says, referring to organizations and groups like SoCal Dive Babes, OC Spearos, Fathomiers and more on Facebook and Instagram. “I have made lifelong friends from this community. Catching food together creates a special bond, and we often end our dives with a catch-and-cook dinner together.”
Hara met her mentor, Matthew Hoang, on a local catch and cook dive, a turning point in her spearfishing career. “Ever since he took me under his wing, I started seeing a different world underwater and I suddenly saw more fish and I even used my muscles and breathed differently,” she says. In fact, they formed such a deep connection that the two married two years later.
Her wedding was in the sea at Avalon, Catalina, and her wedding dress was a Riffe International wetsuit. One of her diving friends got her diving license for the occasion. “When it came time for our kiss, we dove underwater with our 30 guests,” she recalls. “Instead of throwing flowers, we threw fish food.”