A world-record-holding spearfisherwoman shares lessons learned at sea.

Mitsuki Hara Spearfishing (0823)
Thomas J. Story

Mitsuki Hara is making a name for herself in spearfishing, a competitive water sport that’s historically been dominated by men. Her petite frame doesn’t hinder the 27-year-old from scoring some serious weight, including the record-breaking white sea bass she recently caught, which weighed in at nearly 75 pounds. The Japanese-born athlete—who is passionate about only catching what she knows she can eat, a sustainable foil to commercial fishing—shares how spearfishing has impacted her life, giving her a sense of community and a passion for protecting the oceans.

Give us the spearfishing basics.

The whole point of spearfishing is to relax. We do free diving with no tanks. You can dive as shallow as 10 to 20 feet, or sometimes as deep as 60 to 70 feet. You have to stay underwater as long as you can, be still, and wait for the fish to pass in front of you.

How did you get into the sport?

My dad had a boat, and he taught me rod and reel [fishing.] I moved to the U.S. and went to the University of California San Diego, and one day I saw a man coming out of the water with a lobster bag, but I was a student and couldn’t afford lobster. The first time I couldn’t dive at all, but he took me around La Jolla and showed me where the lobsters were. It was amazing.

Mitsuki Hara Portrait (0823)

Thomas J. Story

What is it like being a woman in such a male-dominated sport? Was the community supportive?

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When I started, I couldn’t find any female divers; it was all these big hunting dudes. It’s a very physically demanding sport; you need to get access to beaches carrying 12-to-20-pound weights, and the fish themselves are 30 to 40 pounds. I wasn’t a good swimmer or diver at the beginning, and these people never gave up on me. We catch something together and then cook something together. All of my family is in Japan, so it’s not just that they’re my friends, it’s a family, really.

Why do you feel it’s important to represent women in the water?

When I started, I didn’t have many women role models. If there’s one woman I can encourage to get into it, that’s worth it to me. But it really is more of a lifestyle than a sport. If someone is doing it just to catch fish, it will disappoint you. I may catch a fish every four or fives dives. Those target fish aren’t always there for you. It’s about being out there in the water.

Why do you like working and living here in the West, specifically?

California is awesome because you can go up to Mendocino or Monterey, and you have a totally different ecosystem and species and water temperatures and currents than you do here [in Southern California]. I’ve lived all over the world, but I think California is the most diverse in terms of ecosystem, ecology, and nature. You can go snowboarding and catch trout and spearfish all in one day.

What’s the greatest lesson you have learned from the ocean?

The ocean isn’t always nice to you. The current can be strong, sometimes fish are too big. But those times that I’m almost in panic, that’s the time that I really have to breathe right and make the right decisions. I feel like I am much better at making decisions quicker when things are going wrong in life in general—on water or land. It really helps to be able to make more grounded decisions in moments of stress. You are almost out of breath, and under that stress aim it right, move slow, relax, and get that fish. It’s all about slowing down.