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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, July 26, 2004

Free diver who died was national champion

By Karen Blakeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

Gene Higa, a committed, well-trained spear fisherman with a good chance of winning a national championship and going on to compete for the world title, was found dead Saturday after he failed to return from a free dive.

Gene Higa

Higa, who had won one national championship, was competing in the U.S. National Spearfishing Championships Saturday on the North Shore. He was found about 4 p.m. in more than 85 feet of water off Police Beach.

"I would have said Gene was a shoo-in to win this competition," said Al Lagunte, president for North Shore Fishers and coordinator of the national championships in Hale'iwa.

Lagunte said Higa was a marine engineer at Pearl Harbor, and left a wife and young son.

Higa was an accomplished diver, regarded by many in the sport as one of the state's best. He was a member of the 1999 U.S. Skin Diving National Championship Team and has represented Hawai'i five times in national competitions.

In March, at the Ali'i Holo Kai Qualifying Event at Kahala Beach Park, Higa finished first after bagging 14 fish with a total weight of almost 63 pounds.

According to skindiving website Team Sporasub, which sponsored Higa, he was "perhaps the best pole-spear free diver in the U.S."

Higa was reported missing after he failed to report to a 3 p.m. check-in with the rest of the tournament's 93 divers.

His body was found by a search party close to where he had anchored his kayak.

Although no cause of death has been determined, a condition called shallow water blackout has led to the deaths of a number of free divers in recent years, Lagunte said.

He said he knew of three deaths on O'ahu this year alone.

The blackouts, caused by oxygen deprivation, generally occur during the end of a dive, and most often when the diver, reaching the end of his endurance, is distracted by a fish or tangled equipment and delays surfacing, said Bill Ernst, director of skin diving for the Underwater Society of America.

Ernst said he had blacked out during dives. Survival can depend on luck and distance from the surface, he said, but the presence of a diving buddy can often mean the difference between life and death.

Ernst and Lagunte said that in light of Higa's death, they and other leaders in the sport planned to discuss going to two-man teams in U.S. competition, and allowing only one team member at a time to hunt.

During a banquet to mark the end of the competition yesterday at Waimea Valley Audubon Center, Lagunte told his fellow fishermen that the competitive nature of the sport had changed it from its cultural beginnings, and that something must be done to make it more safe.

"We've experienced so many deaths," he said.

Higa, who was representing the Ali'i Holo Kai spearfishing club in the tournament, had been free diving 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 just a wonderful guy," said Frank Farm, president of Ali'i Holo Kai. "Father, husband, supporter of the things he loved. He was enthusiastic about the sport, and he did it with a lot of devotion."

"This wasn't supposed to happen," Lagunte said. "He was supposed to go on to the world fishing team."

Staff Writer Peter Boylan and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Karen Blakeman at 535-2430 or kblakeman@honoluluadvertiser.com.