Hawaii’s Spearfishing Historian

Tanabe with his catch on the Big Island. Photo courtesy Sonny Tanabe

Richard “Sonny” Tanabe was in the process of writing a book about Hawaii’s long history in the sport of swimming at the Olympic Games when the living legend was side-tracked by one of his childhood passions.

“Hawaii’s 100 years of Olympic swimming dates back to 1912 with Duke, and I was putting that book together when I realized there was still so much more to share about spearfishing,” says Tanabe, who published his first book, Spearfishing on the Island of Hawaii, in 2007.

Tanabe’s revelation came at an expo where he was selling his first book. Attendees were fascinated with a traveling exhibit he had brought with him, which included old wooden goggles and Hawaiian spearguns.

“I thought, no one has ever written a book about the history of spearfishing,” says Tanabe. “That’s how it started, and it just snowballed from there. It’s taken two years, but here we are.”

Tanabe’s second book, The Evolution of Freediving and History of Spearfishing in Hawaii, was released last December and has been selling well since. At a recent book-signing at Pearlridge Center, Tanabe was humbled by the response.

“There were a lot of people waiting before I even got there, and then when I took a lunch break and returned, there was another group waiting for me,” says Tanabe. “For the first five or six hours it was nonstop. It was just unbelievable.”

Tanabe’s newest book. Photo courtesy Fluid Media

Those who know Tanabe and what he means to Hawaii are not surprised.

“The man is a humble legend and gives back so much to the community,” says Cliff Cheng.

Tanabe grew up on the Big Island of Hawaii and started his swimming career at a young age. It was his father who recognized his gift and talked him into joining the Hilo Aquatic Club under coach Sparky Kawamoto. Tanabe went on to win All-American honors while attending Hilo High School, and then earned NCAA and AAU All-American accolades at Indiana University, a swimming powerhouse. The kid from Hilo was a member of the U.S. Olympic Swim Team that competed in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. After serving in the military, he returned to Indiana, where he earned a master’s degree in physical education.

Tanabe was an assistant aquatic director and swim coach at Hinsdale Township High School in Illinois before returning to Hawaii, where he settled in as a teacher and coach at Kamehameha Schools for more than 33 years.

Despite his tremendous success in the pool, Tanabe’s true passion is the ocean, where his love for freediving and spearfishing continues at the age of 77. He is still very active and dives as often as he can, mainly in waters off his home island.

Sonny Tanabe. Photo courtesy Sonny Tanabe

In his second book, Tanabe shares his knowledge of the sport that started with pole-spearing from land. It took many years before Hawaiians went underwater with their gear and even longer before goggles, fins and weights were introduced.

The sport has grown tremendously around the world in the last 40 years. Tanabe has compiled stunning photographs that help tell the story of the sport’s progression and the spearfishermen’s evolution.

“There’s still a lot more out there. I only touched the surface,” says Tanabe. “Hawaii has produced our share of world champions even though we got a late start in the sport. We have much to be proud of.”

In May, Tanabe will travel to Florida to speak at the International Aquatic History Symposium and Film Festival. He says he is honored by the opportunity and hopes to learn even more about the sport.

When asked if there will be a third book: “I still need to finish my book on 100 years of Hawaii swimming history at the Olympic Games,” he says with a laugh. “No more getting side-tracked.”