ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - John Dornellas had been dreaming about Alaska for a decade before he finally pulled off a trip.
Photo by Logan Imlach
The free-diving instructor, who spends most of his time in Florida working at an experiential substance-abuse treatment center, said that he first got hooked on the idea talking to a friend, a former marine, now in his nineties, who regaled Dornellas, 36, with stories of glory days as a bush pilot in Alaska.
But Dornellas wasn’t a pilot searching for the freedom of empty skies and regal mountains - his eyes were set on the depths of the ocean and the leviathan beasts that inhabit them. John Dornellas wanted to free-dive spearfish a halibut.
Spearfishing, which Dornellas says has been around for as long as people have been holding their breaths, is a test of physical endurance, mental patience, and a special type of determination. Dornellas is a die-hard, recalling his time in Fiji fighting dogtooth tuna, which can weigh over 250 lbs. Unlike fishing, which involves throwing in a line with a lure or bait and waiting for a fish to bite, spearfishing is a different activity altogether. Dornellas doesn’t even call it fishing; instead it’s hunting.
“With hunting, it's not just about throwing out a line and hoping something will come along and bite it,” he says, “It's actively stalking, and if you find it, you have to take a very specific shot.”
Dornellas finally got his chance earlier this summer, when a friend from his church in Florida invited him up to Homer. With his wife and two kids, Dornellas flew into Anchorage in July, driving down to Homer at 1 a.m. under the midnight sun.
The first few days in Homer, Dornellas was caught up in the chase, following every lead he could and getting increasingly desperate. He tried different coves and beaches around Kachemak Bay, different water depths, and different times of day, but still he hadn’t even sighted a halibut. He instead contented himself with salmon and cod.
Dornellas with a codfish. Photo courtesy John Dornellas.
“Spearing all over the place you get an idea of general fish behavior, and there was just no rhyme or reason that defined where the halibut were. I was looking everywhere and I would make the best kind of guesses that I could. Some of the locals would send me say, ‘hey try this place, try this depth,’ but I just didn't see anything,” he said.
Dejected and frustrated, Dornellas looked back on his previous experiences, and remembered that nothing can be taken for granted in a hunt. Before his first dogtooth tuna, Dornellas had spent even more time searching.
“It was three consecutive years of losing fish to sharks, not finding,” he said, “I kind of know how things go. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don't.”
So he decided to change his mindset. Instead of letting the probability game consume him, Dornellas focused on the experience, without any hope or expectation of getting a fish. He went berry picking in the mountains, looked for moose, and surrendered to the uncertainty of the hunt.
And when he finally let go of the expectation, things started to turn around. First was a fortuitous meeting on the dock in Homer with a captain. The grizzled man didn’t have any space on his boat, but recommended another captain. That captain offered to take Dornellas to a secret spot where hundred-pound halibut were caught in less than 100 feet of water.
The next day, Dornellas was whisked away to that spot. He watched other boats in the area pull in large halibut, and started feeling that it could be a good day. The captain anchored up and suggested Dornellas take his chance.
With little more than a wet suit, snorkel and spear gun, Dornellas dived into the approximately 50-degree water. Almost immediately, he saw a pair of eyes staring back at him from the silty ocean floor, and lined up his shot.
From above the water aboard the boat, Logan Imlach was unaware of the drama unfolding below. Imlach, a recreational surfer of the Kachemak waters, had tagged along with his friend, the boat owner to watch Dornellas’ attempt at a halibut. Imlach said that he’d heard of plenty of spearfishermen around Homer, but none who were freedivers. As he watched the ocean waves from the anchored vessel, he suddenly saw a figure emerge.
“It was nuts,” recalled Imlach, “He was pretty far from the boat, and came up and was yelling, ‘I got one, I got one, we thought it would be maybe 60 lbs.”
Dornellas said that he too thought at first that the fish was about 60 lbs but as soon as it started moving, he realized it was much bigger. Instead of attaching the spear to a buoy, as many fishermen do, Dornellas used a reel line to pull it back to himself by hand as he fought the current, an incredibly difficult test of physical stamina.
And then there was the fish that wouldn't stop fighting: after bringing the fish to the surface the first time, the beast bolted back to the bottom. Then, it happened again.
The next step in spearfishing is generally to stab the fish in the brain to kill it. After several rounds of pulling the fish to the surface only to have it bolt back to the depths, Dornellas finally had it in a place he thought he could dispatch the fish. He unsheathed his knife and stabbed between the eyes.
“I take a hard stab towards where I think the brain is. On any normal fish it would have been game over, but the halibut brain is in a weird spot compared to any other fish that I've fought, and I found that out very quickly,” said Dornellas.
The fish dove again, nearly taking the entire spear gun with it this time. After another laborious haul of the fish, Dornellas knew he needed a different strategy.
“John was literally stabbing it in the face with a knife, shouting, ‘where’s the brain?’” recalled Imlach. “We told him, it’s a triangle behind the ear. He’s like, ‘I’m trying, it’s not working!’”
Dornellas eventually grabbed the fish through the gill rakers, which usually pacifies a fish, but the halibut continued to fight. With his arm elbow-deep into the fish’s mouth, he realized the halibut was far from dead.
“The fish starts doing the worm on me. I'm lying on top of this fish, laying my whole body on top of the fish, the whole fish starts to buckin' bronco me,” he said. “The other thing I'm worried about is my spear shaft is protruding kind of underneath and out through my left side, so if it decides to roll on me or buck too hard, I'm getting stabbed by my own spear shaft, but there's just no getting my arm out of his gills.”
Crew lift the halibut from the water with a gaff. Photo courtesy of John Dornellas.
Finally, Dornellas was able to exhaust the fish, swim back up current to the boat, and hand it off to the crew, who could gaff it in the gills and haul it out onto the boat. The exhausted diver collapsed on the deck.
“Everybody on the boat just blows up in laughter and disbelief, and just screams of joy, and I just laid back and breathed for a little while, because I was zapped,” he said. “I've fought some big fish in my life. I've hunted dogtooth tuna, I've shot and landed more than I can count, and that fish has me more addicted to that kind of a fight than any dogtooth tuna has ever given me.”
The fish was brought to shore, weighed at the Homer harbor, and is now pending world record status, which could be certified by the International Underwater Spearfishing Association. Currently the record for Pacific Halibut is listed as 96.2 lbs, hunted with a polespear. Dornellas’ monster: 149 lbs.
The rest of the day, Dornellas spent as a normal family man on vacation in what he called “the most beautiful place in the world,” taking a nap, playing with his kids, and watching moose. But eventually, life called him back to Florida to continue his work. But he says that visions of the halibut he fought keep him thinking about another trip to Kachemak Bay.
“At this point I'm willing to go to whatever depths I need -- to do it safely, since I have a family, which is the most important thing,” he said. “I just cannot wait to get back and hunt those fish again.”
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