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    Big Fish Story: John Iwaniec



    Story by Petty Officer 1st Class David Krigbaum 

    Commander, Fleet Activities, Okinawa

    His life in the water began in the early 1950s when the Miami native was four and his father tossed him off a Hawaii jetty into the ocean. The boy made his way back to shore just to get tossed back in another three times to prove to him that he could swim. It was in preparation for their big move to the island of Ponape, today known as Pohnpei, in Micronesia.
    His father was a horticulturalist and for ten years ran the agricultural stations on Pohnpei and Kosrae. The family lived in the island’s only non-thatched hut home, a World War II-era Japanese officer’s quarters. His mother loved to collect shells but warned him away as some were poisonous, just one of the hazards in the Micronesian waters.
    While his sister has been twice attacked by grey reef sharks in shallow water, he said it wasn’t the sharks but the big fish that he is more wary of. Grouper are good to eat and don’t have rows of serrated teeth, but weighing in at hundreds of pounds have the size to be dangerous. When he was seven, Iwaniec was swimming and jumping off a pier that dropped off into deep water along with two native children around four years old. His father’s foreman took him across the lagoon in a canoe for dinner and when the foreman came back it was reported that the two small children got swallowed whole by a massive grouper.
    “They’ll [big fish] eat stuff, I’ve shot a big 40-lb. yellow-tail in California and a black sea bass will come and swallow whole in one bite, spear and all,” he said. “Take the spear; take the fish, and everything. I’m wary around those big fish.”
    He discovered a new water-based hobby to indulge in when he was 12, spear fishing. It began when his mother gave him a spear gun for Christmas. Having returned to Florida, he was mentored by a Florida Keys police officer. Mentorship was vital to his growth throughout his journey and something he recommends for all new “spearos” is to join a spearfishing club, which are everywhere and new hands learn from.
    “You can learn more from a year with me than 20 years on your own because I’ll be imparting lessons on you, ways to attract fish, shoot fish, every fish is different, you have to use a different strategy, almost every fish out there has different habits, they eat different things, they’re in different types of locations.”
    It’s this knowledge that led him to winning third place in the 2004 US National Spearfishing Championship for catching 61 lb. pounds of fish including a 16 pound African Pompano off the coast of Hawaii. Following a stingray led to finding a trevally and African pompano, which he was initially unable to approach within striking range. Then one of the fish attacked an octopus which released a cloud of ink. Swimming in close, Iwaniec shot the Pompano as he escaped from the cloud.
    Another factor in his success was joining the Navy in 1971. His 30 year career saw him stationed in Okinawa and Hawaii, in the latter he learned under an expert Hawaiian spear-fisherman from the island of Maui who taught him the finer points of spearfishing but also how to build custom spear guns. He also picked up surfing and became acquainted with the sport’s biggest names in the era.
    “I knew all the pros in my day. Gerry Lopez, Cheyne Horan, Mark Richards, BK, guys that were my heroes,” he said. “They’d surf waves no one was surfing. It’s an adrenaline rush riding those big waves.”
    He didn’t start on the big waves though, and extolls the need for patience as a surfer builds up strength and experience.
    “It took me four years before I started surfing 15-20 foot waves- that’s down the back of the waves, its 30-40 feet down the face. You can put a whole truck inside that tube and it wouldn’t get touched. If you’re not in top physical condition you’ve got no business being out there. People die every year challenging big waves that they are not prepared to surf.”
    Swimming with the fishes isn’t just for gangster movies if you’re not careful and don’t understand the water and the marine life. Even being cautious and aware has resulted in a few near death experiences for Iwaniec. The most important thing he says, is to keep your head and don’t panic.
    Know the places you plan to surf or dive, know the conditions and don’t go out in bad weather. Other factors to consider are the phases of the moon and their effects on the tides and current strength. Talking to knowledgeable locals is important as you’re not out challenging the unknown. Others have surfed there before and if they haven’t you shouldn’t either.
    Before going in to surf he observes the waves for 10-15 minutes, checking for the number of waves in each set and the intervals between them. He also watches for where the waves are breaking. After gauging these he goes in after the last wave in a set.
    Another point he made is that time in salt water under Okinawa’s always set to “simmer” or “cook” summer sun dehydrates you. Drink plenty of water the day before and throughout your day on the sea. “Anytime you go into the ocean, your body is going to lose a tremendous amount of water. You’ll dehydrate very quickly.”
    Shortly John’s adventure with the Navy will coming to an end for a third time as he retires from government service and returns home to Florida. He has half a century’s worth of catching up to do with grandkids, nieces and nephews. Will he teach them how to swim the same way his father did off that jetty in the 1950s?
    Fair winds and following fish, Mr. Iwaniec.



    Date Taken: 12.02.2021
    Date Posted: 12.02.2021 00:56
    Story ID: 410285
    Hometown: MIAMI, FL, US

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