Healey picks up dinner in Fiji, 2009. Photograph by Kanoa Zimmerman.

Pro surfer Mark Healey goes deep

Mark Healey is a professional waterman. That means he can hold his breath underwater for seven minutes and spear a fish as easily as the rest of us spear cocktail weenies. He catches rides on the backs of great white sharks for fun. And above the breakers, he’s a professional surfer with sponsors like GoPro and Monster Energy. Pretty much anything you can do in the ocean, Mark Healey can do better. But he’s also a bow hunter, skydiver, conservationist and part-time Hollywood stuntman, so he might have you covered on land, too.

As a kid growing up on the North Shore of Oahu, Healey learned to surf well enough to go pro in his early teens. Under his father’s tutelage, he also learned how to spear fish, first for family dinners and eventually to sell to local restaurants. Recently, he turned his lifetime’s worth of aquatic skills into a business, Healey Water Ops, which offers customized surfing, diving and spear-fishing experiences to high-end landlubbers. The expeditions might not be as extreme as some of his own boundary-pushing adventures, but if you were looking to blow bubbles in the waters off Margaritaville, he’s definitely not the right guide for you.

On a recent Saturday in Santa Monica, Healey has just returned from Japan, where a favorite shop is selling T-shirts and hats from one of his surf-lifestyle sponsors, Depactus, which he also happens to be wearing. The cap keeps the morning rays off his face, but at thirty-three, Healey is already plenty sun-blasted. He’s been awake since dawn, making, as it happens, his Fox News debut.

Healey and his trusty Riffe spear gun, 2015. Photograph by Jason Reposar
Spearfishing in Fiji, 2009. Photograph by Kanoa Zimmerman

A video of Healey went viral the week before, and some Saturday morning news hosts in New York had some questions for him. In the clip, Healey can be seen launching himself in a high, daring arc off the side of a boat that’s about to get walloped by a massive wave. He and his buddies had been big-wave surfing two miles offshore at Mavericks, the Northern California mecca, and he thought their boat was about to capsize. But more surreal for him than the incident itself was explaining it to the disembodied voice of Tucker Carlson in an earpiece while staring into a monitor in a silent California TV studio.

“Typically, in a potential maritime disaster, the best idea is to stay with the boat,” he told them. “But I really didn’t feel like getting smashed around like an ice cube in a shaker, so I looked to my friends to the left and right of me and just told them, ‘I don’t know about you guys, but I’m jumping.’” And jump he did. Luckily, the surfers who remained on board were all fine, so they gathered him up on a Jet Ski.

If anything, the interview showcased Healey’s telegenics, which lately have cable producers circling. If they have their way, the eco-marksman could soon be trailed by camera crews as he hurtles himself into Fiji waves to learn primitive fishing tricks, free dives in the dark depths of the Indian Ocean, or explores America’s inland lakes to see what lies beneath.

Nearing the bottom of a bowl of oatmeal, Healey talks about his childhood on the North Shore, which is still his home base. It takes him less than five minutes to haul his gear to the beach in his ’67 Ford pickup. But a lot has changed about the place since he was a kid.

Hunting on the ocean floor in Mexico, 2014. Photograph by D.J. Struntz

“Healey still fishes under the principles his father instilled: Don’t kill what you won’t eat. And when you do, kill quickly and cleanly.”

“I used to see people get their asses kicked in the water fairly regularly,” he says, meaning with fists, in locals-only melees over crowded waves. “That just doesn’t happen much anymore. Everything gets seen on the North Shore. And more and more people get their income from the surf industry, so you can’t just go smashing people up all the time.”

When he wasn’t fighting for forty foot waves, he was underneath them with his Hawaiian-raised father, who taught him how to make a living in the water. Healey still fishes under the principles he instilled: Don’t kill what you or someone else won’t eat. And when you do, kill quickly and cleanly, with as little pain as possible for the prey. Healey’s spear gun — made by one of his sponsors, the Riffe family of San Clemente — is typically aimed squarely at the brain of some snapper, wahoo, or tuna. The largest he ever landed was a dogfish tuna, the Moby-Dick of Hawaiian spear-fishing quarry, weighing in at 150 pounds.

Healey can hold his breath for long bouts — seven minutes in a static environment like a pool, and just under five minutes on an average dive — and he can teach others to do so as well. To him, scuba would seem like cheating, except the assisted breathing doesn’t actually get you anywhere — scuba divers scare the fish off with their clunky equipment and clouds of bubbles.

It may sound florid, but it’s true: Healey’s stalking is an underwater dance. He has learned how his own body language can calm or provoke a fish, and he calibrates accordingly. For the majority of the time he spends on the ocean floor waiting for a clean shot, his body is screaming for oxygen. To keep the anaerobic strain manageable, he has to turn down his mind. It’s the same “happy place” he goes to when he’s getting thrashed in the churn of a big wave, or holding on to the fin of a bull shark dragging him too deep, that moment of extreme danger and maximum solitude where, as he puts it, “nothing gives a fuck about you.” In order to persevere, his brain channel-surfs to memories that soothe or excite him, summoning a specific scene with his girlfriend or a particularly complex Ravi Shankar measure. Once in a while, in the noisy roil, it’s something by Slayer.

When he breaks back to the surface, there’s a sense that body and mind are together again. But each time, he knows he’s been lucky. And he recommends a buddy in all outings. At age fourteen, he emerged from some violent underwater episode that he was happy to be done with, only to have his friend tell him to get out of the water. His face was not quite right.

Healey at work, 2014. Photograph by D.J. Struntz

Blood cascaded from the center of his face. Only at the hospital, alone in the bathroom, did he figure out the problem: his nose was half-torn off. Playing with his injury, he was able to tilt the tip of his nose almost to his ear, with a dark hole in the center of his face — “like Skeletor!” he laughs. “My beak is crooked as fuck now.” It also barely functions as a blowhole. Despite his Aquaboy powers, he’s clearly a bit embarrassed to admit the truth: he had collided with a turtle. He let the slowest beast in the ocean get the best of him.

The scrape wasn’t Healey’s first and certainly won’t be his last. Spend a little time with the waterman and he’ll rattle off the catalogue of injuries that come with the title. “I split my kneecap in half,” he says. “I broke my heel. I broke my ribs a bunch of times and separated my sternum. Broke my nose. Broke my hand…”

But there’s a method to the madness. “I’m not afraid of a good old-fashioned bender, that’s for sure. I’m a man of extremes,” he says. “As long as you punish yourself afterwards — I call it crime and punishment. If I go have a weekend in New York City, then it’s gonna be a week of beach training when I get back.”