Mark Healey woke before dawn and broke camp in the Maui upcountry. Somewhere in the near distance was a herd of axis deer, widely considered to be among the most beautiful and best-eating venison on earth. They’d been feeding all night in the lower elevations and he knew that after daybreak they’d seek higher altitude to find cover. He needed to move into range before the sun came up and the wind shifted. If the elements remained in his favor, and he managed to arrive in time, he could be back at his truck before noon with 50 pounds of meat in his cooler. If not, he’d be in for a much longer day.
Maui, like all of the Hawaiian Islands, is known for its beaches and big surf, but its lush, steep mountains, slot canyons and wide valleys, much of which are privately owned, can be magic too, thanks to its endemic plant and animal life, and its biodiversity, which like biodiversity worldwide, is under threat. Healey, 39, makes the trek from his home on the North Shore of Oʻahu, where he is a professional surfer, accomplished spear fisherman and stuntman, to the mountains of Maui several times a year. And his motivations run much deeper than the hunt.
Healey hunts to keep his footprint light on the earth, to help protect Maui’s rich and fragile ecology from a proliferating axis deer population, and to be as connected as possible to the harsh reality and all-encompassing beauty that is nature. He hunts because, as he puts it, we’re in an age where most of us don’t feel part of the ecosystem and are removed from the farming and killing that goes into the meals we casually devour. He aims to be just feral enough to read the wind and tides, and the moods and preferences of wild animals, in order to feed himself, his family and his friends, because it’s “the last punk rock thing left.”
As the sun threatened to rise, Healey hustled to a funnel point between the deer’s feeding and bedding grounds. He paused and took slow, deep breaths to settle his heart rate. Then he moved forward into the brush. Slowly, mindfully and as silent as possible. He lay on his belly, peered through his binoculars and marked a small herd under a tree at 100 yards. After covering over two miles relatively quickly, the next 75 yards would take much longer, and end with him in perfect position to take his shot.
Healey was raised on the North Shore of Oʻahu, the mecca of surfing, and before he could walk he was in the water on his dad’s board. Big waves and heavy conditions were normal to him, and he grew up among the best surfers on the planet. By the time he was 13, he was shoulder to shoulder with pros in the line up and routinely dropped into waves six times overhead on the North Shore. On flat days he would swim a half-mile out to sea to spearfish by himself for hours at a time. Older guys respected his dedication, but he was small for his age and few guessed he’d find sponsorships and turn pro.
“I always knew he had the determination,” says Keith Malloy, the pro surfer turned filmmaker, “but to see what he has built for himself, you know, becoming one of the best big wave surfers in the world, and a world-class spear fisherman, and just to watch his approach to it all has been amazing.”
A pro surfer for two decades, Healey has chased swells from Hawai‘i to Mexico, South Africa, California, Tahiti and Fiji, and he always packed a spear. At his home reef, he holds his breath for up to three minutes to spear mū (bigeye bream) or uku (gray snapper), and he does boat dives in the blue water around Tahiti, where he free dives to over 100 feet and holds his breath for nearly two minutes to hunt wahoo (the wahoo in our film was just four pounds shy of the world record). He’s often been forced to fend off tiger and reef sharks to secure his catch while swimming back to the boat or shore.
Healey didn’t pick up his first bow until he was 29 years old. That’s when pro surfer Dave Wassel encouraged him to join him on a wild pig hunt on Oʻahu. Healey felt confident until the pigs showed up.
“You can shoot targets all you want, but the whole dynamic changes when the animal comes out,” Healey says. “And I'm just really fascinated in trying to be able to control myself under that much pressure. I hate not being able to.”
That tension drove Healey to trek back into the mountains again and again, and the better he got with his bow, the more he was drawn toward deer. Because while pigs are also invasive and have done damage to the Hawaiian Islands, the axis deer population on Maui, and the issues they cause, are on a different scale.
The first axis deer were introduced to the Hawaiian Islands in the late 1800s when King Kamehameha V received eight as a gift, and in turn gave them to the island of Moloka‘I to provide islanders with game to hunt. But by 1895, when sharpshooters were called in from California to cull 5,000 head, it was clear that Molokaʻi couldn’t manage its population. Yet in spite of that, in the 1920s, deer were brought over to Lanaʻi by the island’s owner, and then in the mid-twentieth century, the state imported them to Maui, where there is now an estimated population of 60,000 head.
This uncontrolled deer population ravages Maui’s endemic grasslands, which are being replaced by a savannah of invasive grasses that haven’t evolved to capture rain or fog like the native grasses do, and don’t hold the soil nearly as well either. When there’s heavy rain, mud slides downhill to the ocean, where sediment buries once-thriving coral reefs, damaging both coral species and local fisheries. Left unchecked, it's estimated that Maui’s axis deer herd will grow to over 200,000 head within 30 years because the only predators they have are the few men and women who hunt them on the island.
Healey considers himself a “practical environmentalist,” and he estimates he harvests 1,000 pounds of meat a year from the land and sea. That’s more than enough to keep him away from the meat counter and fish market, and detached from the cruelty and environmental harm of meat raised in confined feeding operations, which come with a high carbon footprint and are known to mismanage animal waste in ways that pollute the air and water. And the fish he eats and serves are always caught in one of the most sustainable ways possible — with the tip of his own spear.
His experience as a spear fisherman informed his bow hunting early on. “I was used to being aware of terrain and using it to my advantage, so that was a big leg up. Also, having a general understanding about ripple effects.”
Everything is related, he says, but it’s not always easy to remember that. Healey thinks modern society builds walls to keep nature out, though that’s usually futile. Walls degrade. Plants and animals tend to find a work-around. And he sees businesses and consumers create and use products without considering where they will end up. On a hunt, Healey thinks three steps ahead before he makes a move, because the slightest disturbance can cause a ripple effect that will spook the herd. Everything must be deliberate and intentional for a hunt to be successful. There are probably some useful lessons there for everyday life, which often feels way too fast-casual. Especially when it comes to the waste and environmental abuse generated and tolerated. Healey sees that his connection and intention yield success.
That morning on Maui, it took over an hour of crawling, one inch at a time, for Healey to move into position. His pulse thumped, his brow was slick with sweat, as he rose up onto one knee, nocked an arrow into place, and pulled back on his bow.
“I’ve been real successful,” he says, “but you go through streaks where you’re master and commander of your emotions and adrenaline, and then, all of the sudden, it’s like a light switch went off and you’re a wreck, your hands are shaking so hard, and you have to reel it back in.”
It took less than an hour to butcher the animal. He left the bones and gut pile for pigs to feed on and packed steaks and stew chunks into a soft cooler.
Once back home, he ground some of the meat himself, stocked one of his many freezers, and, as usual, stopped by friends’ houses to share his harvest. That’s standard practice for him after a hunt. Often his gifts are met with both appreciation and a bushel of vegetables from the garden or a basket of fruit from a tree. On an island where up to 90% of food is imported, exchange is like a soft rebellion against the mainstream food system, and a statement that even in 2021, it’s possible to live wild and free, connected to the web of life, yet unafraid to uplift or lean on others. Because to Healey, the punk rock move isn’t just about developing the skills to become self-sufficient. It’s about connecting to nature’s abundance, its interdependence and its regenerative power as often as possible; then sharing the rewards.
“It's about sharing when you got extra,” Healey says. “It's pretty simple, but through that process, you're making the super important community connections. And you realize it’s not just about being self-sustainable. You can’t do it on your own. It's about building a network, a community.”