HONOLULU -- A Hawaii environmentalist found herself in danger last week when an aquarium fisherman spotted her taking video of him in deep water, rushed toward her and ripped the air supply out of her mouth, according to footage of the incident and eyewitnesses.
Rene Umberger, director of Maui-based For the Fishes, told Honolulu Civil Beat that she was 50-feet underwater off the coast of the Big Island when the attack occurred and that a less experienced diver could have easily died.
“The average person would likely have died because A, that kind of extreme stress can cause someone to panic underwater and B, once your air source has been removed, if you can’t find it in time to put it back in, most people panic and shoot to the surface,” she said.
Coming up too quickly from such depths can result in a lethal air embolism, in which an air bubble blocks a blood vessel.
Umberger, who has done more than 10,000 dives off of Hawaii, says it took her between 10 to 30 seconds to locate her displaced regulator, which provides air.
The video shows the fisherman then return to the reef where several others were collecting fish.
Umberger was diving off the coast of Kona with several other anti-aquarium trade activists at the time, who also captured footage of the event, including Robert Wintner, of Snorkel Bob’s on Maui, and Mike Nakachi, a captain at Aloha Divers on the Big Island.
Umberger says that the group backed away and returned to their boat after the incident.
Hawaii’s Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement, commonly known as DOCARE, is investigating the incident, said Umberger. She says her assailant is believed to be Jay Lovell. Lovell also allegedly filed a complaint against Umberger for “harassing a fisherman.”
Deborah Ward, a spokeswoman for the Department of Land and Natural Resources, which encompasses DOCARE, said that there were two ongoing investigations related to complaints received about incidents off of Kona. She said that the results of the investigations would be turned over to the county prosecutor’s office. She declined to elaborate further.
Lovell could not be reached for comment.
UPDATE: David Dart, an aquarium fisherman in Kona and member of the West Hawaii Fisheries Council, weighed in on the incident after this post was published.
"I don’t condone violent acts," he said. "On the other hand, there is such a thing as harassment too."
You can watch another video of the incident here.
Clarification: Language has been amended to note that the divers' air tanks contain compressed air, not just oxygen.