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Busy executive embraces complicated and sometimes dangerous sport

Kathryn Kelly has been spearfishing since she was a kid.

  • Executive Diversions
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Executive: Kathryn Kelly, 64. She’s the founder, president and CEO of the Heights Foundation, which supports education, wellness, arts and other community development efforts in the Harlem Heights community of Fort Myers. She started the foundation, which recently broke ground on its Heights Early Learning and Education Center, in 2000 after seeing the need in the community during an outreach project conducted over Thanksgiving in 1999.

Diversion: Spearfishing and scuba diving. Kelly grew up in a Fort Myers family of boaters and water enthusiasts. “My dad was born and raised in Key West,” she says. “Water is kind of in the family’s blood.”

Wait her turn: Kelly’s dad started spearfishing in the 1950s. The family only had one speargun, so she had to wait for her dad and brothers to finish with it. “Finally by the end of the day it would be my turn — and then everyone was tired and wanted to go home,” she says. “I learned to be really fast and accurate.”

Comfort level: One can spearfish while snorkeling, but it’s a more limited experience. That’s why Kelly, the first officially certified scuba diver in her family, prefers to spearfish while scuba diving. “You have a longer length of dive,” she says. “But you need to be a comfortable scuba diver. Spearfishing adds whole other layer of complexity.”

Stefania Pifferi. Kathryn Kelly is the founder, president and CEO of the Heights Foundation.
Stefania Pifferi. Kathryn Kelly is the founder, president and CEO of the Heights Foundation.

Targeted outcome: Spearfishing takes a lot of practice and persistence. But the payoff makes it all worth it for Kelly. “I love to fish too, but when you spearfish, you’re actually going down and picking out the fish you want to have for dinner,” she says.

In for the kill: Kelly doesn’t hold back in the water. “You’re spearing a fish that swims 24/7 and is muscular,” she says. “I’ve speared fish that are 400 pounds or more, and if you don’t kill that fish, it’s going to try to swim away and take you with it. The best thing you can do is kill the fish right off the bat, so I always try to make a kill shot.”

Ideal locations: Kelly has gone spearfishing and scuba diving worldwide, including Thailand, Micronesia and Palau. But some of her favorite spots are closer to home. “I love spearfishing in the Gulf of Mexico,” she says. “We have huge fish out there, and it’s almost guaranteed you’re going to get something for dinner. We have natural ledges that are beautiful, and we have artificial reefs that are beautiful.”

I love to fish too, but when you spearfish you’re actually going down and picking out the fish you want to have for dinner.’ Kathryn Kelly

Her second favorite place is, not surprisingly, the Florida Keys. “The water is clear and beautiful,” she says. “The Dry Tortugas are absolutely gorgeous, whether you’re spearfishing or not.”

Nothing to fear: People always ask Kelly if she’s had encounters with sharks. “And the answer is yes because you’re basically chumming underwater,” she says. “I’ve made thousands of dives and have had encounters, but I know the sharks aren’t after me. They’re after the bloody fish I’m carrying around on my weight belt. The shark encounters happen, but it’s tiny compared to the pleasure you get out of it. I wouldn’t let that hold me back from getting in the water. Unless there was a 12-foot hammerhead right underneath the boat — then I might wait.”

Good gear: Kelly has gone through a lot of equipment over the years. She’s partial to pneumatic spearguns that use compressed air. “I have had sharks take two of my favorite guns,” she says. “I like those kinds of guns, but the deeper you go, the less effective they are, and we tend to dive deeper now than we used to, to find fish.” In those cases, she uses a band speargun.

Beneath the surface: In her day job, Kelly oversees a growing and active foundation. When she’s diving, all of that floats away. “You’re usually in amazingly beautiful water, and that part is very relaxing,” she says.

Self-esteem booster: Finding her passion as a kid has helped Kelly throughout adulthood and her career. “I think for me growing up as a girl in Southwest Florida, scuba diving and spearfishing gave me a lot of confidence,” she says. “If I can go out there and spear a really big fish, it gives me a sense of confidence that I can do other things too.”


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