Updated on March 24, 2017
I know you guys have missed me, ever curious about the trials of Michu the Boat Contortionist. Yes, in spite of paying $1200 to get the rear main seal replaced and installing an airsep, the diesel is still leaking way too much oil. In retrospect, the 180 amp alternator is overkill; but I have to admit I like fully charging the batteries in one hour of run time. The solar is working out very nicely. However: this post is not about boat systems, maintenance underway, or the persistent leak in the V berth that leaves the foot of my bed soaked after every passage.
There is a reason the hunter is an archetype, but I must admit, during my shore-based life I never really got it. I went hunting a couple of times, but never pulled the trigger on a deer; they are just too pretty. I helped a friend clean his, and it was a lot of work. I did enjoy shooting small birds the couple of times I did it, but I would never have considered myself a hunter.
Now that has all changed. Something about hunting fish has awoken my inner hunter.
I knew before we left Wisconsin that I wanted to try spearfishing. I had done it twice before; once in Florida, and another time in Cuba. Both of those times, I was lousy. I was using borrowed band-powered spearguns—they are like really long, underwater handguns. My hit rate on those trips was less then ten percent, and what I hit was disappointing; when I got to the surface everything was 25% smaller then when viewed through the dive mask. Still, in those trips, there was something to the weightless three-dimensional nature of being underwater—also the limit imposed by the length of holding one breath. In the Bahamas, triggered spearguns are illegal; you can hunt with a Hawaiian sling, which is like an underwater slingshot that shoots a three foot metal spear, or a pole spear. Previous to our departure, I spent a fair amount of time in the spearfishing section of the internet. I decided I was going to wait on buying a one-hundred-to-a-zillion dollar triggered gun until I knew what I was doing, and until I’d left the Bahamas (laws). Also, I know I miss a lot, and I didn’t want to lose a bunch of Hawaiian sling spears, which are about $40 each in the Bahamas, so I went with the lowly and simple pole spear.
I bought two: a three-foot fiberglass model for T, and a six-foot aluminum job with a wicked slip tip for myself. Now that I am hunting, I use them both (but we still say the small one is T’s). The pole spears have a band of surgical tubing attached to the butt end; you loop this through your hand and stretch it toward the tip of the spear, grasping the shaft of the spear. Now it is “loaded”. To fire, simply point it at your target and release your grip. The range is about the length of the spear; however, with the longer spear, the fish sees it coming and may have time to get out of the way. Closer is better.
Here is how it goes now. There is a new factor when considering anchorages. In addition to wind and wave protection, beauty, depth, and proximity to shore-based services, I now scan the chart for any marked coral heads, under water rocky areas, or drop-offs nearby which may have good hunting. As I drive around in the dinghy, I almost always have my mask with me; if I see a promising-looking dark spot in the water, I don the mask and stick my head under to check it out. If the family is with me, I don’t necessarily slow down; I just check it out, and make mental notes for later (nice overhang may have a grouper; school of yellow snapper near the soft coral; nice deep crack that may be hiding lobster or crab). In the Bahamas, nobody blinks an eye when you show up to a restaurant/gas station/market/church with a wet head and salt water running down the back of your neck.
Later, I grab my full kit and head back to the spots or go look for new ones. Ideally, I do this with a partner. Deb is not into it, so this is usually a dad from one of the other boats. My friend Miguel from Mafalda shares my passion, so we hunt a lot, but sometimes I go alone if people have other commitments (boat repairs, home schooling kids, or other family activities) or if there is no one else around. When I am by myself, I am much more conservative with bottom time and tolerance for swimming with other predators.
Dingy over to the chosen spot and drop the anchor. Wet suit on. Weight belt on (8 pounds with wet suit, 6 pounds without). Fins on. Look up, mentally relax, become conscious of my breath. Spit in mask, rinse. Mask on. Grab spear. Relax. Roll into ocean. In the mask, peripheral vision is very limited; 360-degree scan to make sure nothing big is nearby. Swim over and dive on the dinghy anchor and make sure it is well set. Another 360-degree scan. Surface and swim over hunting ground. Hang, watch all of the reef life respond to a human presence—they know what you are about. Consciously relax every muscle progressively from head to toe. Breath and hang. Identify potential targets—lobster antenna sweeping out from under a ledge, the hole where a grouper went is hiding. Identify danger—lion fish in the lobster crack, spotted moray eel near the grouper, nurse shark sitting on the bottom. If there are no barracuda, there soon will be. Deep breath. Spear held lightly, not loaded. Abandon thoughts of success. Clear ears. Dive. Glide. Hold onto a rock or hover near the bottom. Accept the lack of oxygen. Focus on the details. Let the fish acclimate to your presence. Maybe a snapper gets curious and swims by. Load the spear. No thoughts of success. Relax. Release. Contact. Ascend with a 360-degree scan. Look up, clear snorkel. Breathe. Spear up, fish out of the water, return to dinghy.
I may someday hunt with a speargun or a sling, but I will never give up the pole spear. There is an intimacy and direct attachment to the weapon that I doubt can be found elsewhere. I have to get very close to my prey, ideally less then three feet. Once the fish is shot its struggle is transmitted directly through the spear into my arm. At this time I am acutely aware that I am killing a living thing, so I give a small prayer of thanks and acknowledge the animal that is dying to provide food to my family.
After the first kill, there will be a barracuda somewhere nearby. They like to hang out 30–40 feet away, roughly circling your position; often they are between you and the sun, or directly behind your head in your six o’clock position. They look really mean, with rows of needle-sharp teeth. They are not so much interested in me as in any fish I might wound that gets away. I think of them as hungry stay dogs. Sometimes, one gets a little too close; in those cases, I point my loaded spear at him and I think loudly “I will kill you and eat you” and then they back off. I have yet to see a large, aggressive barracuda. I try to read each situation; if I feel threatened, I get out of the water. I am convinced the fish can read my intent. I try to maintain a very zen approach. As soon as I get excited about catching fish, two things happen: one, the fish know I am excited and they all swim away; and two, I burn through my held breath very fast and cannot create opportunities for a good shot.
Sharks: in my mind there are two kinds, nurse sharks and all the others. I try to choose times to hunt that are less shark-active, usually between 10am to 2pm. We have adopted a rule from some fellow cruisers, and do not generally swim after 4pm—or, as we call it, shark o’clock. Nurse sharks are really docile; I am not sure what you have to do to piss one off. I once shot over the back of one to get a large royal crab; and the shark didn’t move at all (Miguel thought I was crazy). I have seen some large reef sharks, and one medium-large bull shark. They show up after a group off us have a lot of success. I have yet to have one approach me; they have all just done drive-byes. Sometimes they go into the barracuda pattern; then I keep an eye out and swim backwards toward the dingy with my spear unloaded, holding it between me and the shark, looking around to make sure there are not more. (From what we’ve been told by park rangers, sharks pick up on the metal from the spear and stay away.) One time we saw a very large reef shark swim past us while hunting, not even a little interested in us—he was on his way someplace else. I get out of the water if the big guys show up.
When we left, I was sure my main off-the-boat physical activity was going to be kiteboarding; the thing is, I am not that good at kiteboarding (yet—don’t worry Tim, I’ll get there), so I want an onshore breeze to push me home, and that is not where we anchor. I have yet to have an easy walk to the right spot; so until I get that dialed in, I’ll have to live with spear fishing.