SPEARFISHING IN THE DEPTHS

Scuba Diver Australasia - - Contents - By Si­mon En­derby

Whilst re­search­ing on the lo­cal Ba­jau Laut or ‘Sea Gypsy’ com­mu­nity for the up­com­ing BBC Hu­man Planet se­ries, I heard tall tales of lo­cal char­ac­ters with seem­ingly su­per-hu­man traits; fish­er­men de­scend­ing deep into the ocean on a sin­gle breath, hunt­ing fish for over five min­utes at a time.

How­ever, af­ter sev­eral vis­its and dives with the Ba­jau, it was clear these were just that: tall tales. That was un­til I met Sul­bin. When we were first in­tro­duced, I was in­stantly drawn to his mod­est de­meanour and shy, but wel­com­ing smile. As he gath­ered his wooden gog­gles and home­made spear gun from his sim­ple hut on Mabul Is­land, off Sabah’s east coast, he seemed gen­uine, yet self-as­sured.

Sul­bin headed straight out to a nearby reef, which in­stantly peaked my in­ter­est as I knew it lay in over 20 me­tres of wa­ter. This would be no easy “first-off freedive” in 5m–10m of wa­ter – depths the other well-known spear fish­er­men had taken me to.

With his spear gun held across his chest, Sul­bin be­gan to walk along the reef with the grace and si­lence of a prowl­ing lion

He took a long last drag from his cheap cig­a­rette and tight­ened his gog­gles. Af­ter a few deep breaths, Sul­bin slipped be­low the waves. In full dive gear and a cam­era in hand, I fol­lowed Sul­bin down to the reef floor.

With his spear gun held across his chest, Sul­bin be­gan to walk along the reef with the grace and si­lence of a prowl­ing lion. He was now neg­a­tively buoy­ant. As he walked amongst the coral, his eyes searched the usual reef res­i­dents for to­day’s fam­ily meal. Be­ing close to the is­land and its myr­iad of fish­er­men, the reef had been un­der in­tense han­d­line fish­ing pres­sure, un­for­tu­nately di­min­ish­ing the se­lec­tion of prized groupers and large pelagic fish.

As the min­utes passed, Sul­bin pushed on and I won­dered whether this would be a fruit­less hunt. Then, just as my dive com­puter showed Sul­bin pass­ing his third minute on a sin­gle breath, he eyed a pair of rab­bit­fish ahead. With not an ounce of fat on his mus­cu­lar frame and his lungs squeezed by the sur­round­ing wa­ter pres­sure, Sul­bin raised his spear gun slowly and took a few more steps be­fore fir­ing.

The spear and flail­ing fish kicked up a puff of sand. As it cleared, Sul­bin reached for­ward and picked up the spear and im­paled fish. He then took one last look around be­fore kick­ing off from the bot­tom with one foot, slowly swim­ming back up to the sun­lit sur­face.

I as­cended with him, in­cred­i­bly im­pressed with what I had seen. We had found our

Hu­man Planet char­ac­ter. Over the course of the next hour, Sul­bin made four more breath­hold dives with his spear gun and came back with two more reef fish: not a big haul in the scheme of things but enough to feed his fam­ily to­day.

When asked how he feels en­ter­ing the sea, Sul­bin sim­ply replied, “if I see fish then I am happy.”

My ad­mi­ra­tion for Sul­bin grew – here was a man go­ing to ex­tra­or­di­nary lengths to take care of his fam­ily. It’s not a spir­i­tual quest, but a mat­ter of sur­vival. When we con­grat­u­lated him on his breath-hold­ing and hunt­ing skills, he smiled shyly and shrugged his shoul­ders.

Sul­bin’s mod­esty and in­cred­i­ble free­d­iv­ing skills trans­lated per­fectly onto screen, with the im­age of him walk­ing along the sea floor be­com­ing a defin­ing im­age for the Hu­man Planet se­ries. And per­son­ally, it was one of my proud­est mo­ments in film-mak­ing.

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