SPEARFISHING TEACHES ONE SPORTSMAN WHAT IT MEANS TO BE BOTH PREDATOR AND PREY
SPEARFISHING IS ONE OF THE PUREST, MOST CHALLENGING FORMS OF HUNTING IMAGINABLE—A WATERY DANCE OF PREDATOR AND PREY IN WHICH THE FISH HOLD A DISTINCT ADVANTAGE. ONE INTREPID WRITER TOOK THE PLUNGE.
THERE HE IS: three feet long with a toothed fin that tears through the water. At first, he’s little more than a shadow, a sloped, heavy profile in a cloud of reef fish. Then a shaft of sunlight hits his flank, and a flash of red catches my eye: snapper. I inch slowly into range, raise my spear gun, and take aim. I’m 40 feet deep on a waning breath of air, and my lungs begin to burn in protest. But I’m not leaving without dinner.
I’ve traveled halfway across the Pacific to the Marshall Islands in search of a challenge, a fair fight. Anyone can cast a line, crack a beer, and hope for a bite. Ninety-nine percent of rod-and-reel work is waiting, interrupted by the rare frenzy of a fish on the line. The biggest danger? Sunburn. For anyone seeking a truer test, there’s no better option than grabbing a speargun and taking the fight to the fish.
Spearfishing is one of the most honest and physically demanding forms of hunting, one that requires you to face your prey on its terms. In a modern world that values comfort and convenience, the sport is rigorously archaic, a way to tap into the eons-old struggle between man and nature our ancestors faced when they stabbed their dinner with sharpened sticks. It’s just you, the air in your lungs, and a glorified rubber-band gun in your hand.
At its purest, the sport is a breath-holding affair. Scuba tanks are bad form; plus, bubbles spook the fish. So before my trip, I spend three days in a pool where I’m taught proper form and the art of “breathing up”—taking quick inhalations to fill my airways. The hardest part is coping with the sizzle that racks my lungs. It’s an unnatural state, but one I gradually adapt to. After a few days, I’m holding for three minutes and hitting 80 feet.
As with any worthy endeavor, the consequences of failure while spearfishing are harsh. Stay down too long and you’ll black out and drown; spear a target incorrectly and it could swim around you and tangle you in your own line, leaving you cocooned and helpless. Fire a shot into the flank of a 200-pound fish and prepare to be dragged through the deep. And then there are the sharks. You aren’t the only predator in the water nursing a bloodlust. That said, if I wanted things safe, I’d stick to the shore.
Or that’s what I tell myself as I perch on a catamaran in the Marshall Islands. Surrounded by 750,000 square miles of ocean and composed of 29 atolls, the area may be the world’s fishiest. This island country near the equator has also established itself as the world’s largest shark sanctuary. They’re here for the fish—just like me.
We set anchor at a reef pass where the atoll’s lagoon flows into an unpredictable ocean. From a depth of five feet, the area drops to infinity, and I’m confronted with the fact that I’m about to join a food chain in which I don’t sit at the top. But I silence the voice in my head and jump in.
A four-foot gray shark greets me as I hit the water. Grays are generally mellow, but I’m glad to be holding my speargun, four feet long, cocked and ready, bands taut as tendons. Weighing roughly eight pounds, it can hit targets up to 15 feet away but is most accurate at close range.
I head downward, body streamlined, chin tucked, kicking my fins as a weight belt pulls me deeper. My ears pop, and I hit the “sink stage,” the point at which pressure overcomes buoyancy and the dive becomes a smooth glide.
This ocean is teeming. Green and blue parrotfish caper along on the reef; butterfly fish flutter through the coral. There are lots of options, but the goal isn’t to blast everything in sight. Rather, it’s to find that one fish that’s going to make the best meal. I hover, searching for a target, but a gagging in my throat indicates it’s time to surface.
The sport is as exhausting as it is invigorating: I see more action in 20 minutes than in a week of fishing. I develop a routine: two-minute-long dives between 30 and 50 feet, then three minutes of rest. Hours pass without a worthy target. Then the snapper appears. My spear releases with a hollow gulp. It hits just below the gills; blood and scales erupt in the water. A blacktip reef shark, sensing the kill twitching at the end of my spear, noses up from the depths. But he’s 20 feet below, and this is my prize. I kick to the surface, gasping. Air never felt so sweet; dinner, I’m sure, will never taste this good.