The Sunday Times
Fish-kebab – the art of spearfishing
For those unfamiliar with the sport, it could seem like something straight out of the history books, but spearfishing is an evolved activity enjoyed by many in Western Australia’s waters.
Traditionally restricted to shallow water, spearfishing in its modern form now involves freediving in deep water and using equipment such as a speargun to catch fish.
“Spearfishing in its truest form is breathhold freediving and spearfishing, so that can be using a speargun or a polespear – a gidgee,” WA Undersea Club president Rory MacLeod said.
“I started as a kid snorkelling and using a gidgee, and then I was lucky enough to start learning from some people.”
What was a hobby for the large part of 20 years has become more of a serious pursuit for Mr MacLeod over the last decade, who said, as an alternative to casting out a line and waiting for a catch, spearfishing was more fulfilling.
“I was pretty keen on my fishing and enjoyed spearfishing, but the joy you get out of being in the water the whole day instead of sitting on a boat is just so much more rewarding,” he said.
“One of the advantages of spearfishing is how selective it is. So, you can swim past a hundred fish or a thousand fish in a day which are legal to catch, but you have the choice of which one, if any, you want to catch. There is no bycatch or damage to any other fish.”
In comparison to line fishing, Mr MacLeod said spearfishing was a more sustainable and humane practice.
“Putting it into perspective, line fishing is sort of tiring the fish out and it’s quite a relatively long, drawn out process,” he said.
“Spearfishing, you aim for a shot that’s an instant kill shot. That doesn’t always happen, but within a matter of seconds usually you’ll have that fish in your hands and you’re able to brain spike – or ikijime – the fish, which kills it straight away.
“Ikijime is probably the most humane way of dispatching a fish.”
For those interested in spearfishing, Mr MacLeod said a good start was to just get comfortable in the water.
“It will change from person to person and their experience, but if you start with snorkelling and then get comfortable in water – holding your breath underwater – that’s always a good start,” he said.
“Start with the basics and fall in love with the water before getting into spearfishing.
“Finding people to dive with is the main thing, so reaching out to your friend groups or joining clubs is a good way.”
The oldest spearfishing club based in Perth, WA Undersea Club has about 350 financial members and, thanks to Recfishwest, has been able to subsidise freediving courses for its members.
“We’ve put a little over 100 people through freediving safety courses, and we’ve got another three years’ worth of funding to subsidise the freediving safety courses as well,” Mr MacLeod said.
“A freediving safety course teaches you how to save dive buddies during shallow water blackout.”
The biggest risk of spearfishing and freediving, according to Mr MacLeod, it is imperative that those who undertake the sport understand how to avoid shallow water blackout.
“A shallow water blackout happens when you’re approaching the surface. It happens from a drop in the partial pressure of oxygen as the air in your lungs – the gas in your lungs – expands again,” he said.
“So it will actually suck out when you’re already low on oxygen at depth and, approaching the surface, your lungs expand again and there is no oxygen to fill them.
“Divers are lost throughout WA and Australia every year to shallow water blackout.
“They’re always worried about sharks and shark attacks, but it would be rare to have a dive and not see a shark. Shallow water blackout is probably the biggest risk.”
Blessed with a world-class coastline, WA is a spearfishing enthusiast’s playground.
“We’ve got some of the best fishing and spearfishing in the world right on our doorstep,” Mr MacLeod said.
“Around Rottnest is an incredible spot, when you think about it locally, but up north around Exmouth and down south around Albany have to be my favourites.
“You can dive all through the year. We tend to get the best weather and the most opportunity to go out around this time of the year – so, March, April and May.”
Mr MacLeod encouraged anyone who loved being in the water and fishing to give it a go.
“The things you see under the water on a daily basis are incredible and something that not many people are lucky enough to experience,” he said.