Nearly twenty years ago (Wow! I can’t believe it’s been that long!), I was hired by Stuff Magazine (the off-shoot of Maxim) to pen an article about an incredible extreme sport that had been around for years but was really just starting to gain mainstream attention: blue water hunting. Essentially big game spearfishing. Or, as some like to refer to it, spearfishing on steroids.
At the time of the assignment, I was well versed in the sport of spearfishing, but on a much lesser scale. My mom grew up on Longboat Key in Sarasota, Florida (on the Gulf Coast) and I spent a lot of time there as a kid. I learned to swim before I learned to walk, and I was snorkeling before I learned my ABCs. I was still in single digits the first time I picked up a pole spear, soon graduated to a Hawaiian sling, and by my early teens I had become quite adept with a speargun. But let’s be clear—that was a simple single-band gun, relatively low on power, but strong and accurate enough for taking smallish reef fish and the like. Fish that would yield a nice sandwich or a single serving of ceviche. My biggest catch was a four- or five-pound grouper, taken about 15-feet down, and at the time it seemed like a monster harvested from the depths. Attempting to take anything bigger, or going deeper to get it, was an alien thought. So when I embarked on the blue water hunting story, and what would ultimately become a lesson in self-discovery, I really had no idea what I was in for. Here is the story that reignited my passion for spearfishing, and the magic of the ocean realm.
Roughly a half-mile from shore, I cruise leisurely across the ocean’s surface, satiating my lungs via snorkel. My probing eyes stare forever downward into the blue abyss, searching for a shape… The right shape; the shape that will result in my name being added to the list of world record holders. Simultaneously, I’m on constant lookout for another shape… The wrong shape; the shape that can result in my name being added to the list of fatalities.
My “uniform” is a blue-green camouflage wetsuit. On my weight belt, a pair of sea shears to free myself from kelp or fishing line. In a rubber scabbard on my calf, a titanium knife to quickly dispatch wounded prey. And in my hands, a monstrosity of a weapon—a custom-made 67-inch “big game” speargun made of teak wood. Courtesy of the power generated by four magnum-sized rubberbands, it can shoot a six-foot long, 3/8-inch thick stainless steel, stiletto-pointed, surgically sharp shaft through a car door, let alone the muscular torso of a 500-pound gamefish.
Fully equipped, I am ready for battle.
Then, a momentary flicker in the fathoms below catches my eye. In an instant, the information is processed. My brain tells me it’s the right shape. I suck in a deep breath, fill my lungs to capacity, and dive beneath the surface. Long, rigid fins propel me quickly to a depth of sixty feet where I level off and wait. My head swivels left and right like a radar dish, eyes wide and alert, waiting for the shape to return and, hopefully, come within range of my speargun—the speargun I now clutch tighter, my index finger ready on the trigger mechanism.
At this moment, I am both predator and prey. I have willingly become part of the food chain in order to accomplish a theoretically simple yet realistically incredible feat—to stalk and kill one of the denizens of the deep on its own turf. The sensations resulting from this duality can only be described as euphoric. Excitement of the hunt causes adrenaline to surge through my bloodstream. Fear of the unknown causes bile to pool in the pit of my stomach. I know my brain is more advanced than any creature I may encounter in this aquatic world, yet I also know my body is fragile in comparison to the beasts I hunt—and those I desperately want to avoid.
Sixty seconds have passed. My brain repeatedly reminds me that I don’t have gills. I’m just a visitor here. An outsider. More than that, an interloper. And failure to acknowledge that fact could easily result in permanent residency. But the beauty of the sea is mind-numbing, a harsh contrast to the “improved” world above in which I dwell. Ditto for the sounds. It’s a quiet magic that’s almost impossible to describe; it simply must be experienced to truly appreciate. Then there’s the sound inside my head—an odd voice begging me to surface and feed my lungs. Suddenly, another voice interrupts. This voice is louder, more authoritative. It doesn’t give a shit about my lack of air, or the carbon dioxide building up in my bloodstream. This voice is alarmed by the other presence in the water.
My head swivels to find this other presence but my eyes see nothing. Searching… Searching… Something must be out there, for my subconscious doesn’t lie. It’s that last little bit of “reptile brain” left over from before we walked upright.
Still searching, still noth—
There! Behind and below me. Coming up fast. Dark. Much bigger than me. The wrong shape! Shit. No chance out-swimming it, I begin swinging the speargun towards it, but the water offers resistance. Too much resistance. And the shape is closing in. Freakishly fast, and with such little effort. It’s both beautiful and horrifying. When it’s less than a foot away, and the tip of my spear is pointing nowhere close to where it needs to be, I’m reminded of exactly how helpless I am in this alien world.
But luck was on my side this time. The shape passes without incident. The eight-foot mako shark and I exchange glances with barely a six-inch buffer. No doubt it was laughing at the “brown cloud” behind me. Midway through my post-traumatic prayer session, where I repeatedly thanked the “higher powers” for quelling the man-eating shark’s curiosity and/or hunger, I heard that first voice again. This time it wasn’t so quiet. Who am I kidding? It was fucking screaming at me, and I dutifully heed the warning. After a quintet of hard kicks, my snorkel breaks the surface. I expel water from the tube, suck air into my lungs and, after my heart rate returns to some semblance of normalcy, I resume my leisurely cruise across the ocean’s surface, eyes staring downward, searching for a shape…
Faint-hearted beware, for the sequence I just described is a commonality for those who participate in an activity that is exploding in popularity around the world. It’s called blue water hunting and, in my not-so-humble opinion, it is without question the most extreme of all the so-called “extreme” sports.
Perhaps best described as spearfishing on steroids, blue water hunting is drastically different than traditional spearfishing. Spearfishers (or spearos as they’re often referred to) hunt in reasonably shallow water, usually around coral reefs and other structures, where the ocean floor can be used as a point of reference. Blue water hunters tread where the bottom is unreachable, unless your downward journey has been scheduled as a one-way trip. And where traditional spearfishers target smallish, easily located schooling and reef-dwelling fish, blue water hunters stalk pelagic species—fish that are here today and gone tomorrow. Fish that can make those who hunt them quickly wish they took up more benign sports like tennis or golf. Wahoo, marlin and tuna are some of the more sought-after trophies; any and all of them are more than capable of delivering those who hunt them to Davy Jones’ Locker.
One common thread shared by traditional spearos and blue water hunters—beyond the basic principle of taking fish with some form of spear or speargun—is that both groups prefer freediving to using scuba gear. However much air they can suck into their lungs is all they get per trip beneath the waves. When that air supply is gone, it’s either surface or become crab food. Some of the upper echelon spearos can stay down three to four minutes, descending to depths of 120 feet or more. Extremists like Francisco “Pipin” Ferreras and Manny Puig have stayed under in the realm of five minutes.
But if you think blue water hunters have only to hold their breath, locate their prey, sink a spear into its side, return topside, jump into a boat and pull it in, guess again. Only fish fought and subdued in the water will qualify as a potential world record. Oftentimes, that entails getting towed by the skewered sea-beast for hundreds, even thousands of yards before the fish is worn down enough to “brain it” with a dive knife or kill it with a second shot. Instantaneous kill shots (aka “stone shots”) are rare. So when the harpoon connects, the fun is just beginning. And taking into account that large tuna have been known to “cook” themselves on the inside as a result of their tremendous exertions after being speared, consider what the spearo at the other end of the shooting line is going through just to hang on!
Just ask Jay Riffe, whose company, Riffe International, manufactures some of the finest “production custom” spearguns on the planet. While hunting in Mexican waters at San Benedicto Island, Jay connected with a gigantic yellowfin tuna. The spear missed the spine and the huge fish took off. Jay barely managed to grab hold of his last float at the end of the 300-foot line as the gear raced by. The wounded tuna towed Jay through the ocean for nearly an hour before slowing. But just when he thought it was over, the finned behemoth took off again, sending buoys under the waves. The tuna went much too deep for Jay to stay in the fight, forcing him to let go. On the surface, Jay and his spotters searched for hours but saw nothing. With darkness closing in, Jay was about to give up, believing the spear had torn free and the giant fish had either escaped or died and sunken into the depths. Suddenly, the red floats returned. The chase boat sped to the buoys. Jay jumped back into the water and began the arduous task of hauling the monstrous fish up. When the tuna was within thirty feet of the surface, Jay dove down to issue the coup de grace. “The shot was good, and the fish instantly turned color and died,” Jay explained. When it was weighed in, Jay had himself a new world record—277.9 pounds!
But giant gamefish don’t always cooperate by swimming away from you after they’re speared. In some cases, they want revenge. International Bluewater Spearfishing Records Committee (IBSRC) world record holder Paulo Gaspar—for his 655.2 pound Atlantic bluefin tuna—was charged by a giant tuna he was stalking. Capable of speeds nearing 55 mph, had the big fish hit him, it would have been Paulo on the tuna’s mantle.
Kansas City native Jeff Wyatt, who learned how to spearfish hunting lake-dwelling bass and carp, learned the drastic difference in aggressive tendencies between freshwater species and those that occupy the open ocean. On his first-ever blue water hunting trip, to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, Jeff shot a striped marlin he estimated to be about 150 pounds. But instead of racing into the depths, the marlin turned and attacked him. Not only did it sever the line attached to his float, it carved a large chunk of flesh out of his right thigh. Still not satisfied, the big billfish came back for more. “This time, it went for my chest. Luckily, I was able to fend it off with my speargun at the last moment.” After that attempt, it raced off, taking his spear and about 200 feet of line with it. Jeff went home with twenty-seven stitches and a bottle of painkillers. “I think I’ll stick to carp,” he said of the encounter.
The dangers faced by blue water hunters are innumerable. While the species they pursue can kill them deader than Elvis, either by attack or drowning from a shooting line tangle, there are many other hazards that must be dealt with.
Strong currents can tire you in short order or sweep you off into oblivion, beyond sight of your chase boat. Underwater debris like kelp or fishing line can snag you and make surfacing difficult or impossible. Hypothermia—the cooling of your body’s core temperature—can cause serious problems, often affecting you over a period of days (progressive Hypothermia), even when wetsuits are used.
Watercraft enthusiasts can also pose a serious threat. Terry Maas, the Godfather of blue water hunting and author of the seminal book on the sport, Blue Water Hunting and Freediving, was run over by a motorboat in Sardinia while preparing for the world championships. But the danger isn’t only from larger boats. Some jet-skiers have been known to treat floating dive markers as slalom courses.
Shallow water blackout—a condition in which a freediver becomes unconscious when his brain is deprived of oxygen—can come on without warning and claim the life of an experienced diver just as easily as a beginner’s. Veteran blue water hunter Bill Kroll fell victim to a condition he had most assuredly warned younger, less experienced freedivers about. At the time of his death, Kroll was President of the Long Beach Neptunes, arguably the most prestigious freediving and spearfishing club in the world.
Some ocean-going non-gamefish can cause just as many problems as their targeted brethren. A bite from a poisonous sea snake kills in less than thirty seconds. Clouds of stinging jellyfish, such as the Portuguese man of war, can paralyze should they come in contact with unprotected skin. Giant clams have been known to pin freedivers in their vice-like jaws, and fire coral can cause burning on par with napalm wounds.
And then there are sharks.
No single word strikes fear into a freediver’s heart the way “shark” does. While most of the ocean’s oldest predators are viewed by blue water hunters as fellow hunters and potential risks that need to be respected—and avoided—only a small percentage of species are known man-eaters. But when gamefish and blood are in the water—two ingredients common to blue water hunting—chances are one of those species is lurking nearby.
Of the sharks that prey on humans, whether by choice or by accident, none is more famous—or infamous—than the great white. In 1973, Al Schneppershoff, then one of the best blue water hunters in California, if not the world, was attacked and killed by a great white shark while spearfishing off Guadalupe Island, Mexico, a small volcanic island 150 miles off the west coast of the Baja Peninsula.
While there are numerous other shark attacks on record, those who have encountered “the white death” with nary a scratch seem to agree that spotting the ferocious fish first makes a big difference as to whether or not “unfriendly interaction” will occur.
The same goes for tiger sharks. Generally smaller than white sharks, but no less aggressive—they’ve been known to eat each other in the womb!—tigers also prefer the “sneak attack” technique. Good thing Terry Maas was fully aware of his surroundings while hunting the waters of San Benedicto Island, the same area Jay Riffe shot his world record tuna.
Terry was thirty feet down when a big tiger rocketed up at him from the depths. When it was four feet away, its cavernous mouth opened wide, exposing row upon row of razor sharp teeth. Terry fired reflexively; to this day, he doesn’t recall pulling the trigger. But the shot was true, the speartip lodging deep in the shark’s head, smack between the eyes. Terry quickly surfaced, hopped in his skiff, and proceeded to pull in the mortally wounded, 1,000-pound man-eater. Although he regrets the event took place, the tiger’s mammoth jaws now adorn one of the walls in his study, a testimonial to the battle fought beneath the waves.
Sadly, until a tried-and-true shark repellent is created, shark attacks on freedivers and blue water hunters will continue. Many predatory sharks feed at or near the surface—seals and sea lions are a big part of their diet, especially great whites—and freedivers must repeatedly return to the surface to breathe, hence the conflict.
So with all the perils associated, why do it? Why risk death—and the strong possibility of a gruesome demise—for a sport?
According to Chad Mayweather, newbie to blue water hunting, “If you have to ask, you’ve obviously never tried it.” A certified scuba diver with over a decade of experience, Chad recently exchanged his tank and regulator for a snorkel. “I hear things down there I’ve never heard before. And the colors of the fish I’m hunting… Blues, yellows, greens, silvers—I think I see them more clearly because I don’t have the luxury of looking at them for a long period of time. Right now, I can only hold my breath for about ninety seconds, but in those ninety seconds I see more than I used to during a full day of diving.”
As for blue water hunting’s stalk-and-kill aspect, hunting is in our nature. Spearfishing has been around since Man first set foot in the ocean and realized there were creatures in there he could eat. The moment he learned to fashion some form of spear, he was off and swimming. It’s here that I should mention—if only to piss off the anti-hunting, anti-fishing, anti-everything community—the strong resource conservation ethic shared by all those who engage in spearfishing and blue water hunting. Spearos account for far less than one percent of all fish harvested from our oceans each year. The sport’s methods allow participants to be extremely selective, thus protecting the marine environment for future generations. It is not uncommon for spearos to spend hours in the water without ever taking a shot. But that’s the essence of blue water hunting: the journey into an environment largely unchanged over millions of years. You never know what you’re going to see. To claim a prize fish in the process is an added bonus.
Conservation issues aside, the sport of blue water hunting offers incredible adventures. And it’s attracting people from all walks of life. Hollywood celebrities and superstar professional athletes are no strangers to the big blue. World kick-boxing champion and action film star Dennis Alexio is an avid blue water hunter. He’s also a world record holder—a 131-pound giant trevally taken in Hawaii.
From my own experiences, nothing compares to the feeling you get when you spot your prey, line up a shot, squeeze the trigger, brace for your speargun’s recoil, and watch as your speartip makes solid contact with the vital zone of a trophy fish. Suddenly, your mind comes alive…
Will the spear hold?
Is it a record?
Where are the sharks?
And finally, I need to surface.
Only when the fish has been fully subdued and you’ve wrapped a rope around its tail can you breathe a little easier—and even then the battle isn’t over. Sharks and barracudas can quickly reduce your trophy to little more than a skeleton until its hoisted clear of the brine. If you’ve read or seen the film version of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, you know exactly what I’m referring to.
Finally, when that finned beast slams down on the boat’s deck and the crowd gathers to revel in your accomplishment, only then can you take a moment to appreciate what you’ve just accomplished. And when that moment has passed, chances are you’re chomping at the bit to get back into the water and start searching for a shape.
The above article appeared in Stuff’s fourth issue, in September of 1999. Alyssa Milano was on the cover. The feedback I received was incredible, and most thought I had done their sport (their lifestyle!) justice. That was of paramount importance to me, because true blue water hunters are not egocentric showboaters. They’re hunting and exploring for their own satisfaction, not simply to impress their buddies. Should a high-five or a world record result from their catch, all good. But that’s not what they’re about. More than anything, I wanted them to know that I truly appreciated their willingness to share their stories and open the door to their world—a world I hoped to get accepted into someday.
Emboldened by this possibility, I was committed to becoming a more competent spearo. I began practicing breath-holds religiously, and started taking my hunts into deeper water. Within a year of the article’s publication, I found myself in the very same waters where Terry Maas’s good friend, Al Schneppershoff, had met his fate. Little did I know that Guadalupe Island would become a major scientific research locale and tourist attraction for those keen on looking great white sharks in the eyes—albeit from the safety of a cage. Indeed, years later, I would do just that, joining Paul “Doc” Anes and the San Diego Shark Diving (http://sdsharkdiving.com/) crew on one of their legendary white shark trips.
But on this occasion there would be no cage—and some might say no sanity. It was just me and a man-sized speargun, hunting for a tuna that might qualify for the record books—or at the very least keep me in high-grade sashimi for a month. But it wasn’t the fish that had motivated me to come here, it was the challenge, as if Neptune himself had thrown down the gauntlet. Hunting here was about proving to myself that I belonged in the fraternity of blue water hunters. That I could quell my fear of hunting in waters where I couldn’t see the bottom—where anything could be swimming up at me at any given moment—and I could somehow maintain my faculties to accomplish the task at hand. And, uh, oh yeah, absolutely enjoy every moment of it. For if I couldn’t… If the adventure proved too taxing on my mind… Too all-encompassing to handle… Then I should simply resign myself to small fish and shallow water and leave the big game to the real spearos.
Within a few minutes of being in the water I discovered I was not alone. Not one, not two, but three great white sharks had joined the mix. All were in the ten- to twelve-foot range, and the closest was about twenty yards away. How they had gotten so close without me noticing them prior… Freakin’ ghosts of the abyss! Slowly but quickly (if that makes sense) I began making my way back to the boat, roughly forty yards away. I wanted to signal to my friends, but I was afraid to take my face out of the water. From everything I had learned, if you kept your eyes on the sharks, and the sharks knew you were watching them, you had a better chance of avoiding an attack. There were no guarantees, of course, but anything I could do at that moment to up my survival odds—including the silently uttered prayers—believe me, I was gonna do it!
Suddenly, the three sharks scattered and quickly disappeared into the blue. It was amazing to see creatures so large move off so fast with just a flick of their tails. So amazing, in fact, that it momentarily escaped me that apex predators usually don’t flee the scene unless a more fearsome predator is around. And then it dawned on me…
More fearsome predator.
Thoughts of Steve Alten’s book, Meg, about a Carcharodon megalodon—a prehistoric, bigger than a schoolbus great white shark—flooded my brain and my fear began to turn into genuine panic.
And that’s when I saw it. Even from a distance, it was unmistakable.
A freakin’ killer whale.
I was in awe. I was mesmerized. And I was on the verge of having another “brown cloud” moment. While I hadn’t heard of any killer whale attacks on humans in the wild, the “killer” component of its name still registered.
But the orca swam right by me without a care in the world, its large eye checking me out for an instant as it cruised past. “You owe me one,” it seemed to say, referring to the great whites it had chased off. When I got back to the boat and got my hyperventilating under control—and used the bathroom!—the reality of what had just occurred set in. My memory’s a bit hazy here but I think I might have cried a little.
Less than a week later I was lying prone on a padded table in Roni Zulu’s Los Angeles body art studio, Zulu Tattoo, as an insanely talented and pretty tattoo artist named Tinker applied a large tribal orca tattoo to my back. My experience with the orca was not only forever etched into my memory—it was etched into my soul, and I thought it only right to properly honor the beast that may have saved my life by inking its likeness into my skin.
As I said at the beginning, blue water hunting gave me a profound appreciation for not just the ocean, but for life, itself. I will be forever grateful.