The day I met Galapagos

Posted: June 20, 2010 in Diary of a freediver
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Whale season in Hawaii occurs during the winter months, mainly from mid to late November and tapering off before spring. Lately because of the strange weather that we have been experiencing globally, the season has started later and lasted almost through April!

Whale season also means that spear fishing is not as good, not only because of the weather and rougher sea conditions, but because the whales make so much noise and are so close to shore (in some cases less than 50 yards) that they scare all the fish away! Another factor is that because the whales are mating and giving birth and generally making a commotion in the water, all of this activity attracts sharks. Winter is also when certain shark species mate in Hawaiian waters as well. Needless to say, freediving and spear fishing during this time can be as exciting as it is unproductive.

Yet such things do not deter us. We dive because that is what we do. We connect with nature and graciously accept any gifts that the ocean may offer us. We are humbled by the beauty and power of the sea. The creatures therein are all part of the chain of life that we are also a part of. When we hunt, we take only what we need to sustain us. Perhaps we will take something extra for the older folks who can no longer dive for their favorite fish. Our philosophy is that of the Ancients:  take the medium sized fish and leave the larger ones to reproduce, so that there will be fish for all.

Four of us set out one day to dive a favorite and rather secluded bay on the northwestern part of the Big Island. The area is unusual in that it has a sand bottom, which extends some 300 plus yards from shore until it ends in about 175 feet of water where the outer reef begins. Sand beaches are not common on the Big Island since it is the youngest of all the islands. The northern tip, being the oldest part of this young island, has the highest concentration of sand. Sand bottoms are good for hunting, in that larger fish swim in from the deep and travel along the sand areas looking for an easy meal since there are no places for the smaller fish to hide. Sand is also a place where benthic crustaceans such as crabs and lobster tend to congregate, another food source for hungry fish.

That day I decided to bring my big blue water gun, since we had anticipated swimming out past the sand. It is a 62″ monster of a thing that weighs close to 6 pounds. With the shaft in it, it measures 72″. I had it rigged with 4, 5/8″ bands, which gave it a range of about 30′. This gun is my favorite because it is so accurate. Because of its size I rarely use it on a swim out, only if I’m diving from a boat.

We also decided to bring palu (chum, burly) that consisted of several cans of mackerel mixed with flour and chunks of squid. Palu is good for bringing in fish and keeping them around long enough to get a good shot off. We paired off and entered the water.

The rule when we dove in pairs was that if one person shot a fish, the other would become the spotter. Spotters are crucial when diving in the winter, for obvious reasons.

While we swam out, I took time to assess the fish to see what kind of mood they were in. By observing how the fish are reacting to human presence on any given day, is a fair indicator of how much pressure they may have been experiencing. If the area has recently been visited by other spearfishermen, they may act skittish and swim away into deeper water. The same goes if there have been predatory fish coming in and trying to eat them. It’s a survival thing. Understanding this is key if you want to land any fish. It sounds metaphysical, and it may very well be, but any good hunter attempts to gain a better understanding of their quarry and fish are no different.

Much of the way the fish react has a lot to do with your particular hunting style and frame of mind, as well. If you are desperate to spear a fish, they seem to know this and will not give you a chance to get near them. Fish can sense many things through the water, things that we as humans have long forgotten how to understand.

The fish seemed to be unfazed by us as we headed out toward deeper water. A few e’nenue (highfin chub) swam up to inspect us, then darted off. I began to throw palu into the water as we swam, creating a chum line. Smaller fish came up from the bottom to accept the free meal, which often attracted the attention of the larger fish. Black triggerfish (humuhumu ele’ele) are the scavengers of the ocean and ascend, en masse, upon the falling bait like a flock of ravens.

As I watched this spectacle, I noticed a small school of red goatfish (weke ula) foraging in the sand below with their slender whiskers. They moved like a herd, combing the sea floor in search of anything edible. Goatfish are a prized food fish of much of Polynesia and Asia. The Whitesaddled goatfish or kumu as it is called, is still one of the most highly prized fish in the islands, because of its taste and the fact that they are so difficult to catch.

I kept one eye on the goatfish and the other on the chum, as we continued to swim further and further out into the open ocean. My partner dove on the weke ula and fired a shot, but missed. The fish didn’t seem at all bothered by this and continued feeding, a good sign. As we continued heading out, the depth of the water increased to about 60 feet. At this point I decided to dive down and take a shot on the school of goatfish. As I descend, I slow down and level out at about 40 feet. I noticed that the goatfish were larger than I had initially thought, probably close to 3 pounds each, about 18 inches long. I aimed at fat one in the middle of the school and pulled the trigger. As was usual for this gun, the recoil kicked my arm back with tremendous force. When I looked down, I could see that I had hit my mark! The goatfish was pinned to the sand, slowly convulsing. The rest of the school had hardly noticed and continued mining the sea floor for food. I pulled up on my shooting line and felt the heft of the fish as the barb on the shaft took up its weight. I looked around for any sign of something attracted by my actions and saw nothing but clear blue water stretching out for hundreds of feet. I looked for my partner and saw that he had swam up ahead of me to keep an eye out. I quickly brought the fish up and slid it onto my kui (stringer) that was attached to my float. I reloaded my gun and swam after my partner who was busy throwing palu into the water.

Our other two friends had decided to head back toward the shore, I saw the flags on their floats waving in the wind, as they made their way slowly toward the rocks, which now seemed very far away. For a moment my heart began to race as I contemplated just how much distance was now between myself and the shore. I stuck my head back into the water so that I wouldn’t think about it anymore. I continued to follow my partner out into the sea, a steady stream of chum flowed around me like torn pieces of paper in gentle breeze.

Now we were in roughly 120 feet of water. You can tell when you get out to this depth because the surface of the water seems to disappear, it becomes so clear that it it’s like being suspended in air, falling through the sky. Visibility is such that it seems like you can see on forever.

Then I felt a tug on my float line, the buoyant, 50-foot line that connected my float to the back of my gun. I turned to see that the goatfish was swimming in circles, with what was left of its life. I saw a shadow materialize out of the blue, then another and another. It was a small school of Great Trevally (ulua), predators who undoubtedly were drawn in by the palu and perhaps the dying goatfish on my kui. They were cautiously staying out of range but still had their sights set on my goatfish, which anyone of them would have devoured in an instant. I slowly turned and dove down to about 20 feet, attempting to come up underneath them. As I did this, the ulua swam closer. The biggest one was about 30 pounds. I drifted closer, aimed at the second largest and pulled the trigger.

It was a good shot, right through the mid section, and by the way that the fish was pulling on my gun, I guessed it to be about 20 pounds (it actually weighed out at 16). I let go so that the fish was now fighting the weight of my gun, which was slowly being pulled down with it. I looked over at my partner who gave me the thumbs up. Because the fish was expending so much energy–but mainly because of the hole in its body–the water was quickly becoming clouded with blood. What was a second ago crystal clear ocean was now opaque. With the chum falling all around us, it was almost as if we were watching snow falling during a sunset. I made the mistake of looking back toward the shore. The 30-foot kiawe trees along the water’s edge looked like little green dots and I could see the coast in both directions, stretching out for miles.

I decided to pull up the fish and get it onto my kui. I grabbed the float line and began pulling.

As I was doing this, I saw the tip of my partner’s gun come over my shoulder, out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look at him and see that his eyes are like saucers, as he pointed in front of me. I turn. Through all of the blood and chum I couldn’t see anything. But for some reason the water around me seemed to be moving. As I continued pulling the fish closer, my partner began to gesture frantically. He kept pointing out in front of me. I turned to look and noticed that the ocean wasn’t necessarily moving, as much as something was moving in the ocean. Quite like when you look out of the window of a car as you pass close to a building and all you can see are a blur of bricks going by. As I began to focus, I saw a forked-shaped tail pass not more than 10 feet in front of me. It had a darker upper margin and as it passed I saw that it is almost as tall as I was. I’m 5’11”.

Then it registered. I looked toward the direction that the tail was headed and saw a very large pair of pectoral fins as well as a sizable dorsal fin. The head of the shark was not wide but purposefully slender. It was a Galapagos shark, about 14 feet long. Not considered to be aggressive, but the only known attacks have been on spearfishermen.

By this time I was tangled in my float line, surrounded by blood and chum with a good sized fish kicking on the end of my spear shaft which I was now holding in my hand. I turned to my partner to motion for him to keep his eyes on the shark, but found that I didn’t really need to. He was holding his gun out in front of him like a lance, his eyes darting back and forth. I stuck my head back into the water and through the blood and chum, saw that the shark had turned around and was now headed back toward us. It retained its distance, still only ten feet, as it slowly cruised past, assessing me with it cold black eyes. At this point all I could do was laugh, or more accurately, that was all that I could manage to do. If this was going to be my time to go, so be it. I took from the sea, so it would only be right if it took me (my partner wasn’t so accepting, I would later find out). I was now on automatic pilot. I was accepting of my fate and so didn’t care anymore. It’s amazing how one can go from feeling safe, having a good time, to accepting death and ready to go, all within a distance of several hundred yards.

Like a robot, I pulled the ulua closer and grabbed it by the tail, turning it upside down. This technique is good when shooting large fish because it instantly makes them docile. I don’t know why exactly, but it works. Then I took out my knife and drove the blade into its head, above and behind the eye into its brain. It kicked a few times then became still. I popped my head out of the water and my partner did the same.

“What the fuck!” he said.

I shook my head. My voice had escaped me.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here!” he added.

I nodded and we slowly began swimming toward the shore.

As we did this, I never looked back to see if the shark was following us. I figured that if it was, there was nothing that I could really do about it. My gun was useless, and I was still tangled in my float line. I couldn’t use my bang stick because the way that I had it configured, it would need to be deployed via my spear gun’s shaft which was still in my hand, not in my gun. As the sandy bottom drew closer and closer, I began to feel more at ease. A school of small baitfish swam by like a curtain of silver coins and I realized that in the world that they live in, what had just happened to me and my partner was all just another day.

I climbed out of the water feeling humbled and very, very grateful.

Comments
  1. Brendan says:

    Um. wow! Nice one.

  2. Thanks. It was a dive that I will never forget, especially its tail as it passed in front of me.

  3. Steve says:

    After reading that, I’ll think twice before going into the dang pool!