The day I punched a monk

Posted: September 20, 2010 in Diary of a freediver
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The old saying goes, “Once you enter the water, you’re entering the food chain”, or something along those lines. Surfers throw this axiom around as if they hope to obviate it through repetition. But then again when you’re floating along on a chip of foam in the ocean, splashing around like wounded prey, accepting the truth is far more advantageous than denying it. At least when something tugs on your leg, or bumps your board you’ll know that you have a few extra seconds to make your peace with the world before sliding down the gullet of some prehistoric predator.

For a freediver things are a little different.

Where as a surfer enters the water as potential prey, the spearfisher enters the water at the top of the food chain. And barring any freakish circumstance or stupidity on the divers part, that position can be guaranteed to never change.

Or so we hope.

Often, before I even dip a fin into the water, I have already determined which type of fish to target. I find that this discipline helps me to remain focused on a goal rather than just shooting at whatever comes along. Being a proponent of sustaining the resource, I also find that having predetermined targets also means that I harvest only what I need and nothing else.

On this particular day I had targeted the mamo (sergeant major), a plankton eating damselfish, which are great in soup or fried in a pan. As the largest of specimens are roughly the size of an open hand, they are slightly challenging to catch especially when using a spear gun as opposed to a pole spear. I often target these abundant fish because of the fact that shooting at such a small target helps to improve my aim. The conditions were near perfect that day, with no surge or swell, a light off shore breeze, with the tide on the rise.

Mamo aren’t a fish that are effected by the phases of the moon as much as other species and can be found congregating around boulders, coral heads, and caves at all times of the day. During spawning season they are literally swarming everywhere and make easy targets.

But sometimes, regardless of the amount of fish in the water, landing one, even the smallest one, can be a herculean task. That is why spearfishermen have coined the phrase, “Better lucky than good” which pretty much sums up the sport in four short words. Although possessing technical skill is a bonus, it doesn’t always guarantee results.

After triple checking my gear I slid quietly into the water and slowly swam out to one of several target areas where I knew that I could find some mamo. As I drifted with the feeble current I saw a dozen or so of the silvery green fish hovering about in mid water over the coral crusted hulk of what used to be a cargo ship’s motor. Mamo, like most fish, tend to congregate in areas where they can quickly hide from predators and an old engine makes a perfect shelter.

After several shallow dives I had managed to spear three fish before the school got wise and took off for a better hiding place. When targeting specific fish, it’s good to know where these hiding places are so that you can plan your attack accordingly. If done correctly a dive can consist of merely swimming between these places and harvesting fish.

I did just that, and in a little over an hour I had ten fish on my stringer which was more than enough. I always think that it’s good to work for your fish rather than not, and that day I felt that I had done a decent amount of work.

I began to swim back to where I had entered the water, which was sheltered boat landing, popular with locals and tourists alike for its easy water access and lack of depth. Children were playing and splashing around as usual and I was momentarily lost in the tranquility of it all when I felt a tug on my float line.

When spearing fish, unless you are using a pole spear, the typical set up is to have a float attached by a float line to your gun. This way if you shoot a big fish you can let go of your gun and the fish will fight the float, everything being attached. Having a longer float line, sometimes up to a hundred or more feet in lenght, ensures that when you attach your harvested fish to your float, that the whole rig can be kept at a distance from your body just incase anything swims up to investigate. A stringer full of dead and dying fish is a magnet to almost everything out in the sea.

My first thought then, was that it was a shark. Getting taxed by ‘The Man’ is something that happens often and is all part of the sport. Letting a shark have a fish or two is merely paying a toll. Protection money in a way.  Besides, you shouldn’t really try to punish an apex predator for being lazy. Especially those with razor sharp teeth and a brain no bigger than a nickel.

I turned, expecting to see the tenacious critter pulling at my string of fish, but instead found a pair of eyes gazing back at me. They weren’t the soulless yet penetrating eyes of a shark, but rather the dark expressive eyes of a juvenile monk seal. I instantly recognized its expression. It was hungry.

The seal plucked a fish from my stringer like it was picking an apple from a tree. It then swam away in a curtain of bubbles.

At that point I considered myself lucky. I got the chance to see one of the rarest most endangered species in the world, in its own habitat, and it only cost me a fish. I turned and resumed swimming back in. Then I felt another tug.

I turn to see my new friend, flippers wrapped around another one of my fish like it was holding a tuna sandwich. It was as if it where smiling with its eyes. Not so much a friendly smile as a smug one. It yanked the fish from my stringer and began swimming in circles around my float.

At this point my float is still roughly forty feet away from me but judging by the size, this seal looks to be in the neighborhood of two hundred pounds, maybe five feet long. A full grown adult can weigh upwards of six hundred pounds and over eight feet in length. Monk seals by nature are very reclusive and avoid human contact. They can also be quite aggressive. All of these thoughts are running through my mind as I watch it grab another fish from my stringer.

I look in toward the landing and see the kids playing and a tourist getting into the water with a pink rash guard and yellow fins. It wouldn’t be a good idea to lead the seal into the shallows around all of the people, so I decide to stand my ground and see what happens.

I turn back just in time to see the seal swimming directly toward me, still holding the fish. Several yards before it reaches me, it dives down and glides underneath me turning over on its back as it cruises by. Its eyes betrayed what was really going on in the creature’s head. I could tell that it was thinking of how it was going to get the rest of my fish from me. I can’t explain it other than it was simply a feeling that I had peering into those shiny black orbs.

It made me feel like a clod, an alien, something not worthy of being in the ocean, the way it seemed to fly through the water like a giant bird. I suddenly felt the awkwardness of the snorkel in my mouth; the way the air rushing out next to my ear sounded like a dull hack saw on glass. My mask also seemed too restrictive and I noticed the imperfections in the lenses, like I was peering out of a fish bowl. My long fins seemed like cheap imitations–toys at the ends of my feet. I was embarrassed.

My heart rate increased because I knew now that there was some species on species competition going on that I couldn’t avoid even if I wanted to. So I did the first thing that came into my mind, which the last thing I should have done. But being a competitive creature myself I wanted to protect what was mine, so I began pulling my float in closer. Some part of my lizard brain figured that maybe the seal would understand that by my actions I was intending to assert that the fish were mine and to leave them alone.

The seal, unfortunately, had other ideas.

As I pulled my float closer the seal swam off toward my right and disappeared from view. Thinking that my ploy had worked, I pulled the float up to within arms length.

Float line, as the name implies, is essentially a very thick monofilament line encased in a buoyant rubber sheath. It is meant to float on the surface of the water and not sink. It is also very strong, my particular line had a breaking point of over five hundred pounds of pressure.

The problem is that when you pull in fifty feet of float line, unless you are winding it into a spool (which I wasn’t), it collects on the surface of the water in a big tangled mess. As soon as I realized that perhaps I had not made such a good decision, the seal was back.

It was in my face, my float was the only barrier between myself and the spunky pinniped. It was so close that I could see the decay on its dog-like teeth. The thought of getting bitten by its disease-ridden mouth horrified me. It grabbed another one of my fish in its mouth and bit it in two. Then it started on another. As it was feeding and somewhat distracted, I snatched my pole spear from my float. A pole spear is just what is sounds like: a long thin pole, made of graphite, fiberglass or aluminum with a three-pronged spear head attached at one end and a rubber sling, which propels the device through the water, at the other end. My intention was to poke the seal with the spear to try and get it to move away. This tactic works well with sharks, which only require a slight bump on the nose or body to get them to back off. I would have gladly traded this seal for three sharks any day.

I turned the spear around so that the loop of rubber was facing the seal, then thought twice about the seal getting caught up in the loop and so turned the pointed end of the spear at the creature. It probably sensed something because it immediately began swimming toward me. All I could do was hold the spear out in front of me as it closed the short distance between us.

As the head of the spear touched its body, the seal began to swim toward me with more conviction. Its rubbery skin seemed to envelope the spearhead without causing the seal any discomfort whatsoever. In fact, the contact seemed to energize the seal and it began pushing toward me to such a degree that my spear began to bow. It began snapping its jaws in a playful manner. By the time we were face to face I had dropped my spear and had nothing but my hands to defend myself. It began swimming in tight loops right in front of me, tangling itself in the float line. This seemed to make it angry and it began splashing around and bumping into me. I had no choice but to use my hands to keep it from getting us both tangled up. I pushed at it, kicked at it, at one point I remember punching it, but my actions were futile.

I heard someone yelling for their kids to get out of the water and I saw that I had a small audience watching from the safety of dock. The seal was becoming more entangled and was growing more and more frantic. I didn’t know what else to do so I grabbed my spear gun from my float and tried to push myself away from the seal with the butt of the gun. It seemed that the more I tried to distance myself, the more the seal would try and close the gap.

At this point I began to lose my cool. I was scared for my life and scared that this thing would drag me to the depths of hell while nibbling on my dying carcass. So I hit it with the butt of my gun several times using all the strength that I could muster. The first few blows to the body seemed to get its attention. Then I held the butt of the gun under its chin and pushed it backwards. It didn’t like that one bit!

It was if the seal had finally got the message. It looked at me as if to say that it was hurt that I didn’t want to play with it anymore. I jabbed it one more time to make sure it understood my intentions. Then it untangled itself with no effort, grabbed another fish from my float and disappeared into the blue.

When I climbed out of the water there I had four fish left out of ten. Actually four and a half, because there was a head still attached to the stringer. People were asking me what had happened and that it looked like I needed help. I told them that there was nothing anyone could have done and it was good that no one tried to jump in because it probably would have made matters worse.

I drove home contemplating my position on the food chain and decided that I would be lucky to be at the top.

Several weeks later I drove by the landing to check out the water and saw a guy from the DLNR (Department of Land and Natural Resources) sitting on a rock looking out at the sea. Feeling somewhat unnerved at having assaulted an endangered animal I decided to tell him of my encounter. I opened with the sentence, “A few weeks ago I was diving out here and I had an encounter with a monk seal.”

His eyes lit up and he replied, “Was it the juvenile female? Did she have a yellow tag on her flipper?”

I remembered that it did.

“Great!” He said, “That’s why I’m here. We’ve been looking for her.”

I proceeded to tell him about the entire experience including the punching and kicking and the part about using the butt of my gun. He laughed.

“Oh, you did the right thing. You did what you had to do; it’s not a big deal. As a man of the ocean, you know what you should and shouldn’t do. You protected yourself, that’s what I would have told you to do anyway.”

His words made me feel better. At least I wouldn’t be prosecuted.

He chuckled and said, “But you had it easy.”


“Well we’ve received several phone calls in the past few months of that seal harassing people. One person was trying to climb out of the water and the seal swam up behind them, grabbed them with its flippers and pulled them back in. They were tourists from like, Kentucky or something. They don’t have seals out there. So they were pretty shaken up.

Another lady was trying to feed it part of her sandwich while she was in the water and it pulled her down by her feet. It was her own stupid fault trying to feed it anyway.”

He then went on to tell me that the seal had been raised on the other side of the island on a small public beach. Not wanting to disturb the mother, the state constructed a rope barrier around the mother and her pup to cordon off the area. This didn’t stop people from stepping over it to feed the seal and take pictures with it. He said that this early contact with people was why this particular seal had no fear of humans. He also told me that they have tried on three separate occasions to relocate the seal, deploying helicopters and a transfer boat complete with all personnel at the cost of over 100K per incident. But the seal always found its way back, even from other islands!

The last I heard about the seal, they were attempting to take it to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands some 1500 miles away. Hopefully she’ll find whatever it is that she’s looking for out there.

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