So, naturally, I said yes.
Pack. Leave. Quickly.
I was on the road – it was about 11PM and that put me at my buddy’s close to 3AM. We were leaving at 5AM and I’d had about two hours of sleep the night before. Energy drinks kept me in some limbo between sleep and being awake, but soon enough I was there. Trying to sleep. Shit, this isn’t working. Finally the alarm went off and I stumbled around the dark house getting all my crap together and loading the truck.
My host (and the captain) is a good dude, but he definitely isn’t a morning person and I was short on patience (nothing new here). I wake him up a third time and even raise my voice a little. He’s up, let’s get this party started. On the way to the marina real exhaustion starts to set in, the only thing keeping me from dropping into a really crappy mood is that I can probably sleep on the ride out.
Load the boat. Gas fumes fill my nose and don’t help the oncoming sense of nausea. This was a charter – the clients seemed alright, a huge relief. They were all tuned up and ready to go. Check the weather. Shit. It’s going to be a rough ride out – they’re calling 3-5’s all the way out. Too late now.
We talk about tactics and sharks – nothing new, but this would be my first time supervising clients in the water and hunting wahoo at the same time. My main purpose was making sure the clients understood what they needed to do, that they didn’t have a blackout underwater, and to keep the sharks off their backs. I got this.
It takes more courage than I’ve ever had to display in combat – to justify stripping and putting on my wetsuit in the wind, salt spray, and near-freezing temperatures. Wetsuit on, almost there. Lack of sleep, and the stress of leaving and rushing had taken its toll – I was starting to wonder what I was doing out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, during the middle of winter, during the middle of a storm. Am I f*cking nuts?
The Joy of Wintertime Wahoo
Jesus Christ the water is cold. It immediately snaps me out of my funk. I’m back, it’s on. Fish are all around me, then sharks. I lead the way and take a couple of shallow dives to get warmed up. The clients are floating, probably still shocked by the cold water and a little worried about the (very curious) bull sharks that are making passes at us. My breath hold sucks – I’m lucky to have 30 seconds underwater before the contractions start. My mental state isn’t letting me pass the initial “get to the surface” feeling and my dive-reflex isn’t kicking in.
Run and Gun
Back on the boat the engines go from silent to a dull roar and we’re doing 35 knots over the whitecaps to the next spot. This is run and gun diving, if the fish aren’t home, we’re not hanging around. The next spot is a little better. We do 3 drifts and see a couple of lone wahoo. These aren’t the monsters I chase around now, but it didn’t matter – these were the first wahoo I’d seen underwater. Adrenaline fills my veins, I have tunnel vision and the only thing I can hear is the thumping of my heart in my ears.
“Right behind you!!”
I’ve been yelling at the top of my lungs for 10 minutes. For all the prep, all the risk, all the money, all the time – the wahoo keep going right behind the client when he’s underwater. He doesn’t even see them. When he surfaces we exchange six words “keep your head on a swivel” and go back to the diving.
The shot was so long the spear actually arched, but it was a lucky shot and it landed right in front of the tail – it might just hold. The wahoo takes off and I kick desperately for the surface – I pushed it on that dive. On the surface I watch my line take off and let out a bellow – I just pulled the trigger on my first wahoo! I won’t forget this. Now I’m in shark-defense mode. The sharks have picked up speed and are starting to swim erratically and they seem to jerk through the water – they smell blood. I can’t lose this fish to sharks.
The wahoo wasn’t a monster – it might have been 35 pounds. It only made a single, fast run and then some kicks towards the surface as he started to give up. I was there to meet him. With my first wahoo on the boat, and with my adrenaline pumping I yelled a little about a photo and dove back into the water hoping someone would follow with my camera.
The dive down the legs of an offshore oil rig is always an amazing sight. Life teams around the rigs – huge schools of jacks and snapper swirl around me as I make my descent. I limited myself to a quick 150 foot bounce dive, with an appropriate amount of air for a deco stop. Everything was going fine, I was watching the guys as they broke off and started kicking around the structure. At 135 I saw a cubera snapper that I knew I was taking home. He descended, so did I. At this point we were well into a very risky depth – but I did a quick check around and the guys were alright. Deeper. There. The cubera made a run around the rig leg, and I was waiting for him to come out of the other side…. But he didn’t. Sometimes the fish are just smarter than us, and this is their playground – I’m just a visitor. I lowered my gun removed my finger from the trigger area and checked my depth gauge. I saw 163 feet. Then everything went fuzzy.
I saw 163 feet. Then everything went fuzzy.
When I opened my eyes, saltwater was stinging them and I realized I had a mouthful of water. My mask was off my face and my regulator wasn’t in my mouth. I could feel pieces of my teeth in my mouth and tasted iron. Not good. I shook my head and immediately, instinctually kicked toward the surface. When I looked up I realized I would never make it. So I played the “your-regulator-is-behind-your-back-at-163-feet” game – which is no fun. I found my regulator and managed to get a breath of air – but even after purging the regulator, it was spewing air out of it at an unsustainable rate. I was in trouble. Mask on. My mask was half-full (or half-empty?) of water, my eyes were stinging and I was becoming aware of some serious pain in my mouth and nose. But I had much, much bigger problems – my air continued to spew out of my regulator, I was at 150 feet underwater, and I had about 750 pounds of air (decreasing rapidly).
As I kicked toward the surface I looked around – I signaled trouble and it was pretty clear I needed help. The captain kicked toward me as I ascended. On the ascent I noticed the spear from my speargun dangling beneath me, and realized for the first time what had happened. My speargun had again misfired, the recoil slamming the but of the speargun back into my face – knocking off my mask and punching the regulator out of my mouth. I remained cool and calm, but in my head there was definitely a bit of panic rising.
At 35 feet I grabbed a rig leg, and the bubbles streaming from my regulator had slowed – but only because I was almost completely out of air. I purged the valve again, and for some reason – this time the bubbles stopped entirely, leaving me less than 400 pounds of air in my tank. I was sucking for air, but well within range of the surface. At this point, running out of air only meant I would end up bent – but I could solve that with another “drop and hang” at 35 feet, on another tank. Our captain showed up next to me and we buddy-breathed. I could tell there was a bit of “what-the-hell-happened” in his eyes, but I was much more worried about my teeth at this point – I could tell the front two were broken.