My First Wahoo Spearfishing (and a Brush with Death)

Spearfishing Gear

So, naturally, I said yes.

Pack.  Leave. Quickly.

I’m Out

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.

Rough Seas

English: Rough seas at Brighton Marina The wes...

Rough seas on the jetty (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No dice on sleeping on the way out – the boat (a stable 36′ Contender with twin Yamaha 350’s) is pitching heavily.  When I tried to sleep in the bow I was being thrown a couple of feet into the air every couple of seconds.  Good thing I don’t get seasick.  Back on deck the wind chills me (it’s just a bit over freezing) and the saltwater stings, but I’m loving every minute of it.  This is where I’m supposed to be.

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.

Ocean Triggerfish

Ocean Triggerfish (Photo credit: Thespis377)

The first Ocean Triggerfish start coming up from the deep – we’re drifting over the spot.  Amberjack are next and the clients start easing down, but they stop short of 30 foot.  That kind of dive isn’t going to work at this spot, the wahoo are sitting at 50 foot – if they’re home.  But this isn’t my trip – I’m just here for backup.  One client gets back in the boat – the sharks make him nervous and he’d rather line-fish. Fine with me, one less diver to worry about. No wahoo are home.

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.

Wahoo

Wahoo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“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 sharks are thicker at this spot and are nipping playfully (or not) at our fins. They aren’t huge – it would more likely be a nasty scar than a mortal wound.   Another wahoo passes behind the client.  I wait until it’s far out of his range, take a breath and being an Olympic-style swim towards the fish.  It eyes me but doesn’t pick up speed.  I’m closing, but it’s still 50 feet away and my contractions have started – I’m going to need air soon. Just two more kicks.  It’s a hail-mary and I know if I miss I’m going to be in a pile of shit with the client and with our captain.  Everything slows down, I aim and put pressure on the trigger.
Bull sharks

Bull sharks (Photo credit: Mercury dog)

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.  

Over the next few drifts I spent some time in overwatch mode; keeping an eye on the sharks, playing with the marine life, and just relaxing while the client dove and worked to get into some wahoo.  I was completely relaxed, finally.  I made several dives to 50 foot to see if the wahoo were deep, they weren’t.  We saw sporadic loner wahoo a couple of times, but no schools and no monsters.

Round Two

Here we go again – the client had another wahoo pass within a few feet of the back of his head. I waited until I was sure the wahoo was out of range, and then I made an underwater sprint to close the distance and land a hailmary shot in the wahoo’s tail.  With fish number two in the boat I was a bit in the doghouse – the client had paid for the trip and I’m the only one landing fish.  In my defense, the client had more experience than me and every advantage – he just wasn’t seeing the fish.  I was banned from pulling the trigger again, unless it was an over-zealous shark.  No problem, I’d run the boat with a huge smile on my face.
We slept tied to a rig, about 70 miles offshore that night.  It was rough, cold, and wet.  I didn’t get much sleep for the third night in a row, and I was feeling it.  Our client didn’t do very well on the drifts that day and was on his way to getting skunked.  So we did what any self-respecting crew would do in this situation, stop at a rig and do a deep SCUBA dive to try to pull up an amberjack or big grouper.  I was completely satisfied sitting on the deck, but I could tell the captain wanted to shoot something – which means I needed to be on overwatch, in case something went wrong.

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.

Night Rig

Night Rig (Photo credit: arbyreed)

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).

Air bubble

SCUBA bubbles (Photo credit: riandreu)

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.

At the end of the day – we all made it back, we were all (kinda) smiling, and we all left the dock with wahoo for the dinner table.  But it almost didn’t end up that way.  This was my first, but certainly not my last brush with death while spearfishing.  I can honestly say it didn’t shake me, and that it didn’t keep me out of the water very long.  While we’re on the subject though – spearfishing (freedive or SCUBA) is dangerous – there are just a ton of variables.  Everybody I know that does it, has either seen or experienced someone dying or having a close call.  If you panic easily, don’t ease into it, don’t take the proper safety precautions (training) – you may very well end up being a statistic.  I almost did, and this certainly wasn’t my first rodeo.

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