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OTHER ITA SITES:
A Different Kind Of Catch
At 50ft below the surface of the ocean, the blood in the water draws ocean predators to our position. A nurse shark's synapses are stimulated as blood drifts into its nostrils while it swims behind us with lethal nonchalance. A silvery barracuda sails over my head, jaws working feverishly. Worse, I come face to face with a green Moray Eel known to attack human divers - its 7ft long body ribboning through the water, its mouth, lined with fangs as it stops in front of me, eyeing me with a hungry gaze. It wants the fish I have in my hand.
Twenty minutes earlier we had assembled and donned our scuba gear under an electric, neon pink sky as squalls darkened the deck of the boat and made the water choppy. Wordlessly, my dive buddy falls backwards from the boat, hand clasped to regulator and mask, as I quickly follow.
The dark, jade water is balmy and warm. In my right hand is a high-powered spear gun. Its mechanism is set in beautifully worked teak. Around 5ft long, it is clumsy on land but once in the water it balances perfectly. A long sharpened spear is powered by thick rubber bands. The trigger of the gun will release a spear that could pin a grown man to the wall. As we alight to the side of a dun-colored reef with knobbled outcrops and fire coral, teeming with fish, the hunt for our supper begins.
We are several miles from Key West in the Florida straits, diving from the Discoverer Ketty Lund, a wooden-hulled scientific research vessel on a trip around the Keys. Her captain is Eric Smith, a muscular, salt-encrusted sea skipper and diver with a boyish gap between his front teeth who has piloted his boat and marine scientists around the Atlantic for years. On the long trips down from places like Labrador, Canada, to his home in the Keys, he will jump over the side and go spear fishing for grouper, snapper and tuna to feed himself and his crew. As we descend deeper into the cool depths, he is showing me how to hunt under water.
As scuba diving becomes increasingly accessible, and recreational divers tire of blithely paddling around aquamarine reefs, spear fishing is undergoing a resurgence.
Guy Skinner, president and chief executive of JBL, one of the largest spear gun manufacturers in the world, says: "There's a spear fishing renaissance under way, just how snow boarding gave life to skiing again. We've probably had a 20 per cent rise in sales in the past five years." Skinner has himself been a keen spear fisherman since the age of eight. "Spear fishing is the only time I am a flying predator - I can loop the loop, somersault and hunt like that. Or I can just wait at the bottom in kelp beds for that big 30lb bass, jump him and have him on my dinner table in 40 minutes."
I enrolled in a spear fishing course in the cold, murky waters off the coast of my home in New York with an organization called Spear fishing Extreme. There was a long classroom session telling us which species can be shot and what size they have to be before they can be killed legally; gun safety and, of course, learning how to hunt under water.
To the novice, Spear fishing is difficult. Before our dives off the reef, Eric takes me to shallower waters, near coral heads, to go skin diving with just a mask, snorkel and fins. The secret is stealth. Eric can effortlessly bob from the surface, arch his back and glide to the bottom holding his breath in the ebb tide until a fish emerges, which he then spears with majestic ease.
I, however, tend to kick and splash my way down and can only hold my breath for such a short time before having to barrel to the surface again, gasping for air. My frantic motions are enough to scare away any fish in the area. Eric advises me to be as quiet, graceful and nonchalant as I can.
With this in mind we descended on to the reef with scuba tanks. Eric shot first and hit a snapper, which he duly cut up in the water to lure other fish. However, this also attracts sharks and other less salubrious creatures.
A hogfish, a pink fish with a rooster-like crown, darted out. I fired my first shot. The spear missed by a foot, hopelessly losing its trajectory after a few meters and falling to the sandy ocean floor. As we swam around the reef, the hunt continued as snapper and hogfish swam out, reflexively dodging each time I fired. Again, I would have to swim to retrieve the spear and pull the heavy bands back on the gun to reload.
Eric later told me that just before I fired each time, my adrenaline rush would become obvious as bubbles would spill out from my regulator. The metallic inhalatory noises of my regulator scared the fish as I lined up my shots.
And then, finally, I swam above a school of yellowtail snappers. I tried to regulate my breathing, squeezed the trigger and the spear fizzed through the water. The fish was harpooned dead center and wriggled on the spear as it followed a downward curve to the bottom. Eric pulled the fish off and stuffed it into a pouch on his weight belt.
So exhilarated by my success, I start to breathe excitedly and my lungs fill with so much air that I begin to float to the surface. I force myself to kick down and resume the hunt, shooting two more -a Lane Snapper and a French Grunt.
With minutes of the dive left, the predators - smelling blood - arrive. The Moray Eel, capable of knotting itself around prey as well as severing anything with its razor-sharp teeth, won't let us pass - much like a Mafia taxman of the deep, demanding his share of our catch. Eric feeds him a fish head, which he snaps at and then drags to a dark hole under the reef.
We surface, our supper in hand. Once back on the boat, however, my monster fish looks significantly smaller than it did when I shot it. Due to the mask, things under water look 30 per cent bigger. It's not a fish worth boasting about, but it is food.
For a man who has lived on the sea almost his entire life, Eric says Spear fishing is the most ecologically sound form of fishing there is. "You go down, choose the fish you want and take it," he says. "It's not like a rod where you really don't know what you have until you pull it out of the water - by which time the fish maybe undersized, not the species you can eat or just simply damaged. And unless you have ever really had fish as fresh as this you probably won't understand anyway."
So that night we cook our fish aboard the boat and the taste is nothing short of spectacular. Unfortunately, I drilled mine right through the tastiest part of the fillet, but there is still enough flesh for a good meal. We sit back sated and, as we rock on the swell of the ocean, I sit content with a stomach full of fresh fish that I had speared. But I knew that, deep down in the rapturous blue depths somewhere below us, a certain green Moray Eel, the taxman of the reef, had also been paid for what we took from his neighborhood.
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