What is Spearfishing?
Spearfishing is an extreme, adrenaline-pumping sport that leaves you out of breath and buzzing. Explained most basically, it’s the act of hunting fish underwater with a spear gun and without the use of breathing equipment. The sport is very popular all around the world and partakers are commonly referred to as ‘spearos’ or spear fishermen.
The History of Spearfishing
Spearfishing is an ancient activity that was traditionally practised as a means of hunting for survival. In the earliest of times, harpoons and wood spears were used but as the activity has grown in popularity as a sport, the equipment has become much more advanced.
According to the study of cave paintings, historic texts and archaeological sites, spearfishing began in the Palaeolithic era with the use of stone tools. At this time, the activity was at its most primitive. Barbed harpoons were used to drive into the head of prey such as fish, seals and whales besides many other marine animals. The ancient Hawaiians, Inuits and Egyptians used spearfishing in many cases to survive. And many historians believe that the trident carried by the Greek god of the sea Poseidon, is a fishing harpoon. Spears carved from wood were also used to hunt the shallows from the surface.
The activity thrived and developed and in 1870, the first pressurised harpoon gun was born. Invented by a Norwegian, this piece of equipment went on to inspire much of the spearfishing gear in use today. Soon, there was a shift away from subsistence hunting, with the activity becoming a popular sport in the early 20th century. By the 1950s, spearfishing was at the height of its popularity and a few years later the International Underwater Spearfishing Association was established, with the official rules for the sport distributed worldwide.
Advances in technology meant spearos could improve their success rate, and specialist equipment such as weight-belts, masks and fins transformed the once very primitive experience into the high-tech sport it’s known as today. And yet, spearfishing is still the ultimate experience in primitivism: of taking one breath, getting down deep and getting to the hunt.
The Gear Used for Spearfishing
Every spearo has their own preferred combination of gear which often depends on where they’re spearfishing and their level of experience. The most commonly used types of equipment are listed below and while many are down to choice, others are crucial for staying safe.
Low Volume Mask
A mask is crucial for providing visibility when underwater, with low volume masks designed specifically to reduce the volume of air between the face and the lenses when spearfishing. The pressure increases at greater depths and can become very uncomfortable on the eyes but this mask controls this sensation by equalising the pressure.
A weight belt is worn comfortably on the hips. It essentially makes it easier to get deep and stay deep while spearfishing.
A wetsuit is vital for keeping the body warm, allowing the spearo to stay comfortable and dynamic. It should fit snugly but shouldn’t restrict movement. There are wetsuits specifically designed for spearfishing, available in different patterns and colours to provide camouflaging in various underwater environments.
Gloves are important for keeping the hands warm, allowing spearos to use their tools with ease. Many diving gloves also have reinforced grips to help spearos hang onto slippery fish.
Fins help spearos to pick up speed underwater and chase after their chosen fish. They’re very helpful for moving around quickly and changing direction when spearfishing as they take the pressure off the feet and legs.
Of course, the speargun is the most important piece of spearfishing gear. Nowadays, this equipment is available in two models: pneumatic or rubber-powered. Each type has its benefits, depending on in which environment it’s used. But in general, spearos require a larger and more powerful gun if they’re hunting big fish in open waters.
A fish isn’t usually killed by the spear and therefore, must be killed in the most humane way, as quickly as possible. Stabbing the fish with a dive knife is the best way to accomplish this. Dive knifes are designed specifically for this action and also come with a grip to make them easier to hold underwater.
The Different Types of Spearfishing
Spearfishing can be practised in open waters, lakes, off-shore, in the shallows, off-boat and in various other underwater environments.
Spearfishing from the Shore
Diving in from the shore is the most common type of spearfishing. This involves entering the sea from beaches, rocks or headlands and hunting amongst the rocky architecture of the shallows. Depending on the location, divers will normally hunt between 5 and 25 metres deep when diving off shore. There are usually the challenges of high currents and big waves in these near-shore waters so timing the entry and exit is key. Rock fish and kelp fish are the main species lurking in these areas but if divers swim further out, there is the opportunity to catch larger ocean game fish.
Diving off a boat allows easier access to off-shore reefs, pinnacles, islands and man-made structures such as fish aggregating devices. The spearfishing methods and gear used for boat diving are much the same as that for off-shore diving but extra care must be taken with transporting the spearguns on the boat.
Some of the most popular hot spots for boat diving include the Gulf of Florida, the Great Barrier Reef and the northern islands of New Zealand where various species of game fish can be found, including grouper, wahoo, dog-tooth and marlin.
Blue Water Hunting
Blue water hunting is the most popular type of spearfishing for well-experienced spearos. This activity involves diving into very deep and clear waters on the hunt for large game fish species such as tuna, marlin, trevallies and mahi-mahi. Spearos are often dropped into an area of the ocean as a group and then allowed to drift up the current for several kilometres before being collected.
This type of spearfishing really is the most challenging as hunters can go for hours without finding fish and lose any sensation of location while amongst open, clear water. This also makes it difficult to judge the size of a fish when far off. Hot spots for blue water hunting include South Africa and the South Pacific, where fast moving fish such as tuna and dog-tooth snapper provide the thrill.
Spearfishing is popular for several reasons. And the sport is more beneficial than you may think.
Catch Big, fresh fish
The thrilling experience of spearfishing is topped off by the satisfaction of making a fresh catch. Sure, the fish at the supermarket or fishmongers is pretty fresh, but can you really get fresher than catching it yourself and bringing it home for dinner? As you’re underwater, you even get to choose the fish you’d like, meaning you make a much larger catch than what you might when blind fly fishing. Explore the depths, choose the fish you fancy and snatch it up. The feeling is joyous.
Spearfishing involves a great deal of physical strength and endurance. Diving deep and swimming around to make your chase is challenging enough in itself. And when you combine this with the energy it takes to keep your body warm, it translates into 100s of burnt calories. The training and practice that goes into the sport all helps towards an active, healthy lifestyle.
When it’s just you, your speargun and your mental control down there, the experience isn’t short of amazing. With little sounds and no distractions, the feeling is a form of meditation. Apnea (holding the breath) helps to focus the mind and when practiced regularly, can improve the efficiency of the lungs by training them to take in more oxygen. And when spearos emerge to take their next breath, the recovery is a wonderful whole-body feeling of rejuvenation.
Despite the gear and technology used in the sport today, spearos still enjoy a primal experience. Spearfishing taps into the natural human urge to hunt for food and stimulates some really powerful mental determination. Choosing the fish with your own eyes and making the catch with your very own skill is on a completely different level of thrill to sitting up top with a rod. Spearfishing allows one to become completely in tune with themselves while completely immersed in nature.
The Feeling of Flying
Many spearos claim that spearfishing is the next best thing to flying. The deeper you sink beneath the surface then the stonger gravity takes hold, allowing spearfishers to dive effortlessly throughout the waters. The feeling is often described as the sensation of flying in slow-motion, making for a truly exhilarating experience.
Article written and photos provided by Hannah Richards on behalf of apnea.co.uk