A Spearfishing Tale.
Grab a drink and gather ’round folks, I’ve got a tale to tell.
There were four of us, out for a late afternoon mid-week dive. Conditions and visibility were good, though there was a little swell in the water to keep us bouncing, and lights were carried in the event of a late exit. Hunting on this day was about a quarter mile offshore (generally marked by the red arrow), exploring some kelp beds and rock structure in ~35 foot deep water. Rumor had it there were some good nests of sheephead in this area and I was intent on shooting a big goat. Everything was going well…
As (too) often happens, we all strayed a bit from one another, hunting in pairs but loosely doing our own thing between check-ins. My partner was about 15 yards from me, taking mid-depth perch on a polespear. I was hugging the bottom, looking for sheephead. Plenty of small females were lurking, but their king proved elusive. The sun was dipping low so I lowered my standards to match, knowing we’d be getting out soon, willing to shoot anything that would make some tacos.
I was exploring a kelp thicket and *!POP!* shot an opaleye near the end of my breath. Rather than going to retrieve the spear and fish, I made for the surface and would bring it up from there.
Except when I turned and pointed for the sky, something was holding me down…
Kicking hard, I couldn’t budge. I jerked my gun, assuming the spearshaft was stuck in the rocks, but no, my gun was free. ~25 feet deep, I was tangled in something and running out of air.
Instinct told me to kick again, kick harder, when I looked down and realized a thick mat of kelp had wrapped itself behind the knife’s sheath on my belt. I went for the knife to either free it or cut out, but the kelp was too thick. I couldn’t get my hand through it to find the knife…And this suddenly became one of those moments where time warps, a tinge of panic about the reality sets in, and things feel like they are taking forever…
I kicked again, even harder this time, and was worried by the strain I felt back; I was seriously stuck, no movement. Time passed while I fought…and then something gave with a snap. Relieved, I felt the thrust of my fins- and soon buoyancy- lifting me to the light above.
Shaking it off, I caught my breath and went to work dealing with my fish; I still had my gun in hand and a fish on the spear. When I went for my knife to kill it and get it on the stringer, I found it was gone. I snapped it off my weight belt, sheath and everything. A thick scrap of broken plastic was left attached where it sheared off.
I called a friend over, borrowed a knife, strung the fish, and got my bearings back. I was still slightly rattled, but kept diving, not really trying to shoot anything, just letting my nerves straighten back out. I have found it’s important to keep going in these moments rather than succumb to the instinct to bail. Leaving the scene with a bad feeling sill lingering tends to allow fear to fester, as opposed to reassuring oneself that everything is still OK, regaining control of mind and breath despite a scare.
Post-dive analysis, a couple things obviously went wrong, but I will admit I’m bothered primarily by my lack of one particular reaction. Initial instincts went in this order: 1. struggle to break free (Bad!: wasting air), 2. calm down and try and cut free (Good!), and 3. back to struggling to break free (More bad!: wasting even more air) when I discovered I couldn’t cut out. I am a little disturbed that the instinct to drop my weight belt entirely didn’t enter the equation faster. Not that it wouldn’t have- I would like to think that if I didn’t break free the second time I would’ve gone to drop my belt, but regardless, the instinct never came because I ended up breaking free. I feel like it should’ve been there sooner.
I’ve been replaying the scenario in my mind, visualizing and rehearsing releasing my belt over and over and over, trying to ingrain the action somewhere in my consciousness. When I relayed this story to my partners at the surface, it was also a stark reminder to all of us to stay a little closer, be more watchful of each other.
While some may be reading this thinking us fools, an honest evaluation says that these situations are going to happen in some form, that we are accepting these risks the moment we get in the water, and we have to remain diligent and honest with ourselves about our abilities, actions, and future considerations. This is how we learn. Yes, this is also how people get killed, but any outdoor adventurer knows that learning experiences and disaster are often dual faces of the same coin.
Remain humble, stay honest, learn to be safer.