Action & Adventure in the Northeast

Wet Behind the Ears: My Introduction to Spearfishing and Breath-Hold Diving

I’m not a morning person, but when Alex told me he would introduce me to spearfishing before heading to work on a Wednesday, I jumped at the chance. After all, one of my big frustrations is finding the time to fit in leisure activities along with all the other responsibilities in life. So this seemed perfect. I had wanted to give it a try for about a year, but couldn’t find anyone with the experience or interest to take along a newcomer. Earlier this spring, I had posted a message on the wall of the Massachusetts Freedivers Spearfishing Club Facebook page: “Looking for a dive buddy in Cape Cod or South Shore area. New to spearfishing.” Crickets. I understood, though. It’s not exactly a value proposition for anybody. At best, a new diver could scare away the fish by thrashing around in the water, and at worst could kabob you with an undisciplined shot from a speargun.

It was six weeks later, because I suck at social media, that I saw Alex’s reply buried in the Messenger section: “Hey, I saw you were interested in getting started with spearfishing.” His reply had been sitting there since the night I originally posted my request. Finally I was going to be able to get my gear wet. So after coordinating schedules, we agreed to meet at 5:30 am at an undisclosed location in Bourne. Apologies for not getting more specific, but a good way to get a fisherman really pissed at you is to give away their best spots. I packed my gear the night before including some old SCUBA fins, my kiteboarding wetsuit, mask, snorkel, weight belt, and a generic polespear that I had picked up on Amazon, partially because it was cheaper than a speargun, but mostly because the thought of harpooning a fish with such a primitive looking piece of gear was appealing. Thrill of the hunt, man versus wild… yeah, something like that. Then I tried to get to bed early, which I couldn’t do because I kept thinking of all the things that could kill me, like getting tangled in a lobster pot rope or devoured by a Great White. After all, it was Shark Week, with the annual shark fishing derby happening on Martha’s Vineyard, and the Discovery Channel playing non-stop footage of whites ripping into seals. But that’s just irrational fear, and I knew it. Tomorrow would be a great day. I wasn’t expecting to actually spear a fish, but if I could just get in the water and just see a fish, I would feel accomplished.

I met Alex the next morning at the launch site. He had an impressive lineup of gear, including a sit on top kayak rigged up specifically for fishing, spearguns mounted on the bow, full camouflage wetsuit, and carbon fiber fins. After a few minutes of introductions and small talk, we loaded up the gear, paddled for about ten minutes to the dive site and anchored. I was ready. Any remaining nervousness that I had from the night before was gone. I threw on my weight belt and fins and hopped off my paddleboard into the green abyss. Visibility sucked, as I knew it would. “A good day around here will get you about ten feet of viz,” Alex said. “Today its about four feet.” No big deal. I have seen conditions like this before in what seems like a previous life as a novice SCUBA diver. I just floated there, my only goal to lower my respiratory rate and get my breathing into a steady rhythm. After a minute or so, I re-acclimated to breathing through the snorkel and could feel my vital signs return to an acceptable level.

“Okay, now we’re going to do the breathe-up,” Alex said. “This just optimizes the air intake into your lungs.” He went on to explain his technique of inhaling calmly for five seconds, holding for another five, then exhaling for fifteen seconds. “Just do that for about two minutes.” I went for an extra minute on order to get a jellyfish-like calm throughout my muscles, which worked. The only problem was now the current had swept me twenty meters from the dive spot. I had to swim back, feeling my heart rate kick up as I did, losing my Zen with each kick. Shit!

After recovering for another minute, I got my next set of instructions. Pike dive to the bottom and see how it goes. Three quick breaths and then I rolled into a ball, trying to get my feet overhead in what I’m sure was a pretty comical looking pike. I saw Alex shoot past me as he dropped to the bottom and quickly out of visibility again. I probably made it five or six feet, quickly ran out of air, and came to the surface. Pathetic. Never even saw the bottom, which was probably only 12 feet to begin with. I wasn’t expecting anything great, but thought that I would do just a little bit better than that.

Again. This time, I was determined to at least see the bottom, which eventually appeared for a brief second, then back to the surface. I realized a fundamental difference between freediving and SCUBA. You have to work a lot harder to stay underwater. With SCUBA, you carry enough lead on your weight belt to sink as soon as you let the air out of your buoyancy compensator. With freediving, only enough weight is carried to be neutrally buoyant, floating at eye level while at rest. Getting to the bottom takes work. Work takes oxygen. Oxygen that could be used for other purposes, like hanging out on the bottom looking for fish. My pike dive would have to improve quickly, getting completely vertical to cut the resistance of my body against the water. Calm down. Stop thrashing.

We went closer to the dive site, a rock pile sticking out of the water perfect for housing fish. Close by, a couple of lobster traps had buoy lines floating to the surface that I avoided like high-tension wires. “How are you feeling?” Alex asked.

“Good. Getting a bit more comfortable.” Two days earlier, when I interviewed him for my podcast, Alex had mentioned that because of the horrible visibility in the New England waters, the one up – one down diving technique, a method used for safety where one diver rests at the surface and observes the other on the bottom, doesn’t quite work. Now I could see why firsthand. Apparently, the best a dive buddy can do is to find your unconscious, floating body at the surface, and call for help. So with this in mind, we split up and started diving independently, circling the rock pile in search of fish.

Each dive seemed to get progressively better, now able to reach the bottom consistently and remain for a few seconds, but still not long enough to sit quietly and wait for a tautog to come out of its hole. Plenty of small fish, but nothing I could even attempt to shoot. It didn’t really matter, anyway. I was happy to just be in the water, feeling that this could be a regular thing at some point if I gave it enough time and practice. Besides, this is fishing. It might have nothing to do with me. Maybe there aren’t any fish in the area to begin with. I surfaced and saw Alex bobbing at the top. “Any luck,” I said.

“I got two. Black sea bass.” So maybe it was me after all. But that was still fine. We made a few more dives, and I did see a decent size tautog at one point, but it disappeared into its hole before I even had a chance to load my polespear. At the surface, the sun was rising pretty high, and it was about time to pack up. I had a full day of work ahead. We paddled back and loaded gear back onto the cars.

“It’s a great way to wake up in the morning,” Alex said. And it was. “Why don’t you take one of these fish?” I offered token resistance, and then took the bass. I thanked him for the fish, and for introducing me to the sport, and we split off to get our days going.

The Mass Freediving/Spearfishing Club hosts several meets and tournaments each year. Some are designed specifically for beginners and are a great way to meet other divers. I’ll be sure to check out the next available event. Those interested in learning to freedive and spearfish should give the Intrepid Northeast podcast a listen, where Alex talks about fish, gear, and how to link up with other divers in your area. Download on iTunes, Stitcher Radio, or click HERE for direct download and show notes.

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