HUNTERS OF THE DEEP by Diana McCurdy



The spearfisherman who landed a giant marlin is one of a new breed in a rapidly growing sport, as DIANA McCURDY discovered

When you're holding your breath at 30m underwater, odd things happen to your body.

The pressure grips your lungs, sinuses and stomach - and all other spaces containing air - physically shrinking them. The cold water makes your heart rate slow dramatically.

Dark shapes flit in the murky distance. Sharks? Every instinct screams: get out of here, get back to the surface ... breathe.

For humans, it is an inhospitable and alien environment. But for a growing number it is also a favoured hunting ground.

Rather than sending down lures or nets while safely inhabiting the world of air and sunshine, these fishermen prefer to enter the world of their prey. With the assistance of little other than a deep gulp of air, a pair of fins and a speargun, they hunt fish that leave other fishermen grimacing in frustration.

The sport of free-diving (without scuba gear) spearfishing has been around for decades in New Zealand, with fluctuating popularity. For a while it died off because the sheer number of fish being shot became unsustainable.

Those in the business estimate there are about 5000 spearfishers in New Zealand but only about 1000 are active.

However, spearfishing is undergoing a global revival. Staff at Wild Blue - New Zealand's only specialist spearfishing shop - estimate they have a new client every second day.

There's even talk that the sport could become a hot tourism opportunity. It certainly fits New Zealand's reputation for adventure tourism, . with prey sometimes twice the size of the divers.

At Easter, Aucklander David Mullins landed a world record 156.6kg striped marlin while free-diving near the Three Kings Islands. After shooting the massive fish, Mullins then fought for two hours in the water to subdue and kill it.

If it's lethal for the prey, it is also risky for the hunter - New Zealand has about one death a year.

If, like Mullins, divers spear large, powerful fish, there is a danger the fish may retaliate and maim them. Fish can tow divers into offshore currents or, if their lines get tangled, drag them deep below.

Other predators also roam the depths. Inevitably, injured fish attract sharks, and although New Zealand spearfishers report few run-ins with sharks, there are more than a few tales of them stealing the prey.

Then there's the greatest danger of all - running out of oxygen and blacking out, a risk that even experienced divers run. Ascending divers' re-expanding lungs actually work against them by creating a vacuum effect. The net flow of oxygen from the lungs to the body is reversed - usually at about 3m to 5m below the surface when the greatest lung expansion occurs.

The critically low level of oxygen in the blood switches off the brain, resulting in an instantaneous blackout.

By a layperson's standards, free-divers hold their breath for extraordinary periods of time. Six-time New Zealand spearfishing champion Darren Shields can hold his breath for three minutes on a working dive.

That is long by anyone's estimation, but try doing it while swimming down to depth, stalking a fish, shooting it and - potentially - wrestling its body to the surface. So why do they do it?

Shields describes it as "the thrill of the chase". He's been spearfishing for 32 years (his father introduced him to the sport at age 6) and remains passionate about it.

"You are trying your skills out against something in its own environment. It's a greater achievement if you can hunt a fish on a breath-hold, stalk it, despatch it and you are in its environment.

"Anybody can chuck a line over the side and catch a fish."

Shields is not driven solely by blood lust. Some days he swims kilometres and shoots just one snapper. The other weekend he spent 2 1/2 hours in the water and took home just one 6kg specimen.

The size of his haul does not reflect lack of opportunity. Every time Shields dives he finds himself in a wonderland few people witness.

In his camouflage wetsuit, fish barely notice his presence. He moves slowly and stealthily, careful not to break the water surface with his fins.

"You see so many other varieties of fish that you wouldn't normally see, because you are hunting so you are going quietly. You're taking your time ... So you see lots of fish, you see crayfish, sharks dolphins, whales."

Wild Blue recently ran four trips to the Three Kings Island, one of which resulted in Mullin's record catch.

"On my trip we swam with killer whales, we swam with sunfish. We didn't actually do that much spearfishing."

Auckland land surveyor Jared Rehm, 26, has a similar perspective. He's been hunting since he was 9, but took up free-dive spearfishing only four years ago.

Rehm has never been much of a fisherman in the conventional sense. For him, casting a line and waiting for the fish to bite provides none of the thrill or satisfaction of stalking deer in the wild.

Hunting for fish in their own territory, however, is another matter.

"The thing I like about it is that when you actually dive down you make really minimal noise - you need to if you are hunting fish like snapper or big fish - and you can fit into their environment without them even knowing you are there. It's quite stealth-like and it's also very selective.

"In a day's spearfishing - say if you are hunting a snapper or a kingfish - you see huge schools of kingfish, a lot of snapper, and you might only shoot one or two."

There's an unwritten law among the new generation of New Zealand spearfishers: they shoot only what they can eat. Though they may be legally entitled to shoot three kingfish a day, wasting fish is frowned upon. Killing frenzies are taboo.

Shields believes quotas are set unnecessarily high.

"A lot of immigrants who come in, they don't understand," Shields says.

"They say: but it's law, it says you can take three kingfish. And I go back to them and say: look, how many of those kingfish can you eat? You shoot a 30-kilo kingfish and that will feed your family for a month."

New Zealanders, on the other hand, have learned from bitter experience.

"Kiwis, especially the new generation, are becoming really good at looking after the resource. They understand a little bit more than I believe a lot of the older divers did. In their day the resources were so huge they really didn't have to look after it. But, unfortunately, because they didn't it's now in a pretty bad way."

The sport has plenty of written rules too. Reid Quinlan, who organised the most recent national competition, says tight regulations are in place to minimise the danger.

In the national competition, divers must compete in pairs. They both attach themselves to a float, one on a long line (30m) and the other on a short line (4m-6m). Only one diver is allowed to dive at a time.

Divers attach their spearguns to the opposite end of the line from the buoy, then dive to hunt. In national championships, their task is to find two examples of 15 selected species.

After shooting a fish, divers will often drop their gun and return to the surface for air before hauling in the weapon and prey.

If a fish has not been killed outright, the spearfisher then plays it on the line in much the same way as an angler.

If a diver wishes to claim a world record, however, the rules are different. The International Bluewater Spearfishing Records Committee sets out strict guidelines.

Mullins had to shoot his striped marlin while fully submerged. He was also not allowed to receive any help during his two-hour battle with the striped marlin, other than to be passed a second, unloaded, speargun. He was not even allowed to rest for a moment by hanging on to a boat.

To an outsider, the sport may smack of marauding machismo. Not so, say the spearfishers.

It's a battle with your own body. "Also it's a mental thing," says Rehm. "For some people it's a bit of a mental block when they're holding their breath.

"You are down quite deep, so if anything suddenly happens you've got to get back to the surface. It's quite a way, so you've always got to have that reserve of air to get you back to the surface.

"It's just knowing how far you can push yourself in a controlled way without pushing the limits."