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World Spearfishing Competition – Zadar Croatia, 17 to 20 September 1998. Stories by:

World Spearfishing Champs

Zadar, Croatia – 17 to 20 September 1998

By Darren Shields – NZ competitor
The team trials started the year before we were due to go to Croatia to compete in the World Championships. Over a six month period, there were six competitions from which your four best results were put forward. Once the team was chosen, we still had another eight months before we were due to leave. I worked as hard as I could on my fitness during this time, but when trying to hold down a job it is fairly hard to get to the level of fitness I knew some of the other teams would have.

The stories we’d heard suggested that we were going to be doing a lot of deep diving and there would not be many fish. Picasso sponsored us with a full set of gear – wetsuits, gun bag, gear bags, and the small guns we would need. These guns were 60cm and 82cm long; most of the fish we would be targeting would be hiding in holes, and we would not require long guns. For three months before departure I put away my long guns and concentrated on the 82cm gun. I landed some quite nice fish with it here, with the biggest snapper I got being 11kg. I also shot and lost a 20kg kingfish.

Gary Conway, Peter Herbert (Herb) and I were travelling together. We flew to LA, London and then on to Croatia; about three days of travelling. We arrived in Zagreb at about 11pm. The trip from the hotel to the areas we were diving was about 40km each way; we thanked our lucky stars that John had organised a big boat for us. The Portuguese team had to travel the same distance in small inflatables. The first day, before our boat arrived, John and I found a holidaying Viennese couple who had a reasonable boat and they agreed to take us out for about NZ$200. Due to the state of their boat, they did not want to travel too far, so we ended up only going about 15km out from the harbour. It was a very disappointing day. We did a lot of swimming but saw very few fish, and none big enough to shoot. All the stories we had heard were coming true.

The next day, when we finally got our own boat, the view was much the same – the only decent thing we found was a big Bruce 20kg anchor which we ended up selling for about NZ$300! We were advised that the competition areas would be around two islands, Olib and Silba, about the size of our own Great Mercury Island off Whitianga. We had six days to cover them before the competition, which meant an awful lot of diving. The first day in the area Gary and I worked one part of the coast and Paul and Herb the other. The bottom was grass, similar to our grass in New Zealand, about a foot long. There were acres of it, and no fish. I found a couple of reef areas which were very barren; I saw one fish that may have gone, but there was no way in the world I would have been able to spear it.

The first reef I found was at about 27-28m. As the day progressed we moved along the coast of the island and eventually Gary, Paul and Herb came across quite a reasonably sized reef in about 20m of water just outside a harbour entrance. It had some really neat caves, and looked a likely spot, but I knew that most of the other divers would know it, as it was easy to find. Further down and out wider, I got onto a reef at about 30m. As the boat came alongside to pick me up I went for one more dive with Paul, pleading that we might find at least one fish. The visibility was approximately 15-18m. As I got closer to the bottom, at 30m, I could make out a fish of about two kilos sitting on the sand. It moved under a ledge as I approached, but we had promised the couple who lent us the boat that we would get them a fish, so I speared it. This was the biggest fish any of us speared while in Croatia, except conger eels.

Back at the wharf we drew a crowd with this amazing catch, and the guy could not believe I was giving it to him. He made a big deal over how he was going to cook it, and how many friends he was going to get to help eat it. This really opened my eyes as to how bad the diving was going to be here. The temperature was very comfortable, between 20-23°C. I think the shortage of fish was due to the heavy usage of gill nets by everybody who had a boat. Any time you found a nice rocky area it would have an old gill net or fishing line tangled around it. Most boats going out each day had gill nets on board and were setting them close to the rocks, it was quite sad to see.

We had to come up with a plan to cover the areas quicker. A lot of teams were using scooters to check out the areas, and were covering twice the ground and diving a lot deeper than us. Some teams had an individual boat and support crew for each team member, with another diver in the water with him and someone driving the boat. I noticed the eventual winner, Alberto Mas, coming up from a dive with his scooter. He called to his driver, who took photos of the surrounding area, taking marks and writing things down. We did not have enough manpower and facilities to do this. Quite a few of the European divers had to have someone monitoring their bottom time constantly, because they were getting bent due to the extra bottom time the scooters gave them. These teams were also staying on the islands in the area.

When we booked our accommodation we were not told by the organisers that this could be done, so instead of a ten minute trip we had a journey more like going to Great Barrier Island. We decided the best way to see the area was to stick ropes out the back of the boat which we hung on to. John spent hours driving the boat with us dangling off the back. When we found a good spot we let go of the ropes to check it out. The method proved invaluable, and we covered ten times the ground than if we had just swum. One fish we started to discover in the shallows was a little green wrasse that was on the list of species for the competition. They were relatively easy to approach. We spent a lot of time looking for these fish and working out what areas they lived in, and in doing this we started to find reasonably good-sized conger eels in holes here and there. Congers had to weigh at least two kilos and a lot we found were under that. On one of the training days Herb found a good-sized eel, so he stuck two pieces of plastic on top of some rocks so we could come back and find it if the area was used in the competition.

In a lot of spots we found amphorae, big clay jars that were used in antiquity for spices, wines, vinegars and so on. We picked some up one day to bring home, only to find we would be locked up in jail if we didn’t put them back. This seemed a strange policy to me; people were allowed to clean out all fish life with gill nets, but pieces of clay that would only be swallowed up by the ocean bed and never be seen were heavily protected.

The night before the competition, there was an opening ceremony which I will never forget. It was one of the best shows I have ever seen. Each team was rowed into the harbour of Zadar Old Town in turn, in small boats that were up to 2000 years old, displaying their national flag. Their nationality was announced to a grandstand full of 5000 cheering people accompanied by a laser light show, music, fireworks and singers. The grand finale was the launching of a giant fish on wires from the window of a building out across the harbour, pursued by a giant flaming spear. Each team was then escorted to a bar in town by a hostess assigned to them – a different bar for each team, with free food and drinks all night. This was very tempting, and by putting a number of less disciplined competitors under the weather it was an ideal way for the locals to cut some of the opposition! It was a fantastic night, and we all got to bed at one in the morning, needing to be up again at 5.15am for Day One of the competition.

The next morning we travelled by ferry to an island where all our inflatables were waiting. Every competitor, manager, doctor and dive support crew had their own inflatable, so there were 80-100 boats on the water. This was a sight to be seen. We were meant to be following a large pilot boat to the site, but all the boats were going in different directions. I was lucky enough to have Herb driving for me, while many of the others had young Croatian boys who had no idea what they were doing; some received minor injuries during the trip. The top Croatian diver did his back in by pounding away, going too fast. The pilot boat anchored in the area we were about to dive and we sat beside him until the gun went off.

I headed towards the 20m reef which Paul and Herb had found on one of the training days. The other boats seemed to be hanging around that area, probably diving the deeper reef at 28-30m that I had found. At the last minute I decided not to go there and dived the shallows on the other side of the island, hopefully to find an area of my own. This decision proved to be the right one, and I had no other diver in the water with me all day. Gary decided to dive the reef, and was competing with other divers for fish. The first fish I found was a green wrasse in a hole. From there I stumbled across a large conger eel of about three kilos, which I managed to land after a lot of work. From there I concentrated on green wrasse, and finished Day One with four green wrasse and the eel. Paul had three fish and Gary had none.

The top diver for the day was Alberto Mas from Spain, with about 20 fish. I was placed tenth for the day and the team about fifth or sixth. Our hopes were high that Day Two would be in the other area we had trained in, but the weather ruined that and we ended up in an area that was foreign to us. We all had to do a lot of deep diving. I started off the day on an eight-metre reef just off a large island. I fished it really hard, looking under every rock and boulder I could find, and the first thing I came across was a scorpionfish – a grandaddy hapuka as we know it. It was to be the only weighable fish of the day. I stayed in this first spot for quite some time as there were a lot of bait fish working, and if we had been in New Zealand it would have looked like the perfect spot for a school of kingies.

On working out wide with the bait fish around me, I heard Herb yelling, and when I looked up he said a large yellowfin had just jumped up out of the water by my float. I headed that way, with visions of a huge yellowfin heading straight at me, and me trying to land it with my small gun. Nothing was seen, so I headed back the other way, only to have Herb yell at me again to say its sickle was cutting the water straight towards me. I turned but again I saw nothing. I swam right around the island I was diving and worked out deep at 29-30m. I shot some small fish but there was really nothing there. The bottom was covered in old gill nets and fishing lines and the area had really had a hard time. From here I went to another island and tried for eels, but to no avail.

Moving to the inside of the biggest island, I hoped to find some green wrasse, but they were not as prolific as in the areas we had trained in. I then decided to go out wide and get out of the shallows. A school of bonito or skipkjack – I’m not sure which – came in to me, but I could not get close enough and after about ten dives they moved off. With about 20 minutes to go, I saw some quite reasonable sized fish swimming under a ledge, but it was two or three metres deeper than I felt comfortable diving. I was feeling tired and I decided it was not worth the risk. A Ukrainian diver had drowned on one of the training days in relatively shallow water, and this was still in my mind; I knew it was not the right thing to do considering how I was feeling. I stuck to this spot, hovering over the top of reef at 28-30m, hoping the fish would pop out and I could get a shot in, but this was not to be.

I got out after five hours, fairly disheartened at finishing the competition with only one weighable fish. On the way back to the finish, we came across one of the South African guys who had scored really high on Day One, only to take no fish at all on Day Two except one conger eel that did not weigh. He was terribly disappointed. Paul had done well again with three fish, and Gary had got a fish in the last hour. Some of the Spanish divers had found a grey area in the rules and were ditching their belts and doing weight-assisted dives during the competition. Some of their deeper dives were to 45m, and we had been trying to get to 30m with no assistance. This did not put us as equal competitors on a level playing field.

The weigh-in was pretty Mickey Mouse, with the organisers using little sets of scales and trying to lay four or five fish on one set of scales. They got there in the end, successfully and fairly. The finishing results were myself in 16th place, Paul in 26th and Gary in 37th, with an eighth placing for the team overall out of 19 teams. There were 57 divers competing. All in all, I achieved what I wanted, with a result in the top 20 and a team placing in the top ten. I am sure we all learnt an awful lot and look forward to the next world event in Tahiti in two years’ time. I would like to thank John Ross, our team manager, for all the hard work he put in. We were one of the better organised teams and the cameraderie was superb. We had a lot of fun, and before signing off, I should say … ‘We beat the Aussies.’