World Spearfishing Champs? What Could Go Wrong?

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A very fishy day, from diving a piece of reef at 30 to 35m

A common reaction to people finding out there is a competitive side to spearfishing is to ask, well, how do they work? The World Spearfishing Championships held every two years are a case in point: 75 competitors from 25 countries descend upon a chosen location, different each time, where you are allocated three to five viable areas usually around 10 km long. At these locations five hours of competition takes place over two consecutive days.

A wide ranging yet difficult fish list is chosen. You score points per fish species and by their weight, and there are bonus points for achieving a variety of species and filling out a category.

Coastline with clear water straight off the rocks

Amazing coastline with clear water straight off the rocks

So surely this must be a mass slaughter, right? Well actually no, the spearfishing is very difficult and in the past about half of the 75 competitors speared no fish at all over two whole days. Also, every fish you spear you must land and weigh in, and if you shoot a fish below its minimum size you are penalized. You must be very vigilant about the size. The minimum size for each species is set large which increases the difficulty.

And not having local knowledge obviously puts you at a massive disadvantage.

World champs at Sardinia

The next world champs is being held in Sardinia in Italy next year and I was fortunate to go there to scout the area a year early with a couple of other members of the team. Its vital to get firsthand experience of what will be expected next year. We were also on the lookout for boats and accommodation as these are massive costs.

The Mediterranean is famous for its pristine blue-water, summer climate and infamous for an absence of fish… Sardinia did not disappoint. We were greeted with 25 degree water, beautiful warm weather and very few fish. I had never speared there before but knew about the extreme difficulty required to get fish. It was soon very apparent the fish know what a spearo is – they don’t hang around.

Then at 20 metres there was a thermocline that dropped the temperature to 17 degrees. Not so nice in a 3mm wetsuit especially when bottom time is required.

The spearfishing is not just physically demanding but also requires very good hunting skills. The fish are easily spooked and mostly small. The white rocky bottom reflects a lot of light making it difficult to hide. Not only are you required to freedive beyond 30 metres regularly but also navigate and sneak around boulders on the bottom, using a torch to look into holes. It soon became apparent how taxing the diving was, and how frustrating.

Hotspots

The proposed areas for the champs are long stretches of coastline consisting mainly of sandy beaches with two obvious hot spots on the head land and island. These are only small areas and you soon knew what the good spots were by the masses of fishing lines, ropes and cages littered all over the boulders; safety hazards not to get tangled in. Instead of seaweed, as we have in temperate waters, there’s a sea grass covering most of the rocks between five metres out to 40 metres. The thing with the sea grass is that there doesn’t appear to be any fish occupying it like the seaweed here in New Zealand. So you end up diving in vast fields of sea grass covered rocks with no significant fish life.

Alex Edwards, NZ Women’s Champion, with a big Sargo

Species

We were looking for prominent, broken up rocks coming off the bottom with cracks and under hangs as the main species we were hunting hide/live in holes in them. A torch is a must! Then, to the surprise of one of our team, a 50 – 60kg Bluefin tuna swam past right near the boat ramp, moving too quickly to react for a shot. We also encountered smaller tuna similar to Bonito. But the main fish we were spearing for dinner each night were variations of Snapper and Grouper. You certainly had to work hard to get enough for a feed but the fish were incredibly good eating! The yellow belly grouper (pictured) was creamy and delicious!

The Risks

Competing at spearfishing in a location like this poses a few more risks.

  1. Shallow water black out occurs when holding your breath too long and not making it back to the surface safely. This results in you passing out, and if not recovered will most likely be fatal. Added to this are the depths required at this competition which will likely be up to 50-60 metres.
  2. Which brings up the topic of the Bends or decompression sickness. Getting bent is not well known by spearfishers as it is normally associated with scuba divers who spend long periods of time at depth. But for these conditions we will be accumulating more than 30 minutes at depths greater than 30 metres. Since we do not regulate the speed of our ascent, and don’t usually take adequate surface intervals the risk of getting the Bends is real. And there are no specific freediving tables to combat this as of yet. Some people are more susceptible than others.
  3. The other risk is lung squeeze that happens due to compression at depth with the result that lung tissue becomes torn. (A simplified description) You end up having difficulty breathing or coughing up foamy blood. If this happens you are out of action for some time to allow the tears to heal. Conditioning your body for these extreme depths is important. All three of these risks are real and are effectively heightened the deeper you go. All three have happened in past competitions. They are not that uncommon.

You dive alone

In the World Spearfishing Champs you dive alone, with no support diver. Only a boatman follows you to collect the catch (if you get anything). A large percentage of the field will get no fish or maybe one fish. With all the boat noise and divers in the water the fish become extremely scarce and difficult to find. So few fish actually end up being speared, and those only by the top five to 10 competitors. It certainly is an ultimate test and very challenging, and rewarding too. And it was so important to go to where this will all take place next year a year in advance, to see up close what will be required.

Dusky grouper, one of the best eating fish in the Mediterrean

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