Learning to Spearfish

Longer, less FT version of article that appeared in the FT


Real spear fishers don’t use SCUBA tanks. Breath held, they plunge, stealthily stalk their quarry and impale it with a spear. It’s hard to imagine a more heroic sport. So I was looking forward to my two day spear fishing course in Dorset for the FT.

brynAccommodation at the Ferrybridge Inn is included in your course fee with Portland Spearo and Freediving. The Ferrybridge is excellently located between Fleet Lagoon and Portland Harbour, overlooking the imposing Isle of Portland, right next to that geographers’ and writers’ delight, Chesil Beach. Their fry-ups are legendary – the sort of thing that Vikings might sing songs about. Beyond that, the Ferrybridge Inn is a shithole. Showers are a dribble, almost amusingly bad when you’ve been in a cold sea for hours. Almost. My room’s ill-fitting window was just above a busy ‘A’ road, exactly where motorists leave 30mph residential trundling for foot down 60mph zooming. From five a.m. it sounded like the start of a Grand Prix.
Worse, to my smoking ban-tuned nose, the craggy-faced, unfriendly landlord lit up at breakfast, which explained why the whole building minged of cigarettes. Just grim.

So, unless money’s tight, stay somewhere else. Portland Spearo can organise. Or just put up with it. You can acclimatise to the stench of fags, and 35 year-old B (above, on left (I’m on the right)) , founder and chief instructor with Portland Spearo, was great company over the fantastic fry-up cooked by his girlfriend Oona.

Bryn is a tall, friendly man, with the barrel torso and skinny limbs of a man who’s comfortable underwater. He spends half his life piloting a field support vessel in the North Sea, the other half teaching spear diving. Other instructors – ex-SBS men and the like – cover when he’s away.

Spearfishing, Bryn told me, is as much about freediving as skewering marine life. Freediving means getting the most from one breath of air. To conserve energy, fins are huge (always ‘fins’; everyone who takes the use of rubber feet extensions seriously is offended by the word ‘flippers’). Your mask is tiny, so not to waste air, and wetsuits are warm, with full hood, gloves and booties to prevent the cold sapping energy.

The best freediving spearmen hold their breath for four minutes and descend 60 metres underwater (the height of a 20 storey building). Bryn’s maximum is two minutes, and about 35m. My previous snorkelling maximum had been about 4 metres and 10 seconds before panic took over and I shot to the surface like a breaching sperm whale.

Spearfishing, Bryn explained, sits well environmentally, since there’s no by-catch. You eat what you kill, and don’t destroy the sea bed as drag nets do. “It’s the ultimate food selection,” said Bryn.

Is it sporting? SCUBA diving, most fish don’t really react when you drift up to them. Some approach when you waggle your fingers at them. Was spearfishing going to be like walking through the park, luring dogs with a dangled sausage, then spearing them? Research suggests that it might be. Spear-fishing has been linked to local extinctions of friendly fish, such as goliath grouper at Bonaire.

Bryn reassured me that we were unlikely to wipe out any fish populations, and we headed off to kit up.

For the course, you’re meant to have your own basic cold water snorkelling gear – wetsuit and so on – but Bryn leant me his spare one, a 5mm zip-less, with hood. He also had a camouflage wetsuit. They’re supposed to improve your stealth, but Bryn explained why he rarely used it: “a lot of people swear by them, but I’d never wear one because you look like such a cock.”

He supplied me with a hefty weight-belt to compensate for the suit’s buoyancy, a knife for emergencies (i.e. becoming entangled underwater), and then showed me the SMB – Surface Marker Buoy – a little inflatable boat on which we could store catch, with bright markings to theoretically keep boats away. Attached was a spike called a stinger, for killing and storing speared fish. Hanging dead fish from your belt is a no-no. There are porbeagle sharks in UK waters. They haven’t killed anyone yet as far as we know, but “man wearing skirt of bleeding fish becomes first UK shark fatality” is not a headline you want grieving relatives to read.

Then it was guns.

There are two types of spear-gun. The traditional, cheaper and more common gun uses powerful rubber bands, which you pull back and hook onto the spear. I pointed out that it’s essentially an underwater crossbow. “Without the cross, or the bow,” Bryn agreed. The other type uses a gas canister. That’s easier, but more expensive and nosier, so scares off fish.

Hunting flatfish and bass over sand, as was our plan, we were to use medium-sized (50-75cm) elastic band guns. Smaller ones are for tighter areas like weeds and rocks, and huge guns, 160cm plus, are for large pelagic (ocean going) fish like tuna. Guns range in price from £45 to £1000 and more. You can, Bryn said, carry elastic-band guns in hold luggage. Just be careful to refer to them as ‘fishing equipment’, not guns. British Airways concur, stating that the spear must be “packed separately”.

“It’s about stealth”, Bryn told me. “never, ever look a bass in the eye. Bass don’t like being looked at. Don’t grin. They don’t like that either.”

Bass are good fish to shoot, apparently, so are mullet. According to Bryn, in the UK you’re allowed to shoot whatever you want, apart from salmon, trout and crustaceans (you can pick up crustaceans). You don’t need a licence for a basic gun. Selling your catch is, technically, illegal. You should also show sensitivity. Nobody’s going to be impressed in the dive resort when you emerge from the sea with ‘Bluey’, the local celebrity napoleon wrasse, slung over your shoulder with a spear sticking out of his gills.

At Sandsfoot Beach on the western end of Portland’s large harbour, we kitted up. Donning wetsuits is usually an ugly struggle, but Bryn produced a couple of litres of hair conditioner as lubrication. My thick wetsuit slipped on like a big cow onto a skinny vet’s arm.

Bryn asked me which way the current was going, and how one might find tidal information. Learning that is all an important part of the course. Top swimming speed is maybe two knots. Get caught in a mild, say four knot, current heading the wrong way, and the best outcome is being beholden for the rest of your life to some vigilant cliff-top busybody who spotted your panicked waving. Grim death is more likely.

So, clutching my medium-sized elastic powered spear-gun, I waded into the sea, dodging rocks and thinking about death.

Just out of our depth we bobbed, and Bryn went through the ‘legs in the air, then kick to the bottom’ method of diving down. You must, he said, always take your snorkel out of your mouth:

“If you pass out, which is common at depth, your mouth closes automatically and you’ll float to the surface. If there’s a snorkel in your mouth, your mouth can’t close, your lungs will fill with air, and you’ll drown.”

Bryn pointed at our destination, a moored boat about 100 yards away, and we slowly finned out to sea, Bryn towing the SMB. Below was a sandy, weedy bottom. I spotted no life.

At about 3m depth, Bryn chucked a weighted wooden target fish off the SMB. He taught me to cock the gun by pulling back the elastic (quite difficult), and which part of the fish to aim for.

Down I went. I missed the target first go, so pulled the spear back with its string. That’s a bit they miss out on Bond films. Spears are attached to spear-guns with string, so that you can retrieve them after firing. Of course they are. But, in Dr No for example, when Sean Connery tells Domino that Vargas “gets the point” after plugging him with a spear, it wouldn’t have looked nearly so cool if there’d been a little string hanging between 007 and the horribly wounded criminal.

I dived and managed to hit the target about ten times. I was getting confident. “Right, let’s go to a proper depth!” said Bryn. We swam out, beyond the moorings.

The breeze was whipping up a chop, and my ankles, unaccustomed to gigantic fins, were painful. It was soon too deep to see the bottom. I carried on, inspired by a Robert the Bruce moment when a tiny baby spider-crab swam delicately but purposefully a few feet beneath me, brightly lit in the sun.

Bryn stopped, maybe a quarter of a mile out to sea, in 10m of water. By the time I’d got there, he’d dived down, found a scallop, and gutted it. He handed me half of its expensive flesh. It was probably delicious, but, because your nose is effectively blocked, you can’t taste anything while wearing a mask.

Bryn finned away, so I took this as a sign to dive down, heading for a bottom that I couldn’t see. It took a while, but finally the murk cleared and the bottom was there. Seabed spotted, I kicked surface-wards in a controlled panic. The return journey was far too long.

“Alright?” Said Bryn, chucking another scallop onto the SMB. I resolved to at least touch the bottom, and perhaps find a scallop. I was also meant to be looking out for bass, and scouring the seabed for camouflaged flatfish. For flatfish, you search the sandy seabed for a flatfish-shaped lump and two little raised eyes. Approach stealthily, then fire your spear into the unlucky flatty, just behind its eyes. Gripping the spear either side of the fish, you pull it to your chest and surface. You then stick the flatfish though the brain with the spike hanging off the SMB.

On my next dive, I got to the bottom. Chest squeezing and keen to breath, I wasn’t game for a scallop search, let alone spotting a bream or stalking a flatfish. I looked up. The shimmery surface was miles (actually 10m) away. “Surface! surface!” Screamed my lungs. It took ages to get there, and I wasn’t happy when I did. Although happier, I assume, than if I hadn’t.

I dived until I could see the bottom a couple more times, and didn’t enjoy it at all.

“I’m not really in my comfort zone.” I said to Bryn when we next met. Bryn said we’d head in. My gun was cocked, so Bryn said to fire it off. I did so, the string broke, and the spear flashed away into the gloom.

Bryn dived a few times looking for the spear. So did I, knowing that I’d never find it. I did get to the bottom again though.

“It’s lost” Bryn declared eventually. He finned off shorewards, towing his little boat. I followed, face down in the choppy harbour, arms at my side like a ski-jumper, ankles sore.

Another inspirational baby spider crab swam by presently. Soon afterward the reassuring seabed reappeared. I still wasn’t comfortable though. We were back amongst moorings, and there was a man loitering in a RIB speedboat. I very nearly shouted my four-letter opinion about people who drove speedboats near snorkelers. But he wasn’t really that close and I managed to dissuade myself.

Watching out for boats is a major part of spear diving, Bryn had told me: “Jet skis are a pain because they are hard to hear, travel fast, and, as a general rule, are driven by wankers.” You also have to watch out for silent wind and kite-surfers and sailing boats, or, as Bryn called then, WAFIs – Wind Assisted Fucking Idiots.

“Right,” said Bryn, when we were back at three meters depth. “Hold on to this mooring buoy, and float until you’re totally relaxed. Then follow the buoy’s chain to the bottom and stay underwater as long as you want.”

I did. At the bottom I lay there. Then I noticed the seabed was alive. Just there was a hermit crab with a crazily large anemone on its shell like a giant comedy hat. Small, bored-looking fish passed by. A shore crab leapt from behind some weed, brandishing claws and backing away, like a highwayman realising immediately post-ambush that he’d underestimated his quarry.

“That was a minute” said Bryn when I eventually surfaced. “Your goal with snorkelling is to spend three minutes on the surface for every minute spent underwater.”

I floated on the surface for three minutes, then stayed under for just over one. And that’s the key to freediving or snorkelling. You have to really relax, not zoom about and suddenly dive. Take deep breaths, then one massive one. Then take your snorkel out, then dive. In my semi-panic, I’d been diving halfway though my big breath. Better to dive a few seconds after it’s finished.

We finned about slowly, and I dived repeatedly. Spear gone, there was no chance of finding prey, so, like a giant silent aeroplane harassing livestock, I glided inches from the sea floor, spooking crabs, chasing blennies, and tracking snails by following their trails in the sand.

In the shallows, Bryn got me to hold my head under for as long as I could, him tapping my shoulder every 15 seconds. I did a minute and a half.

We got out after three hours. I wasn’t cold, but saltwater had swollen my lips to an Angelina Jolie pout. They were to crack painfully and bloodily later in the week, but it was amusing at the time (take Vaseline).

On Day Two, due to massive waves and my lily-liveredness, we had to abandon the “definitely get some fish” dive spot, and go back into Portland Harbour, where chances of finding fish to shoot were “slim”.

Indeed, we didn’t find any shoot-able fish, but we spend three hours doing just about my favourite thing – snorkelling about and looking at stuff. My snorkelling ability had improved tenfold under Bryn’s instructions, and I gloried in cruising along the seabed. I found heaps of scallops and oysters, which I piled onto the SMB in preparation for a slap-up seafood supper.

There were nudibranchs everywhere – basically sea-snails without a shell, various colours, frilly and alien-looking, about the size of ferrets. Bryn showed me a massive, and very rare, seahorse. Then he found a bizarre animal called a lumpfish. The size of a rabbit, the shape of a fat parsnip, the angry-looking fish held its ground. “Guarding a clutch of eggs” said Bryn.

After three hours, I noticed that I couldn’t move my fingers, so it was time to reluctantly leave the sea.

I strongly recommend the course. There was no disappointment in not actually spearing any fish. I now know all about spearfishing, and I’m confident that I can use a spear gun, which was the goal. Much better, my snorkelling is vastly improved, and I’m going to enjoy donning may mask flopping off the rocks on holiday this summer even more, armed or unarmed.

In fact, in my hypocritical ‘I eat animals but don’t like killing them’ mind, I’ve already replaced the spear gun with an underwater camera. I’m going to stalk the fish like a ninja, then photograph the hell out of them.



Copyright The Financial Times Ltd, photos Angus Watson