Hold Your Breath and a Speargun

BY: Owen West
NEW YORK TIMES

August, 2002

Because life has become so automated and easy, the American adventure lust burns more brightly than it ever has. People are plunging into so-called ‘extreme sports’ to kindle that base urge so that it remains stoked even as the imperatives of family mount and the number of remote controls multiply. To many, the thrill is sparked in the mountains or woods. I choose the ocean and spearfishing because there is risk, a rewarding meal waiting below the surface and an adventure that I’ll be able to capture for several more decades.

At 32, mine is a twilight age in most sports but I have yet to reach my peak in spearfishing. My companions today are over 60. Stalking striped bass underwater on breaths of air as large as your lungs can hold takes guile and tradecraft, not speed or strength. We were five miles from Block Island when Rudy “Spooky” Enders, 70, struggled into his wetsuit as white caps slammed into our bow, spraying us like shotgun pellets in the twenty-knot wind. Later we will learn this day claimed five lives in our New England waters, but the striper run is short. My dad has a collection of these die-hards, men who spent their formative years chasing other men in black pajamas. Rudy is a former CIA special operations officer who speared 400-pound fish in the 1950s, killed a Great White shark in the 1970s, and had his hand chopped up and crippled by a seven-foot moray eel off Key West.

My own crew of friends packed between the gunwales is less worldly but no less competitive, eager to show the old corps that looks and energy can overpower experience. My brother Patrick, 30, thrashes the water with his short boogie board fins and hunts by covering distance instead of waiting in ambush. He’s thin but doesn’t wear a wet suit—don’t ask—so it’s a question as to whether he’ll beat Rudy to the water. George Henry and Dan Justicz, both 33, are relative neophytes who only recently found that the emptiness within them was a need to hunt. They aren’t used to Rudy’s covert tricks so in the minutes it takes them to find their hidden equipment when we set the anchor in 30 feet of water, Rudy is already staggering to the gunwale in full battle dress: a thick wetsuit to combat the 52-degree water, a 25 pound weight belt to help him plummet to the bottom, the same mask, snorkel, and fins that were issued him in 1953, and his six-foot speargun that is essentially an elongated cross bow powered by rubber tubes.

“I’m just going to take a look around,” he announces, rubbing spit into his mask. Right. When they see black-suited skin divers, striped bass jet away and alert other fish as they depart. So the first diver in the water has the best chance and everyone races to get dressed.

Well, everyone except the boat’s captain, Loyd Sunderland, 72. Over a decade ago, Lloyd was first in the water on a day when the visibility was less than fifteen feet. Loyd saw the black oval of a small ship’s compass hovering in the haze about ten feet below the surface. He sucked in a breath and dove toward it. It’ll look terrific on my boat, he thought. Then the compass turned slightly and glided toward him. As Lloyd explains it, “My stomach felt like I was on the edge of cliff, about to fall. Then the feeling spread to my chest and I couldn’t breathe. Finally my brain got the message: A compass doesn’t swim. That’s an eyeball.”

The shark was so big – like a small car—that its gray body blended with the gray of the water. One flick of its tail sent Loyd tumbling backward – gun, mask, and breath gone. Lloyd did the human thing: he set the 100-meter open ocean swim record to the boat. The other divers saw the huge shadow gliding out to sea as Lloyd flung himself over the gunwale. To this day Lloyd still dives with us, but I always beat him into the water.

Since Rudy headed east, when I hit the water I slowly fin to the west. SCUBA instructors say to dive with a buddy. But in the murky New England waters, spearfishermen give each other a wide berth. It’s a lonely sport with no place for imagination lest the monsters that patrol the mind erode precious oxygen. I start my breathing routine, slow breaths at first, followed by a shallow, rapid-fire burst, then a final deep suck that stretches my lungs. Rapid breathing expels carbon dioxide, raising the threshold for apnea—thirst for oxygen—by deadening the alarm systems in the lungs that are triggered by CO2. To avoid shallow water blackout, I’ll surface at the first serious thirst for oxygen, spending about the same time above and below water for the next few hours.

I tip forward and flip my legs over my head to gain some downward momentum. When my fins are underwater—and silent—I take two kicks. They’re enough to send me on my way without using any extra oxygen. Soon I’m plummeting into the dark, fingers pinching my nose to help with equalization. A boulder rises up out of the murk and I manage to tilt the big gun in time.

I orient myself and pull quietly into an ambush position between two rocks, staring hopefully into the darkness, listening for the tell-tale whump of their massive tails. Two fish swim by but I hold my shot; as a rule, an over-the-hill diver never takes more than a single fish and I’m hoping for something bigger. I hear the metallic snick of another diver’s speargun discharge—the sound so magnified it might be my Dad, forty feet away, or Rudy, four hundred feet away—and the Stripers are gone. I stay underwater about a minute listening for another approach, praying that, unlike the thousands before it, this will be the dive on which the monster bass will intersect my life.

The steady ache of the rising CO2 level triggers the alarm. My time in the ambush spot is up. I rotate into the vertical and take a kick for the surface. In an instant a Striper bursts from behind a clump of seaweed and he is alongside me, a shimmering wall of silver splashed with dark, horizontal stripes. It’s over forty pounds, so large that for a millisecond I take it for a shark. I try to avoid direct eye contact—their curiosity holds a split-second longer if you appear disinterested—but silver ghosts are mesmerizing apparitions. The Striper is so close that I could reach out and touch its shimmering flank. One second to shoot. Not enough time for the gun to get around.

Its dorsal fin suddenly springs up and, with a flick of the wide tail, it takes a tight turn, gripping the water, rocketing behind me. I swivel my head in time to see the big tail fade into the green. Thousands of dives for a moment like this. When I reach the surface and gasp, my dad hears the commotion and leisurely swims over. When I tell the story, he chuckles in his snorkel. The sympathy seems smothered. Dad speared a fifty-pound world record fish almost half a century ago. How old will I be when one of us lands the sixty-pounder?