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Spear Fishing in the Tuamotu

Holly crap I got another one’.  Red is reeling in big tropical fish.  He is catching one every two or three minutes.  He would pull them up to the transom, lift them out of the water, then yank the hook out with a pair of pliers and release them back to the wild.  No one in this world enjoys fishing as much as Red does.  His excitement is contagious. 

Red is amazed every time he gets a fish.  Red could catch a hundred fish in a row and he would be just as happy and amazed on the hundredth fish as he is on the first one.  He is a good fisherman and never tires of fishing.

 ‘Frickin ciguatera’, Red cussed.  Ciguatera is the curse of south Pacific reef fishing.  Any fish larger than about 12 inches can carry a poison that will screw up your co-ordination and can leave you in awful pain.  Our three boats are anchored in 20 feet of aquamarine water at the beautiful coral reef atoll of Kauehi in the Tuamotu, French Polynesia.  Fishing is easy but eating is fool hearty.

 ‘Hey mates, let’s take a run over to the Pacific side of the atoll and do some spear fishing.  The Pacific side should be ciguatera free’ – suggests Max.  Max is a cookie cutter out-back Aussie.  He is brash, fearless and full piss and vinegar.  Max has been around boating and tropical fish for nearly 30 years, he has a million stories and can fix nearly anything. 

 ‘Yeah, right-on.  Let’s get started tomorrow morning early’.  Red and Vic agree.  Vic is out sailing around the world for his 55th Birthday.  Two and a half years later he is 1/3 the way around.  Not much of a fisherman, but he could swim like a dolphin and drink everyone else under the table. 

 ‘Hey that sounds like fun, how about I join you?’ Karli asked.  Karli is Red’s fun loving, adventurous and ever positive girl friend.  Karli is drop dead gorgeous, speaks with a southern California twang and had a smile that could stop a man on his way into the beer store.  Who could say no to those big brown eyes?

As the sun comes up the next morning the VHF radio softly springs to life – ‘bong, bong, bong, time to get up and go spear fishing!’  ‘Bong, bong, bong, church will be starting in an hour!’  ‘Bong, bong, bong, get up get up lets go fishing you lazy bastards!’  Seems Red is the only one understands the concept of early.

A couple of hours later the foursome tumbles into the dingy loaded down with diving masks, fins, spear guns fuel and rum.  With the water slopping over the transom, Red guns the 15 horse outboard and the overloaded dingy responds sluggishly.  Powering across the picture perfect south Pacific lagoon, they are on the way for a great day of fishing and swimming.

After picking their way across the lagoon, dodging coral heads and pearl floats, they find a likely spot to cross the atoll.  Landing on a golden sandy beach, the boys drag the dingy up high and dry and tuck her under the shade of a big palm tree.

‘Shoes, why didn’t you bring shoes you idiot.  We have a coral atoll and a small forest to cross and you are going to do it in your bare feet?’  Vic looked sheepishly at his naked feet, thinking of his water shoes on the aft deck of his boat.

‘Here - take mine’.  Max tossed Vic a pair of diving boots.  ‘Don’t need the damn things, gotta toughen up my feet’.  Three weeks ago Max had stepped on a spiny sea urchin and gotten over 30 spines stuck in his foot.  The doctors had made him soak the foot in bleach every day for a week and the foot is soft as a baby’s diaper.  ‘Yeah, I guess walking across coral, rocks and a small forest out to be just what you need’ Vic replied sarcastically.  ‘No - I mean it mate, really, take em, I am gonna walk in my bare feet anyway.’

Marching single file down the wild tropical jungle trail, shaded by coconut palms the  adventurers search for a trail to the other side.  Soon the trail turns into a track,  then a double track.  Then a paved road.  Then a wide landing strip paved with coral.  They found the bloody airport.

‘This is where the locals get a real laugh at the tourists’ chuckles Red ‘four people in swim suits with snorkeling gear and spear guns coming to the airport’.  ‘What about security?  Can we get these spear guns through airport security?’  Karli quips.

‘Hey mister, do you know where the swimming pool is?’ Vic asks a local.  The local just shakes his head, grins and grunts – ‘no English.’  But we know he is thinking - ‘what a bunch of idiots’.

Through the airport gate, over the berm, across the field, over the sun heated landing strip and down to the Pacific shore.   ‘Look at that!’ Max cries.  Miles and miles of red coral shelf spread left and right.  Surf hammers the shoreline with thunderous booms.

The tide is out and the shelf of coral has only six to eighteen inches of water on it.  Some time in the past, really big waves must have tossed those huge heads of coral up on the reef.  It is like some giant Poseidon of the sea rose up and flung the coral heads, scattering them like dandelion seeds.

‘Far frickin out, lets go!’ shouts Vic excitedly.  Winding through the coral heads they work their way down on to the coral ledge.  The surf is intimidating, hammering away on the coral ledge.  ‘There must be an easy way in’ says Max, ‘you look east, and I’ll look west’.

Max is soon yelling, ‘Here is the entrance.’  He has found a deep channel worn into the coral shelf.  The waves wash in and out of the channel.   ‘You gotta time it right, wait for the channel to fill, and then ride the out flow into deep water.   Gathering round and looking doubtfully at the channel,  Vic says ‘Max, you are out of your mind.   That coral will take the skin off your ass and you will come out looking like a bloody filleted barracuda.’

Vic and Max talk about the coasts of North America and Australia where fishermen are lost each year in big surf situations similar to this.  An extra large breaker comes roaring in, knocks the fishermen off their feet, then as the big wave washes back out to sea it carries the fisherman with it.   ‘But those poor shmucks are fully clothed’ – Red says ‘and they ain’t got no snorkeling gear.’   ‘Yeah’ – Vic agrees, and we are not those kind of fishermen anyway - we are spear fishing.’  ‘Yeah’ says Max, ‘and this water isn’t cold enough to kill you.’ 

Look mates, I’ll show you how its done.’  Max waits for a wave to fill the channel with water, and then as the wave starts washing back out to sea he throws his body into the rushing water.  Kicking and swimming hard to get beyond the coral ledge before the next breaker,  he makes it easily, turns round laughing and shouts ‘nothing to it mates, come on.’

Red shrugs and mumbles ‘anything Max can do’ and flings himself into the water.  He is swiftly carried beyond the surf.  ‘I donno’ Karli says, ‘I think I will wait here.’  ‘I donno either’ says Vic,  ‘those two are bloody crazy.’   Red shouts from the water, ‘Hey,  the visibility is excellent – great diving - best yet.’   ‘See you’  says Vic as he tosses his body into the outflow,  swimming hard as a chunk of coral passes a foot below his chest.

The diving is awesome – world class.  Visibility at 70 or 80 feet.  Clear water, beautiful coral formations everywhere.  A dive to the bottom proves the water deeper than it looks.  Fish swim all around, big guys, little guys, and a small grey shark circling in the distance.

Max is after a grouper – or sea trout as the Aussies call it.   Swimming up to within a few feet he releases the spear and nails it through the head.  A quick swim back to shore, he tosses the fish to Karli and returns for more.  Max picks off another one.

Red finds a grouper and is on its tail, he shoots but misses and the retrieval line breaks.  Red dives hard to get down far enough to retrieve the spear.  He reloads and he is hunting again.  Max picks off another one,  then Red gets one.

Swimming back to shore with the bounty, a shark does slow circles about 40 feet away.  Soon he is joined by another.   Then another.   Soon four sharks are circling.  ‘Time to get out’ Red says, swimming toward the inlet.

‘Getting in was easy, lets see how this goes’ Vic thinks to himself.  Looking underwater behind, the sharks seem to be following.  Smelling blood, they sense dinner.   Above the water, a wave rolls in and picks everyone up and drops them on the coral shelf.  Scrambling away from the breaker area, looking cautiously behind Vic thinks, ‘that is easy enough’.

‘Wow look at these fish’, says Red,  ‘fan - tastick.’  ‘Not bad mate’, says Max,  ‘and these blue bellies, they don’t carry ciguatera, I think’.  Should be a good feed tonight.  Nothing like successful hunting to bring on that adrenalin buzzing camaraderie feeling.   

Red says ‘What do you think Karli?  The diving is awesome.  You should come for a dive these conditions are the best ever, we may never get to see water this clear again.’  ‘I donno guys, seems a little rough,  what do you think, will it be OK for me?’  Karli says thinking it over.   ‘Yeah yeah, it is easy’, Max says.  ‘Come on, we will look out for you and we will feed the sharks this time.  It will be fun.’

You want to feed the friggin sharks?’ cries Vic astonished.   ‘Right,  well we won’t give ‘em a good fish,  just something we pick off the bottom,  I’ve done it before, no problem.’ Max says.   ‘Yeah, well sure, whatever.’ Vic says skeptically.

With a little encouragement,  Karli jumps in.  Timing it perfectly she is swept out away from the shore.  The snorkeling is still fantastic, just like before.   As they swim out into deeper water,  two or three sharks take up position between them and the shore.  One decides to come closer.  Vic swims aggressively towards the shark and it moves slowly away.

Red and Max are oblivious.  Buzzing on the hunting, they swim hard looking for sea trout.  One swims lazily away,  not recognizing Red and Max as predators.   ‘Wham’  Max shoots him through the head.  Red reacts with excitement, pounding Max on the arm.  Now it is Red’s turn and he is in hot pursuit of another fish.  Red nails it with a shot through the body.

The sharks are getting interested.   A half dozen are swimming more rapidly back and forth about 30 feet away.  Max is surprised when he looks around and notices the sharks.  The hair is standing up on the back of his neck as Max signals toward the beach. 

‘Wholly crap’, Vic thinks,  ‘Loose the fish and let the sharks have them.’  But,  Red and Max are determined to take their trophies ashore.  Max finds the channel and lets the waves pick him up and carry him shoreward.   He disappears from view for a minute or so.  Where the hell is he?  As wave washes back he emerges, unsteadily getting to his feet as another breaker dumps him.

‘Lets go’ shouts Red, as he looks under water and sees the sharks circling 20 feet away.  A big wave is moving toward shore and we move as a group to catch it.   The wave picks us all up and throws us shoreward. 

The air is knocked out of Vic’s as he lands hard on a chunk of coral 30 feet short of the shelf.  Grabbing onto the rough corral Vic holds on as the wave washes back seaward, trying to drag him with it.  His spear gun is sucked out of his hand as he hangs on the coral.  Vic sucks in a quick lungful of air just before the next breaker pummels him down and drags him across the corral.  ‘Jaysus H Cree Iced – this ain’t the way?’ Vic curses as pain sears his hip and shins.

Max and Red are both on shore now, standing precariously as the wash of the water alternately pulls and pushes around their legs tying to topple them off balance.  Red looks around and notices Karli in trouble.  He tosses his fish on a chunk of coral and dives back in swimming toward Karli.  

A three foot long shark has swam up on the shallow coral shelf and slashes for Max’s fish.  Max is momentarily startled then clubs the shark with the butt end of his spear gun.

Behind Vic, Karli screams as she is pounded by another breaker and loses her grip on the coral.  The breaker carries Karli forward of Vic, then she is washed back seaward.  Vic grabs her with one hand as she washes by and hangs on desperately to the coral with his other hand.  Vic feels his left flipper being torn from his foot by the sea.

As the current eases Vic tries to stand up and another breaker pounds him and Karli flat into the corral.  They hang on again in the powerful backwash, fingers screaming in pain as they force them to hold on to slight indentations in the coral.  Vic’s swim trunks are washed down over his ankles and out to sea.    

A break between the waves gives Vic and Karli a chance to make it to their feet.  Max grabs Karli’s wrist and helps her shoreward.   ‘Vic – get out of the water’ Max shouts – ‘You are bleeding like a stuck pig’   Vic looks down to see a sheet of bright red streaming down his leg.   ‘Chreeist!’ he shouts, ‘Double Chreeeist!’  Another shark is up in the shallow water on the reef about 20 feet away.

‘Let’s go’  shouts Vic,  feeling the sharks after his naked ass.  Bounding across the reef, Vic is out of the water in seconds.  The sharks continue to swim about in the 2-3 foot water, foiled for the moment.

Red’s trophy fish has wiggled from the coral perch where he stashed it.  The sharks have it.  They are tearing chunks out of the sea trout and create a torrent of white in the shallow water. 

‘Where is Red?’ Karli shouts.   Looking around, he is no where to be seen.  ‘The sharks must have got him’ she wails.  ‘Wait a minute Karli, wait a minute,’ Max sooths,  ‘he will be OK,  I’ll go back.  I’ll take a look for your shorts, flipper and spear too’  Max grins at Vic.

‘Forget that stuff’  Vic says, ‘Where the hell is Red’.  Karli has a towel in her pack and passes it to Vic who presses it to his hip to slow the bleeding.  ‘Just a scratch’ he says inspecting the wound.

Max walks back out to the entrance channel looking carefully in the water.  As he approaches the surge knocks him on his ass.  He gets up again and throws himself in the water.  Max spots Red swimming slowly about 50 feet seaward.   Between Max and Red are about a half a dozen good sized sharks. 

Waving to Red to keep his distance,  Max loads the spear gun.  It is a long shot but he lines up a mid-sized shark and lets fly.   The spear plants firmly in the shark’s side and blood starts to flow.  Quickly taking his knife, he cuts the retrieval line and waves Red toward shore as he spots something and dives deep.

Swimming rapidly shoreward as the sharks frenzy - eating one of their own - Red and Max grab a wave and are carried up the reef.  They stand up and are promptly knocked on their asses.  They gain their feet on the second try and bound shoreward toward Vic and Karli. 

‘Sorry you had to miss the shark feeding’ Max laughs, ‘Crikee - the surf really came up fast.  ‘Nasty cut mate.  Here are your shorts and fin.  Now I lost a fin!  Couldn’t find the spear.  Did you drop it right at the entrance?’

‘Screw the spear, let’s get the hell out of here.’  Vic says.  ‘No hurry, one more try mate’ Max says as he heads back over the reef.  Vic and Red look at each other and shrug.  ‘I’ll go too’, says Red. 

As they reach the entrance Max is quickly back in the water.  Red is knocked hard on his ass.  As he scrambles to regains his footing  he goes down hard again.  ‘Screw it’ says Red, limping back and rubbing his aching butt.   Max re-appears shortly,  ‘Too rough in close’ he says.  ‘Have to try and get it tomorrow.’

The trip back to the boats is uneventful.  But Vic’s bleeding couldn’t be completely quenched.  ‘Great’ says Vic, ‘leave a trail of blood for the sharks to follow right to our boats!’ 

Just another day of fishing in a Tuamotu paradise.