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Rite of Passage

Rite of Passage

By Chi Lo

I guess it began for me – as it did for many – with a four foot length of stainless tubing, 6 flimsy prongs and a thin strap of rubber.

The humble handspear was a weapon that I will never forget. The way the prongs would bend like butter, the way the effective range was probably 20cm and rubbers that were held together by coiled bits of wire…it all had a kind of primeval romance to it. The humble handspear was bestowed upon me by a good friend and introduced to the water at Palm Beach, Sydney. It’s funny how despite the many acts and plays in my life since then I will never forget the first time I terrorised the rock cale that day. What a day that was with the sun shining, the water freezing and the cheap plastic mask and fin set chafing against my unprotected skin. The sheer exhilaration of diving the first 3m and flailing around in hopeless buoyancy coupled with the solid meaty crunch of prong meeting rock cale was something delicious. I look back and remember thinking…’Christ this is easy!’. Our adventure was duly rewarded at the end of a long day with a deep pan full of rock cale fillets. I still remember the first taste…it tasted like…victory…and excrement.

There is always something about being out there in the water, relaxing, having a laugh and exploring the many wonders and sights of the underwater world. The first sighting of the humble blue groper had my heart pumping. Seeing luderick rocket through the weeds, peeking at the ever-vigilant damselfish in their crevices and listening to that magical crackle and pop of life on the reef. I hark back on that day as the one that spearfishing is everything about: Enjoying the liquid environment, discovering and reveling in its many wonders and taking a feed home at the end of the day. It is these things we sometimes take for granted and I take myself back to that very first day as a point of reference. After all, how lucky are we? How many times have we as divers seen dolphins in the water, turtles mooching, sharks the length of cars or sights more wondrous than anyone can imagine? How often do you tell people nonchalantly of what you were doing over the weekend only to receive adulation, amazement and disbelief in what you do?

From that day forwards I was in love. Drunken in the addiction to salt water and sea air…I remember hassling my mates non-stop to go for a dive, just one more chance to use my handspear please?  Months went by and my target list grew. Red mowies, luderick, silver trevally, jackets of all sorts and even an unlucky tailor fell prey to my 4ft stainless tool of death. I thought I was the bees knees at this point in short sleeve rashy, 3lb weight, and rusty divers economy knife strapped to my leg. I felt great, final year of school and bringing home a feed left, right and centre. I remember the look of my mum and the smile she would give me when I dumped a fresh heap of fish in the kitchen sink. Perhaps it was me turning and walking away that meant I didn’t see the frown when I stated; ‘Oh sorry Mum I haven’t scaled, gutted or cleaned them’. I could see it in my dads eyes too, a certain sense of pride in his prodigal hunter. It must be something deeply primeval and evolutionally rooted in getting satisfaction from supplying food for the table. Either way I’m sure as hell they preferred cleaning my fish rather then seeing me get up to any other mischief.

First year of university rolled on and well to be honest, I had a lot of free time. The life of a 1st year student is all but challenging and with a facilitating amount of lectures that could be missed, I was set down a long and winding road to bigger and better fish. The gear came first of course as by now my handspear was looking much worse for wear. An Esclapez Challenger was my next weapon of choice and the hunt resumed. At first I was disappointed at the cumbersome nature of a gun, the chore of reloading which invariably bruised my chest and the one shot/one chance nature of a gun. It took me a long time to get used to that thing until one magical day…

A good friend of mine Angus had joined me as my lifelong spearfishing buddy. It was together that we explored the first prospect of bigger and better things at a location named ‘The Bower’. The Bower extends from 8m to 15m depth which in my eyes at the time was an absolute impossibility. The fact that we were using fluoro yellow snorkeling fins, a rashy vest that limited effective time in the water to 30 minutes and a disregard for anything more than 3lb of weights probably contributed to our view of unreachable depths. Nothing is like the ghetto setup of a new diver on a uni budget, where everything is scrounged and built. Upon entering we were immersed in an absolute oasis of fish life. I guess I will always take for granted that day as a first timer. I thought that 25m visibility, bath like water and fish everywhere were an everyday occurrence. We were hovering in 8m admiring the fish life when Angus screamed and pointed me straight down. Underneath me two large fish were sitting on the bottom apparently bemused by the neon mess of gear above them. I took an explosively deep breath and pounded down on a typical bombing run. Straight down 8m and my lungs were on fire! I pointed the gun at the closest and largest fish and pulled the trigger. The rubber flexed forwards and spat the spear into the fishes shoulder. It limped weakly to the surface, which was probably a good thing given that my rigrope was whipper snipper cord attached to a kids pool kickboard. I had hurt the fish badly and after the theatrics of high fives, whoops and laughs the fish was in my arms.

It was our first time at a new spot in Sydney and first shot of the day with a gun I hated using, landing a 2kg samsonfish. Not bad for a first shot! The magic continued that day resulting in lucky shots, captured fish and absolute elation. Angus and myself had landed a samsonfish, 2 salmon and a large red mowie between us. We were absolutely beaming. You couldn’t wipe the smile from us with an angle grinder.

Months passed and my confidence with my gun grew. The species list grew and grew with each foray but I couldn’t help that nagging feeling. That nagging feeling that there were bigger and better things… bigger and stronger fish, better and more expensive gear and deeper and brighter locations. I guess you could say I was on my way.

The first purchases began with my first 3mm open cell spearfishing wetsuit. The fins, mask and gun were the same. At least I couldn’t be mistaken, as camo brown and fluoro yellow is a combination you don’t see very often. I still remember the warmth, the freedom and most importantly the sensation of hot urine running up and down my legs. The wetsuit gave me a newfound freedom, range and endurance in the water.

Dives soon stretched on and on, getting in with the sun high in the sky and getting out when the sun was low in the horizon. I remember a particularly marathon-like effort of 7 hours in the water on a rockhop. But man, you couldn’t stop me. More fish were to come, red rockies, bream, salmon and bonito all came and fell. I wanted more, I needed more. I needed… a kingfish.

 

For anyone unacquainted with the Sydney marine diversity, kingfish tend to form the numero uno of targets for those with a hunger for bigger fish. To a lesser extent jewfish and some others show up, but for sheer consistency of appearance it’s the urban hoodlum that captures the heart of every new Sydney spearo. I tried so hard, swimming everywhere, looking everywhere and shooting everything.

I guess the only thing I didn’t do in my hunt for a kingfish is ask somebody about how to get one.

That all changed with the help of an online forum and the beginning of a new chapter in my life. The forum gave me the avenue, directions and inclination to join the band of brothers known as North Shore Underwater Club. For anyone doubting the purpose or usefulness of clubs then let me tell you that joining a club was the singularly most important decision I made in my spearfishing life to date. Through this decision I’ve made lifelong friends, experienced lifelong memories and progressed my spearfishing more then I ever could have on my own.

I remember walking into that clubroom, hearing the banter and roars of laughter long before I arrived. I remember walking in, all of 18 with peroxide blonde in my hair (Why is it at that age we always convince ourselves that we look good with ridiculous hair?).

I remember taking my seat, feeling shy, insignificant and out of my depth. Then the meeting began. Looking around the room I saw the most diverse bunch of people you will ever lay eyes upon. What united them all seemed to be that glint in their eye, the discussion that floated around the room on what they shot last weekend up the coast, the latest piece of gear to hit the shelves and the eating qualities of various fish. We were all spearos and I had opened new doors, found new buddies and tapped into a vast library of information.

Armed with the spoken words of those in the know I was ready to find my kingfish, capture him and feast on the results.

My time would come after many unsuccessful dives, but there was no stopping me. I was a kid on a mission and it didn’t take long until I found myself exploring further away from the local and in the water off the rocky shores of Sydney’s Long Bay.

As I got in the swell was rolling and the water a lurid snot green. The water was cloudy with jellies and through the greenish haze I couldn’t make out much more than faint outlines. I stuck to the shallower confines of the bay as I scoured the area for an unlucky demersal species or two. My search came up relatively fruitless until I happened upon a large ridge. Following this ridge I was handed my first lesson in my kingfish quest when a jittery school of yellowtail came streaming by me in hurried single file.

I had hardly any time to process this information when the most amazing scene opened up before my eyes. Ghosts materialized out of the gloom in the shape of kingfish.

Seeing one underwater for the first time was a picture eternally etched into my mind. Their form was pure efficiency; the lithe length of the fish broken only by muscular shoulders and a faintly arrogant mouth. The striking line down the centre coupled with the mossy green back and vibrant tail makes what I think is still one of the more purposeful fish in the seas.

They roved with murderous intent, looking for frightened yakkas in a expansive weaving pattern. As they traced a path around me I hardly had time to think as I raised my gun and fired at the closest.

The light twang of my small gun was the only pre-cursor to the fish performing a spectacular underwater cartwheel. As it quivered in a hapless circle I knew I had finally landed my first kingfish.

The feeling of elation that came over me was the feeling of being born again, totally hooked and addicted for the rest of my life. The sheer adrenaline rush surged through my veins in the purest experience I have ever felt – It was better than any booze or drug. The triumphant swim to the surface was punctuated by my screaming and whooping as I broke the surface.

I look back now and I see an 18 year old with a stupid haircut  and eyes literally popping out of my head I was so stoked. You only have to see the picture to understand. The feeling of setting a goal and achieving it is something I have learned to appreciate more and more in life. It is something that keeps me going on the lengthiest days or emotionally taxing of times. It’s another part of why spearfishing is so great; it’s just such a healthy lifestyle.

Years down the track I am a little wiser, a little weary looking and a little heavier. Not that I’ve been through a massive appearance change at the age of 26, but the joys of a full-time job seem most rewarded in too little exercise and too many lunches. These days, I’m a little less eager to get out of a warm bed in winter, a bit less keen to get into green water, a bit smarter about my hydration and generally more tired after a dive. It’s a trend I see continuing for a good few decades.

As I peer at my work laptop the background flickers over the last decade of my life in fish. I’ve been fortunate enough to go up and down the Eastern seaboard, put spears into a fair amount of fish and knock off a few personal goals along the way. I’ve seen some sights that make me smile late at night with my head on the pillow and pictures to dream of in the most dreary of meetings. All this and I know I haven’t even scratched the surface.

At some point I guess it was inevitable that I’d find a girl forgiving enough of my spearfishing addiction to let me marry her. As a rite of passage in any young man’s life I signed my last remaining shreds of dignity away in agreeing to a buck’s weekend down the South Coast of NSW.

The fateful weekend soon came and we were motoring out in what can only be described as perfect seas – a far cry from Long Bay at 18. As we flew over small dips and crests so many memories and emotions went through me. This is where I loved to be, spray lingering at my brow and the anticipation of what was to come burning in my chest.

As I rolled off the boat into the cool familiar world I was greeted by a hazy blue yonder. The wonderful sounds of life on the reef came to my ears, the click clacking of crustaceans and the whistle and fizzle of the sea’s inner sanctum.

I was a different underwater beast now – no longer elements of fluoro, instead top to toe in technology. The latest carbon fibre, the newest dive computer and the latest micro mask was my uniform now. As I slipped below the waves it was no bomb dive, it was a smooth fluid movement to preserve each and every precious oxygen molecule in my body – so far away from the first few I took a decade ago.

10 years had taught me a lot (Although nothing in the grand scheme of things). There was no burning anxiety, no clumsy fumbling. My heart was slow, my body was still as I hung deep in the column of water.

I felt the weight of the water like the world above me and felt the beautiful solace that only someone under the waves can know.

As I looked ahead a glorious green and yellow torpedo assailed my vision. Mado’s and sweep parted as smaller fish darted for kelpy cover. At over a metre long the kingfish sidled up to me, its sinewy and streamlined form daring me to challenge its territorial supremacy.

My mind was still, my lips creased in the slightest of smiles. I turned my head away and extended my gun and it came closer as if slightly puzzled by my lack of interest. As it turned sideways the marvelous colours blazed like an underwater masterpiece. The picture was the same, that same incredible fish and that same incredible moment to come.

I turned my head and sighted down the barrel of my Aimrite king venom, bringing it in line with the fish. As I pulled the trigger the rubbers threw themselves vertical as if in mock-horror. They stood there frozen, having launched their steely burden into the aqua. The beautiful thud of the spear entering the fish’s shoulder was only mirrored by the resounding thud of its tail.

I felt the line run through my hands until I reached the rigline and proceeded to bring my prize up. I was smiling the whole ascent, the feeling when you know you’ve just landed a great fish. It was fitting that the fish on the end of my spear be the fish that started it all for me. The next chapter of my life would begin exactly as the previous one did.

I pulled it up slowly, admiring its brave attempts to be free. In short time I had it close and embraced the fish, like the old familiar friend he was. As I held it in my arms it was as if no time had passed and once again I was a surly teenager, born again.

Two weeks came and I found myself in a different kind of suit, the kind with peak lapels, pressed seams and a flower in the button-hole.

As I looked to my left and front I saw my mates, a band of brothers there to help me celebrate one of the biggest days in my life. Each of these people shared a bond with me, born through the water and through the awesome memories we shared of triumphant trips and bitter disappointment coming home empty handed. These are guys I had trusted my life in each and every time we went out there, guys I had shared my highest moments with in remote reaches of the sea.

Where life will take us all I don’t know. Kids probably, mortgages are already becoming a reality.

Yet, we are all smiling. I know that that magical time when we are all in the water, one thing becomes apparent:

Spearfishing will always be a part of us: past, present and future.