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Safe spearfishing - Top tips avoid a diving disaster

16 May 2016
Safe spearfishing - Top tips avoid a diving disaster

As an adventure sport, spearfishing can be very safe; but the ocean is an unforgiving environment to the underprepared.

In late January a diver died on the south coast of Wellington, the third diving fatality in that area this summer. The country has seen an appalling number of drownings this season. It is timely to discuss a few of the key dangers of spearfishing, how to manage the risks, and how keep ourselves safe.

The overwhelming majority of diving deaths are simple drownings. Many are directly attributable to pre-existing medical conditions or poor fitness. A cardiac event that would have been survivable on land often results in a death in the water. The number one thing you can do to keep yourself safe in the water is maintain a high level of health and fitness. Here are the key hazards and some strategies to manage them:

Spearfishing tips

I always dive with a buddy i trust when targetting deep weedline species such as tarakihi and boarfish

Waves, tides and currents

Even the fittest diver will struggle against a strong ocean current. Good local knowledge and pre-dive observation skills will help you to avoid such situations.

The most obvious hazards are waves and white water. Any wave action is going to make life difficult, especially waves breaking onto rocks. Less obvious is the effect these waves have on localised currents. All that white water forms a rip as it makes its way back out to sea. Rips are common on a surf beach but they also form along rocky outcrops. If you have trouble swimming back against current, swim perpendicular to it until it weakens enough.

Tidal currents affect divers. Check the tide before you enter the water and which direction it will flow. Generally, on the east coast an incoming tide will run north to south, and on the outgoing south to north.

Often divers are their own worst enemies, particularly when loading up with gear. Keep your gear to a minimum and as streamlined as possible. Large catch bags and other bits and pieces seriously slow you down; ditch them if you feel yourself getting into trouble.

When collecting heavy shellfish like scallops, attach a floatline to the bag. You can leave the bag on the bottom when coming up for air, avoiding the struggle to the surface.

Matt Lind winter spearfishing tips

A divers plat is the best way of transporting the catch as it keeps it completely out of the water and avoids attracting unwelcome visitors of the toothy kind.

You should not wear more than 10% of your body weight in lead, this will keep you neutrally buoyant at one third of your diving depth. You are thus positively buoyant on the surface and should have no problem keeping your head above water, even in a vertical position.

Other Users

Being hit by a boat is the greatest danger spearos face. Often we dive in places where boaties simply do not expect to see divers, and other times idiot ‘zoomers’ are going way too fast, too close to shore.

Protect yourself visibly and fly a dive flag. Only scuba divers are required to fly a dive flag, while spearos and snorkelers do not need to. While technically correct, it seems a small point to lay your life on. Most boaties know the alpha flag means there are people nearby in the water. It also means they are required to reduce boat speed to 5 knots within a 200m radius, but even if they don’t, which sadly is usually the case, they’ll at least be looking out more carefully.

In reality, the float you fly your flag from will be the most visible and is your most important item of safety equipment. The very best type of float is a diver’s plat. Their size makes them visible for miles, as well as keeping the catch out of the water. Smaller floats are more common and still very suitable, but make sure they are brightly coloured and can mount a flag.


spearfishing with sharks

When people think of dangers while spearfishing, sharks are usually one of their greatest fears.

The last spearfishing shark attack in New Zealand was way back in the 70s. The bronze whaler population does seem to be increasing though, as well as shark aggression at the most popular spearing spots, so it is important to follow a few basic guidelines to keep ourselves safe.

Never dive alone in sharky areas. In high risk situations like berleying always have someone watching your back.

  1. Iki your fish asap. While blood will attract a nearby shark, the vibrations of a wounded fish attract them from miles away.
  2. Never attach fish to your body. The best way to transport your catch is in a plat (pronounced plaart), a small float boat that keep the fish right out of the water.
  3. Look him in the eye at all times. Nothing unnerves a sharks more than eye contact.
  4. In high-risk situations such as in blue water or while berleying, dive in groups.
  5. Do not shoot sharks; it’s the best way to make them angry. A good prod with your spear should scare them off.

Shallow water blackout

Perhaps the most freediving-specific risk is shallow water blackout. At its simplest, this is when a diver passes out on the surface after holding breath for too long. A diving partner close enough to notice can support the diver until he/she regains breathing and consciousness. If not, the diver will eventually drown.

The greatest contributing factor is hyperventilation. Hyperventilating before diving flushes your body of carbon dioxide and delays the urge to breathe. This is dangerous; if your oxygen level drops too low before you surface you will pass out.

Matt Lind spearfishing safety tips

This golden snapper was the cause of my first black out – it was not worth the risk.

Carbon dioxide tolerance is something you develop. Ironically, things get more risky as you get better. As your carbon dioxide tolerance builds, you can go longer and longer without the urge to breathe. This danger compounds, as you are also able to get deeper. When you are diving shallow you can hold your breath until you’re blue in the face with only a couple of kicks back to the surface. Once you get down to twenty metres or more, things are very different. A second per meter of ascent requires a significant amount of time kept in reserve.

I have blacked out a couple of times and it is only thanks to excellent buddies that I’m still here to write about them. The first time was diving for golden snapper in a cave at Great Barrier Island. The fish were hanging around at 28m and I had made two dives to locate them and marked the cave with a drop line. I had already shot one with a speargun and decided I wanted to shoot one with a pole spear “Hawaiian style”. After surfacing with my fish I swam it back to the boat 20m away, swapped my gun for my pole spear and descended again.

I began to feel my legs going about half way through my ascent. The next thing I knew I was being supported on the surface and sambaing (convulsing) hard. The big factor in this blackout was lack of recovery during surface interval. Rather than relaxing and recovering properly, I swam hard on the surface and began my dive still in a state of oxygen deficit. The importance of adequate surface intervals cannot be stressed enough. Since that dive I adopted a policy of doubling my bottom time on the surface between dives when I am working deep.

Spearfishing Safety

A divers plat is the best way of transporting the catch as it keeps it completely out of the water and avoids attracting unwelcome visitors of the toothy kind.

The second, on a ten-day dive trip in the Solomon Islands, was worse. After hard diving for a week my dive fitness was the best it had ever been. Most of my dives were well over two minutes and I was easily diving 30m. Our main target fish was midnight snapper. They would school off the coral walls around 25m and hang tantalisingly out of speargun range. We’d lie still for 20-30 seconds waiting for a fish to check us out and bring the rest of the school. It was challenging but rewarding diving with big bottom times. I had waited out a fish and shot him poorly, but he went straight into a coral hole. The sensible option was to surface and have my buddy dive to retrieve the fish. But I was feeling invincible and wrestled the fish out. I blacked out before I hit the surface. This was the big wake-up call and I developed guidelines for keeping safe, rather than relying on how I feel.

Spearfishing safety

When ascending with an incapacitated diver always keep their airway open.

My main rules are...

  1. Never push myself alone. Although I do dive alone, I never, ever, dive deep or push my times unless I have a buddy I trust watching me. A buddy I trust will always be waiting for me on the surface, never distracted and will always make eye contact. A buddy I trust knows that most blackouts occur after the diver has taken that first breath and will wait until he can see me breathing comfortably before he dives. A buddy I trust will expect the same from me.
  2. Always have sufficient surface intervals. With big dives I always time my surface intervals and make sure they’re double my previous dive’s bottom time.
  3. Never turn a dive after leaving the bottom. I always go straight up regardless of what happens.
  4. Remember that there is no warning before you black out. My biggest alarm bell has to be when I’m feeling my best.
Spearfishing safety tips

A good buddy recognises warning signs in their mates and knows what to do. Look for signs on ascent, such as uncoordinated or erratic swimming or blowing air out. Most blackouts happen on the surface and often just after the first breath, so do not take your eyes off your buddy until you are sure he/she is breathing normally.

If your buddy does black out you need to support them at the surface with their face out of the water and encourage he/she to start breathing. Take the mask off and say, “breathe mate, breathe mate”. Blowing on their face can inform the unconscious mind it is safe to breathe.

Despite these hazards, spearfishing is a very safe sport. The ocean is an alien environment and we need to manage risks sensibly. There is a huge number of spearfishing and freediving courses available throughout the country. I encourage everyone to take a course and join a local club where you can continue to learn. More than anything else look after your mates, and remember that no fish is worth risking a life.

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