Fishing has been my number one passion for as long as I’ve been forming memories. It was my father’s and his father’s before him. Aside from fishing, I’ve had a love for all water sports and boating since we got our first family boat when I was 8. Skiing, knee boarding, skin diving, and eventually spearfishing, lobstering and scuba diving became my other obsessions. In high school my friends and I got very into knee boarding and skurfing (sometimes during school hours) and in college I was on the ski jumping team, until an injury brought it to a halt. My love of fishing and diving has stuck with me through today.
About a dozen years ago, I was spearfishing out of Miami almost every weekend. I had group of friends who would jump in the boat with me and head out to the reef to hunt. Our main quarry would be hogfish, grouper, various types of snapper and mackerel. If it was lobster season, we’d keep and eye out and grab them when we could as well. Once in a while we’d even shoot big squid as they swam by. They make for fantastic grilled calamari Cesar salads. Most of our spearfishing would take place on the patch reefs, ten or so miles south of Miami. Many stories come to mind when I think of those times, I’m going to tell you about one in particular.
Patch reefs are ecosystems that are between the shore and the edge of where the water gets deep and then drops off to hundreds of feet. They are spread out and bordered by grass and sand. Because they are isolated from the main reef systems, they each tend to have their own fish community. Their isolation can make them hard to find and therefore be overlooked by rod and reel fisherman and spear-fisherman alike. That is one of the reasons they tend to hold fish. They are especially productive in winter months when the water is colder. The fish come into the shallower water to stay warm. Patch reefs range from between twelve and thirty feet in depth.
It was a brisk, bluebird day and there was very little breeze. My friends Matt and Will and I met at the boat along with a some lady friends of ours. We packed up our spearguns, dive gear, food, drinks and ice and shoved off early as usual. The anticipation for the day won out over the lack of sleep from the previous late night out in Miami. We cruised south at a steady 30 knots, cutting through the crisp, clear morning air. The water over the sand was my favorite shade of aqua blue, contrasting with the earth tones of the reef, rocks and grass 20 feet below. After about ten miles of running, Matt and I started paying closer attention to the gps as we were coming to one of our good winter spearfishing spots.
We idled slowly, 100 yards down-current of our spot and quietly eased the anchor into the water. When diving, it is always a good idea to anchor down-current of your objective. That way, it is always easier to get back to the boat. If you have a leg cramp for example and you have to stop swimming, you will end up drifting back to the boat. As you can imagine, the alternative is less than ideal. We came tight on the anchor and I cleated off the line, while Matt dispersed guns and bags of dive gear. We wiggled into our wetsuits, donned dive knives, neoprene socks, gloves and weight belts and began positioning ourselves towards our prospective jump-in sites. We made smart-assed remarks to each other while our excitement at the beginning of our day of diving and hunting began to hit home. One by one, we washed our masks and slipped them on, popped into our fins and grabbed our guns. The ladies wished us luck as we eased into the cool, clear water below.
I caught my breath as the cool water hit my ears, toes and neck, and shivered as it made its way into my wet suit. Once the bubbles cleared, I immediately checked that the safety was engaged on my speargun, put the butt of it into my chest, grabbed either side of the band and with all of my might, loaded it. I learned long ago to load my gun immediately upon jumping in. It seems like every time that I haven’t, I look down and see the fish of a lifetime. Of course they swim away as soon as you frantically try to load your gun.
Once I was loaded, I rechecked that the safety was engaged, got my bearings and swam over and joined my friends. We made eye contact, nodded to each other and began swimming upstream towards the anchor and on to the the patch reef. The first thing I noticed as we began kicking was that there was a very strong current. The visibility was okay, but not great, which is ideal for spearfishing. Super-clear water is less than ideal because the fish can see you coming a mile away. Super-bad visibility is very difficult to spearfish in for obvious reasons, since you have to see fish to shoot them. It’s also potentially dangerous, as keeping track of your buddies is part of enjoying the sport safely. There’s also the chance that there could be something harmful in the water that you can’t see. The sand below us reflected up a bright, aqua, white and I noticed some little wrasse fish trailing along it under us. As we approached the reef, I began to see some dark shapes in the distance. We were approaching the patch reef and it was time to get our game faces on.
I saw Matt fold in half, lift a finned leg in the air and slip quietly under the water on my right. Will and I continued kicking against the current as we watched him descend to about twenty feet down and began cruising along near the bottom. Matt is an absolute killer when he spearfishes. He regularly dives down to seventy feet of water on one breath, sits on the bottom for over two minutes and waits for fish to swim by to shoot. His deepest kill was 120 feet down! Just as I began to lose sight of him, I saw him speed up his pace and veer right. I knew he was zoning in on his first kill. Thirty seconds later I heard the distinct, “clack” of a speargun discharging underwater. I few moments later I saw Matt surface with a big mutton snapper. He raised it above his head with a cheer and began swimming it down current back to the boat.
At this point, Will and I went our separate ways. Soon after, I came across a nice limestone ridge that was dotted with small caves. I leaned forward, dropped down and swam along the edge of it. I swam about thirty feet before noticing a dark shape at the far edge of my vision. I kept my eye on it as I quietly surfaced for air. I took a few deep breaths and slid back down in the direction of the shape. As I drew closer, I realized that the shape was what looked like about a fifteen pound black grouper. He was sitting near the mouth of a cave in profile to me. I eased up to within a long shot’s range and extended my gun as far forward as I could without spooking it. I aimed and pulled the trigger.
The strong bands hurled the spear forward until it slammed into the grouper just behind the gills. It went completely though the thick fish and out the other side. It started going berserk! Blood and sand were stirring up in a plume as the fish struggled near the bottom. I unsheathed my knife from my leg scabbard, darted forward, and grabbed it in a bear hug. I held on tightly as I plunged it into the fish’s brain to end its struggling and suffering. After a few quivers, it stopped moving completely.
During my return to the boat with the grouper, I heard another, “clack” sound as Will shot what turned out to be a sizable hogfish. I climbed up into the boat and put my catch in the cooler next to Matt’s trophy mutton snapper. I took Will’s hog from him, added it to our haul and jumped back in to continue our hunt. I wasn’t sure, but it seemed like the current had gotten even stronger since our previous swim against it. One thing for sure is that took a lot of effort to swim against it. By the time I got back to the reef, my heart was pounding in my chest. Up current of us I heard, the “clack” of Matt’s gun as he shot another fish.
I approached the area of the reef where I had found the grouper and continued swimming along the ledge. I repeatedly dove down and checked all of the holes and caves as I went. I noticed some lobster antennas poking out from one and took a closer look. It was then that I noticed the thick green head of a moray eel as it eased out of the hole to investigate me. Its gaping mouth and needle teeth were enough to convince me to move on. The ledge got smaller and the caves were reduced to divots as the rock gave way to sand. It was here that I noticed several beautiful, large hogfish. One was what is called a super-male. The others were his harem of females.
Hogfish (Lachnolaimus maximus) are sometimes called hog snapper, but they are actually in the wrasse family. They are protogynous hermaphrodites, which means they can turn from female to male. The super male is usually bigger than the female and has dark coloring on its nose and forehead. At this point, I was less concerned with their scientific specifics and more concerned with the fact that have delicious, white flaky meat. They are, hands-down, some of the best table fare fish in North America and I wanted to put this guy on a plate. He and his little group seemed to notice me. While most times hogs are not very skittish, these fish seemed to be the exception. Before I could get a bead on him, they all scooted off down stream and to the right.
With the current on my side, I was able to catch up and get above them. I took some deep breaths, swam down and took aim. Right as I went to pull the trigger, he and his girls jetted off down current once again. This happened a couple of times and I was starting to get frustrated. But I have a stubborn streak and I’m not one to give up easily. The super-male finally laid up near a sea fan and seemed to settle in. His harem followed his lead and they began digging in the sand for crustaceans a few meters away. I took several deep breaths for my descent as I planned the angle of my shot in my head. Just before I put my face down, I noticed that I had gotten pretty far from the boat and realized that I was down current of it.
I dove down and followed my plan to a T. I leveled off far enough away as to not spook the fish. I slowly eased forward, parallel to the ocean floor with my arm extended. I aimed carefully and gently pulled the trigger. At the last second, the fish veered off. I guess it didn’t get a chance to grow big by being stupid. The spear had passed through its gill plate, but it was otherwise uninjured. I rushed over to it, but before I got there, it had managed to dart away and wrap the line connecting the spear to the gun around the sea fan. I was determined to get this fish though. Instead of over-exerting and burning up all of my oxygen, I made myself calmly grab the struggling fish by the gills and unwrap the line. I got it loose and started to the surface with it on the spear. By the time I got my head above water, I was gasping. I took a a few deep breaths, put my snorkel in my mouth and put my head back in the water. I had to kill this struggling fish before it pulled out of my hands and got away.
I held the fish steady and reached for my knife. Suddenly, out of the blue, I felt eyes on me. Diving in the open ocean can be intense. Calming your nerves and fending off paranoia can sometimes be a challenge. But some instinct, surely a primordial one, told me this fear was well founded. I lifted my gaze past the fish in my hands and my heart nearly stopped. Less than three feet from my face was the most enormous shark I had ever laid eyes on, in or out of the water. It was ever so slowly easing up and moving in from my front right. It’s big, black, dead eye was staring into my soul and I felt like a teeny mouse at the foot of a lion. I was absolutely, utterly and completely terrified.
I was in shock, but my survival instinct was intact. I knew I had to get this fish off of my spear, get my gun reloaded and get the hell out of the water, in that order. I struggled with the bleeding and thrashing hog snapper as it fought to get away. I knew that all of this commotion was exactly what I did not want at that moment. Spear gun spears have a flanged stopper that lays flat against the shaft, just below the tip. They are designed to easily penetrate the fish as it passes through it. But when the fish pulls against it, the flange flicks up so that three to four inches of a steel flap holds it on the spear. To get it off, you have to slide the fish away from the tip, hold the the flap down and and then push it through the fish as you pull the spear out. In this case, the flap had gotten wedged up in the fish’s gill plate. Over five hundred pounds of killing machine was coming my way and I was stuck with its intended lunch in my hands.
The shark turned directly toward me and showed me something that nightmares are made of. The biggest, sharpest, most jagged, made-to-kill set of teeth I could imagine. My adrenalin and survival instinct took over and time seemed to stand still. I put all of the focus I could muster into what I needed to do. I jammed my gloved thumb under the hogfish’s gill plate and pushed the flap down and with my other hand, I jerked the spear the opposite way. The fish came free! It was not a moment too soon either, as the behemoth moved in to take what was his.
I threw my upper body back and away from the shark and flung the fish to the other side of its face. It whipped its head to its right with lightning speed and inhaled the hogfish. I thought that maybe the beast would be satisfied with its meal and move off, but I was just being optimistic. It turned its massive body slowly around in a big, graceful arch. As its passed in front of me, I clearly remember thinking, “Oh my god. That is a F*#@ing WALL of shark!” I’d hoped the hogfish was lunch, but it seemed that the shark considered it as only an appetizer. Apparently, I was now on the menu. Here I was in a swift current, over a hundred yards from the boat, one on one with the perfect killing machine. It was hungry. And I was all out of treats.
I flipped on my back and began paddling hard towards the boat, as I frantically reeled in the line to the spear, hand over hand. Meanwhile, the my nemesis had fixed its coal black eyes on me as it swam in a lazy S pattern just behind my churning fins. I had the spear in my hand now, but I was afraid to take my eyes off of what might easily be the end of me. With shaking hands, and without looking, I tried to slide the shaft down into the gun. After what seemed like a hundred attempts, I was able to get it into the gun and engage it into the trigger mechanism. With the tip of the unloaded speargun aimed back at the shark’s face, I kept paddling with everything I had. Twelve feet behind the shark’s horrible grinning face, I could see the its massive tail slashing slowly back and forth as it easily kept pace with me.
I wasn’t sure how much damage a shot from my small gun would do the beast trailing me, but I wanted badly to pull back the bands and load it. I realized though, that there was no way I was going to be able to stop to do it, even for an instant. The moment I did, I would drift back and into the gaping jaws at my the tips of my fins. I kept paddling as hard as I could and chanced a glance down at the bottom. What I saw brought me to a near panic. Despite my best efforts with my super-long, Italian-made, expensive, free-diving fins, I was barely making any progress! I took a close study of my companion and then chanced a quick look up at the boat. To my horror, I was still very far from it. I did notice that everyone was on board and it seemed like they were waiting for me so we could get moving and hit another spot.
I realized then and there that this was likely to end badly and I needed help. If I could get my friends to pull anchor and come pick me up, I might have a chance. At the edge of complete panic, I stuck my head up and yelled, “Shark, shark a big F#*@ing shark!!! It wants to eat me!!! SHARRRRRK!!!!”. My screaming seemed to excited it, because his tail began to whip faster and the wag of its massive body increased in tempo. I was kicking and watching it like a hawk, waiting for it to make its move for me, so I could at least try to ward it off. I chanced another look at the boat and I could see frantic movement on board. “Thank God they heard me at least!”, I thought. Glancing from the shark to the bottom to gauge my molasses-slow progress, to the boat, I saw Matt leap into the water, holding his biggest gun overhead.
A glimmer of hope washed over me. With the current on his side and the long legs of his 6’5” frame working overtime, Matt was quickly by my side. As he approached, the shark eased back about ten feet or so, suddenly not as confident of it’s successful dining experience. I glanced at Matt’s gun and saw that he had come to my aid loaded for bear. He had attached a bang-stick tip to his spear. Bang-sticks take a lot of forms, but they are designed as a last resort to defend against sharks. In this case, his was was a .44 magnum shell that slipped over the tip of the spear. Upon impact with the shark’s body, the point would discharge the bullet, to devastating effect. Matt had had a very bad experience the previous winter and had begun carrying the shell in his wetsuit sleeve. But that is another story, that I’m urging him to guest-write about.
With Matt at my side and the shark zig-zagging back and forth behind us, we worked our way back to the boat. With my bud watching my back, I climbed up and flopped over the side and onto the floor of the boat. I laid my unloaded gun down and removed my mask and fins with shaking hands. Matt climbed aboard, as the ladies asked what had happened. “I’ll tell you what happened, Perkins almost got his ass eaten by a freaking monster shark!”, Matt replied. At that, we all glanced out to the water. Behind the boat was my nemesis, big as a house and circling in its lazy, S-pattern. The scent of fish blood and my fear-induced adrenaline undoubtedly filling its perfect, hundred-million year’s developed, smell receptors.
We watched it glide through the water for a while as we stowed our gear and drank some much needed water. Matt and Will snacked on power bars and the ladies ate some fresh fruit, but I had no appetite. I pondered what had just occurred and tried to process it. After a bit, we pulled anchor, cranked the engine and headed off. We skipped the next closest spot and chose one several miles away. When the guys jumped in, I hung back and stayed on board. Of course I got flak from them, but I pretended to be more interested in chatting with the ladies for a while. I joked with them that I had given up the sport for good. Eventually though, I donned my gear, grabbed my gun and slid back into the water. Matt swam by me with a fish in tow. He took a second to spit out his snorkel and say, “Nice to see you could join us Sweetheart!” I laughed a little too hard and got back to my diving, keeping a good deal more vigilant lookout than usual.
We wound up having a great day of spearfishing and another fun evening out (after a good, hard power-nap). But when I closed my eyes to sleep, late that night, I could see that obsidian black eye and those razor sharp teeth of that massive, prehistoric, perfect predator, as it decided whether or not to eat me for lunch. I’ve been asked what type of shark it was. Most of my experienced friends say that it was a probably a bull shark. If it was, it was the daddy of all bulls. If someone told me it was a great white, I wouldn’t have doubted that either, if only for its sheer girth. As I sit here typing, I can see it in my mind’s eye. All I can say with certainly is that it was indeed, a wall of shark.