Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Novice Spearo Meets Sandtiger Shark!!!

The big emerald wave crashed over the exposed pinnacle frothing up all the water. It was 1991, 29 October. Large shoals of musslecracker cruised over the the shallow reef just before sunrise - their white bottom jaws and pectoral fins glowing in the weak light. To a diver in the foam the viz was only centimeters as the small bubbles sharged upward obediently reaching for their source. Something was lurking...

Have you ever been to Port Elizabeth in South Africa?
Have you ever met a Sand Tiger face to face?

If you have dived in Port Elizabeth then you may know that almost every year musselcracker congregate in great numbers in the vicinity of Thunderbolt Reef, a mile south of Cape Receife.
This massive musselcracker meeting normally happens around the end of October. This time of year was, and still is long-awaited by supercharged spearos all planning their tactical maneuvers to beat the competition (other spearos) to the spot (it would not be unusual to go down to the launch site and find divers already dressed in their wetsuits at 4 am, boat on the beach anxiously awaiting just enough predawn light to navigate).
On one occasion back in 1992, when I had been diving for a year, two fellow divers (Rolf Breidenbach and Brad Kwong-See) and myself headed for Thunderbolt Reef; by then I had about 90 dives to my name – so I knew something but was still rather “green”. Little did I know that day that humans were not the only ones who had plans for the fate a few musselcracker?

The typical modus operandi on this reef is to swim up to a blinder, i.e. a pinnacle with wave breaking over it, get some breath and dive in on the shoreward side of the blinder under the pounding waves where the musselcracker tend to shoal. A diver who has made his (rarely, her) dive and is ready to surface has to time the ascent precisely to avoid being pounded by the next breaker. When surfacing, the first thing to do is to take a deep breath of air, rather than foam, and then to get out the whitewater wash-zone where there is essentially no viz in all the bubbles. Interestingly these bubbles actually have a cleaning effect on murky water – a little bubble sticks to a plankton particle in the water and floats it to the surface. The net result is that often the visibility can be somewhat better at areas where such bubbles are formed by breaking waves.

Now, getting back to my tale, I swam into the gulley just behind the blinder and speared a musselcracker of perhaps 8 kg and pulled it up and away from the bottom to avoid getting it snagged on the reef. I surfaced in the area where the waves were breaking. I quickly headed out of the foam to escape the “washing machine”. As I swam into clearer water I saw a sand tiger (raggie) rising up slowly up toward me from the bottom; it turned slowly back down again, much to my relief. I managed to escape with my fish.

Upon boating the fish I enthusiastically returned to the blinder and had conveniently forgotten all about the raggie – Oh, the blissful ignorance of inexperience!
Anyway, back at the “washing machine” I relaxed on the surface while waiting for the other divers to have a go and look for musselcracker.
Brad got a 10 kg specimen; I then dived in behind the blinder again. There were no musselcracker on this dive - they must have retreated into the roughest area where one cannot often dive. I surfaced in the thick of the foam where the visibility was close to non-existent. As I drifted in the wave driven current toward the lee of the blinder and the bubbles thinned out somewhat, a dark shape approached me from below. Again a raggie gravitated up toward me. It was about two meters away and coming up quite fast. I realized it was not going to stop and valiantly jabbed at the sand tiger’s nose with the speartip. As the speartip thumped against its hard nose it snapped toward the speartip and I thrust, now somewhat less valiantly, back at it. Unfortunately the shark had opened its mouth and extended its jaw in the typical awe-inspiring snap of a shark.
This time my spear tip struck between the top jaw and the sharks' gum. To my horror the speartip slid strait through the thin flesh, with the ease of a meteorite through the atmosphere. Naturally as I attempted to rectify the deteriorating situation by pulling the gun backward the barb opened up inside the shark. I could not help thinking I was in way too deep now!
I had often had a tug-of-war with the many dogs that have been my companions over the years but this was slightly outside my comfort zone! Now I was in somewhat of a predicament – my brand new, virgin stainless steel spear stuck irretrievably in a 2.5 m raggies dangerous front end, and me holding onto the still-loaded speargun. I tried pulling in vain to retract the spear and the shark was shaking its head to rid itself of the irritation. I saw one fransmadam (baitfish) tap another on the back with his fin and point my way – “It’s the new dentist on Thunderbolt!”

My highly-prized new spear was bending severely with each of the sharks thrusts and fast becoming super-secondhand. I reasoned the flesh must be soft where the spear had entered so easily the and as the shark shook to its left (my right). I pulled the trigger so as to shoot the spear out through the thin flesh – it worked and the spear flew off to the right with only a small section of flesh retaining the line. At this the raggie snapped again and I got the hell out of there – it was one thing to have a solid barrier(speargun) between myself and the shark but now all that that separated me and the raggie was a meter and a half of saltwater.
Releasing the gun I swam hastily toward my float which was fastened to the speargun’s handle. I retrieved my float and made off toward the inflatable some 80 m away. Guessing shark was free or swimming in a similar direction because the line remained slack (I did not believe the raggie was specifically coming after me to exact revenge but I would have been pleased to know its precise whereabouts). In such times uncertainty of the sharks’ whereabouts really holds ones' full attention.

Now, back on the boat, I was again in somewhat of a predicament - a snapping raggie could deflate and sink the 3.8 m inflatable rather easily. I pulled in some line and felt a hard thrust and then nothing - the shark was off – much to my relief. The unusable spear and the line were still connected to the gun. The shark probably made off with no more than an injured lip. Soon the others returned to the boat and I related my experience. No-one was too enthusiastic to try for musselcracker again so we decided to move to wreck of the Kapodistrias in search of yellowtail, rockcod or bream.

Looking back over my 16 years of diving spiced with many “raggie interactions” I will never prod the raggie front-on unless I am cornered. Since 1992 I often prodded raggies with a speargun to learn how they (and I) respond.

My finding, after perhaps 200 such prods delivered to raggies is that I should always position myself side-on to the raggy and then prod them behind the eye - perhaps an inch or two away. Never in the eye as it would be disrespectful to injure it when not necessary. Of course an “eye-prod” could also result in getting attached to the shark if the barb took – count me out!!). This prodding procedure very often results in a really scary –looking snap. The snap is always about 90 - 180 degrees away from the line of the prodding device. This phenomenon has given me considerable confidence in fending off raggies or “bullying” those that are too curious.

Please note: I do not recommend that you try this as it is only based on perhaps 300 such prods to raggies – a slight error may result in you being bitten. It is, however, perhaps worth remembering in case of an emergency.
To illustrate, read on: “Just two years ago, with fairly high confidence, I took on a smallish raggie of about two meters in length. It approached showing no intent of turning and I decided to “bully” it to reduce its curiosity. I was lazy and did not bother to get side-on. The jab was made slightly from above and fractionally to the left of the shark while facing it. The small shark responded with a swift, strict snap toward my gun and the spear got “toothed” and I gained greater respect for my broadside theory as against the front end approach. There were scrape marks on the spear where the teeth had scratched some of the anti-rust coating off.


Tony Elvin-Jensen said...

Hey Gletwyn, still really enjoying your blog, am a committed reader! Going to Infanta this weekend, slim hope for a dive, and a cold to boot, but if it clears up a bit I will be in. Maybe snap up a fish for the comp!

Anonymous said...

Hey Gletwyn,got any magical cures for sea sickness.Sounds stupid,but can really ruin a dive.Had a idea:dive dive dive till the symptoms cease.

Tony Elvin-Jensen said...

Well, the local snoek fishermen here swear by dagga :) but as a spearo you probably don't smoke. So that leaves the bracelets which work for some, otherwise the standard sutgeron / dramamine you can get form the chemits. Give them a whirl and see what works for you. They do tend to make you tired, though.

Silverback said...

Hi Gletwyn

What camera do you use to do your underwater video shorts with? I have a compact underwater digital camera that has a small video function and was wondering if this would be suitable?



Gletwyn Rubidge said...

Hey Anon,
Seasickness - "dive dive dive till the symptoms cease" Try it if you can spare teh time - go on a few boats where possible to push through it - I am sure that with persistence it will fade - Mark jackson used that approach in his youth.
ALternately go to a pharmacy and get teh morning sickness tablets that yout ae the night before - worked like a charm for my brother in law on fishing trips.

I used an old Sony P10 and housing but its getting faulty now - so in the next few months I may upgrade. First I need to upgrade myself from flu and sinus, then the sea!!!