First Fish

I relaxed my body and took three deep breaths, on the fourth I bent forward, lifted one leg up into the air and let my body sink below the water’s surface. At ten feet, the temperature dropped five to ten degrees from the 80+ surface temp and I remembered to clear my ears. I leveled out at twenty and cleared twice more for good measure. In front of me was a long finger of reef, brown and yellow and green. Visibility was at least 40 meters and I could see fish of every shape and color swimming in and out of thousands of holes and crevices in a perpetual dance with the living rock.

Looking down I saw a large red and yellow fish between two outcroppings no more than 15 feet from the tip of my speargun. Slowly I sank another five feet while lowering the tip of my spear and, anticipating the rocking motion of the fish, took aim and fired! My arms re-coiled as the rubber bands thrust the steel spear along its track and sent it rushing forward. It missed its target going high over the back of the fish and with a loud ‘clink’ bit into the reef covered ocean floor.

Pulling on the line that connected the shaft to my gun, I could feel a slight give in the line but the shaft’s breakaway tip remained fast. After two or three more tugs, I had no choice but to let go and swam towards the surface for air.

Floating on the surface of the ocean, I focused on the small island a mile to the south, which was my home for the next week. Palm trees sprung picture perfect from its sandy soil like a vase bursting with fresh flowers. The only thing missing was the word paradise written in large pink and yellow letters. This was Tavarua Island, a surfer’s paradise with empty beaches and perfect waves off the west coast of Viti Levu, Fiji. Even with the recent Coup only weeks past the Island was booked full. The trip had come about when a good friend from San Diego had called with an opening in her group. So here I was in paradise, bobbing alone in the open ocean while my wife Robin and a fresh pina colada sat by the pool and my friend Ben and our boat were somewhere else.

From the surface I could clearly see my buoyant gun twenty-five feet below me, the line stretching down another ten feet to the shaft, and its wire cable attached to the slip-tip buried in the soft rock. At that moment it seemed hopeless, I had never gone that deep before and there was no one else around to help. Frustrated with thoughts of having to abandon my brand new spear, I dove down again to pull and jerk on the handle and almost instantly was out of air and had to let go for the surface.

‘Remember,’ I told myself back up top, ‘move slowly and deliberately. Stay calm and don’t waste your air.’ I floated on the surface until I calmed down and once again dove down. As before pulling on the gun had no effect so I began to follow the line down towards the shaft. Pulling on the shaft with my left hand the slip-tip still would not budge. As frustration entered my mind, so did the realization of how deep I was, triggering the twinge for air. With resolve, I cleared my head and reached my right hand down to the steel cable that connected the slip-tip to the shaft. On the second tug, the tip came loose in a small cloud of dust and debris and was free.

Victorious, I let go of the slip-tip and pushed off the bottom. Changing hands, I reached out with my left arm to fend off the outcroppings, only as I passed through them the shaft was suddenly pulled from my hand. Looking down while continuing for the surface, I could see the shaft pointing straight down at the outcropping like a compass pointing due south.

The mirrored surface above me promised salvation and provoked my need for air, making me desperate to breathe; even the clenching of my teeth seemed to be using up valuable oxygen. I swallowed twice to distract the urge and looked away from the ceiling. Finally I reached the surface and spitting out my snorkel, gasped for air.

Anchored about 100 meters or so up current, I could see Ben and our boatman Wonga fishing over the side enjoying the Fijian sun. ‘Relax and calm down,’ I told myself. This was truly an initiation, like a right of passage that one must complete before becoming a true Waterman. Maybe this initiation is a message. ‘Learn to control your mind and body.’ Soon I relaxed and dove down to retrieve my abandoned equipment.

The slip-tip had slid into a small hole on the side of the outcropping as I had swum past it. I easily retrieved it, being sure this time to hold both the tip and shaft as I went back up. Once on the surface, I began to pull in the seventy-five feet of float line connecting a bright orange inflatable buoy to my gun. Gratefully, I draped one arm over the buoy and felt a wave relief come over me. Surely this was enough for one day. After a few minutes rest, I let go of the buoy and began to rig my gun. Several times I had to remind myself to be patient as the loose shaft tangled in the float line and the shaft line caught about my weight belt. Finally I set out for the boat.

The slow methodical kicking and movement of water along my body felt good. Halfway to the boat, I came across two more fingers of reef reaching out into the channel. They too were covered with fish dancing in the soft current. As I passed over top, I spotted a nice-sized brown grouper resting over a strip of soft sandy bottom between them. It was no more than twenty-five feet to the sand and I dove down only to spook the fish into one of the many holes in the reef. On the surface again I waited for it to re-appear. After several moments it did and resumed its place in the sand.

I sank slowly down into the gap between the fingers being careful to keep still and quiet. From eight feet I fired and the spear took the fish cleanly. The slip-tip, having done its job perfectly, came off the shaft after passing through leaving the fish strung on the steel cable between it and the shaft. Towing the fish behind me I swam to the surface and with my free hand pulled in the buoy attached to the end of my float line. Hanging from the buoy was a large stringer hook, which I passed through the fish’s gill and mouth and fastened. Then I passed the slip-tip back through the fish to free my shaft and let the current take my buoy with the Grouper to the end of the float line.

By now the boat had pulled anchor and was coming towards me. I waved to Ben and Wonga and pointed them towards the buoy. Wonga pulled it from the water and smiling took the Grouper off its hook. We gave each other the thumbs up and the boat took off back to their spot up current. I had at least another hour left in me now.