Thirty feet under the clear Mexican waters of Socorro Island, Australian champion freediver Greg Pickering waited. One minute into his usual two-minute dive, he spotted what he thought was a 200-pound yellowfin tuna. As the big fish swam directly into his sights, seemingly unaware of the motionless hunter, Greg thought: "No worries." His 15-foot shot echoed into spearfishing history with his unassisted capture of the 307-pound giant.
Greg joined myself and four other divers, in quest of the legendary "300-pounder." Ever since Jay Riffe speared the current record, a 277-pound yellowfin at nearby San Benedicto Island in 1991, dedicated bluewater hunters dreamed of being the first to crack 300 pounds.
News that anglers were again catching giant yellowfin after a 2-year dry spell (we feared was caused by heavy illegal net fishing, but might have been an El Nino-induced exodus), buoyed our spirits during the 25-hour crossing from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico to San Benedicto Island. After a day of fighting strong currents and off-color, fishless water, we traveled to Socorro Island.
At Cabo Pierce, where a hundred-foot wall of volcanic rock plunges vertically 200 feet into fecund waters, we found tuna. Occasionally, in the shadow of racing schools of 30-pound "footballs", we’d spot a fish over 100 pounds. The big guys were back, and so were the sharks.
Brown sharks, also known as "whalers and Galapagos-Island sharks," with their golden, vertical slit, cat-like eyes, always on the lookout for a fast meal, dogged us everywhere. Generally, a gentle prod from our speartips or a rush at them followed by an underwater scream, kept them at bay. Shooting tuna under 100-pounds, however, set off the dinner bell.
The browns would group together, bumping and prodding the injured fish. Then came the first bite. Accompanied by violent twisting and shaking, that bite always triggers every other shark to charge with its mouth agape. During the 6-day trip, we lost 4 fish to feeding frenzies.
Greg wasn’t thinking of sharks when his record fish approached. He and Ron Mullins had been diving steadily for two hours: one minute on the surface for air then two down. Pausing on the surface, the two champions conferred. "Seen any?" shouted Ron. "A few spooky fish, nothing over 150 pounds," came Greg’s reply between waves.
On the next dive, Greg dove and leveled off after a 15-second descent just outside the baitfish. He repeated his hunting mantra, "This will be the dive when the big one swims by, stay alert." He felt perfectly relaxed in his horizontal hunting pose, gun retracted and tucked under his body. Positioned out to sea, a motion on his right, about 15 feet deeper, caught his eye, a 200-pound tuna he guessed. It swam slowly, almost regally, showing no sign of timidness like the smaller fish.
Never looking directly at his prey, Greg uncoiled like a cat taking 5-seconds to set up the shot as the big fish came into his sights. Shooting downward, Greg’s 15-foot shot entered the tuna’s mid-section and exited through the opposite gill-plate, a near-perfect shot. With only a startled shudder, the giant casually continued on its original course.
Climbing onto his float, shaped like a Boogie Board, Pickering pulled on the 100-foot bungee line made by Ron Mullins. Constructed from the finest spring-rubber, the powerful elastic floatline never gives up pulling against the fish; and because of its elasticity, never pulls too hard against the fish. In the center of the rubber tube, Ron packs 300 feet of very strong parachute cord to limit the stretch of rubber tube and to act as a backup in case the rubber tube should break.
In spite of its sturdy construction, Greg worried about his bungee breaking as he pulled steadily for 3 minutes. On the previous day, while battling an 82-pound wahoo and very stiff currents, he’d nicked the rubber tube when his float and line washed through the sharp rocks. His worry about the bungee decreased as he decided that this fish couldn’t be too big because his float remained on the surface. Both the 180-pound and 210-pound fish he had taken several days earlier, had pulled his board promptly underwater.
Just as he was relaxing a little with this knowledge, his bungee line suddenly became taut and Greg held on to his board as they both sailed effortlessly 40 feet under the water where he secured the line to his board with a special tuna snap devised by U.S. National Champion Gerald Lim.
Gerald’s tuna-snap idea maximizes the utility of the bungee. When Greg clipped the line to his board, he knew he would not have to give back nearly one-half of the length of his trail line that he’d earned over the last 3 minutes. He also knew that Gerald’s design would release extra bungee at a slow measured rate if the fish made a strong run. When stretched, the bungee narrows in diameter and slips through the snap. When his board finally resurfaced, Greg recovered lost line by partially releasing the clip with one hand and pulling the bungee with the other. He established a pattern: Pull 4 times, clip off the line and rest briefly, then pull again.
Once again straddling his board, Greg started to recover the 200 feet of stretched bungee as the fish started to swim in two large circles approximately 100 yards in diameter. Greg rode the back end of the board to help control the fish. As they battled over the reefs off Cabo Pierce, the fish was forced higher and Greg glimpsed it for the first time fighting at about 55 feet. With his heart jack hammering from the exertion and excitement, he suddenly realized that this was bigger than first thought, possibly as big as my 255-pound fish of the previous day. Now he feared that his line might break or that sharks would take his fish.
In any given dive, we’d often be accompanied by two of the four species of sharks common to the area: schooling hammerheads, the ubiquitous browns, solitary tiger sharks and the aggressive, and speedy silver-tip sharks.
We faced a dilemma when managing a speared and thrashing tuna: Let it fight 30 feet below, where there is a greater risk of loss to the sharks, or risk bringing it to the surface and subdue it quickly and get it into the boat before the sharks got too excited. Veteran bluewater hunter Ron Mullins tried the latter. Unable to get the attention from our observers in the sloppy seas, he hoped that holding his 100-pound fish close enough to subdue it with his knife would buy him time. He held his own against the browns, but he was ultimately forced to deliver his catch straight into the mouth of a rocket-fast, silver-tip shark which chose to avoid any preliminary circling and simply attacked.
Curiously, the sharks tended to leave the larger tuna unmolested. We’d observed smaller tuna break from a passing school and ram the stomachs of brown sharks. Perhaps, we speculated, given the aggressiveness of the smaller tuna, the sharks were not willing to challenge larger tuna even if they were injured.
Since I’d nearly become lunch for a 1,000-pound tiger shark 6 months earlier, we were especially alert for the largest of potential man-eaters. Usually, when we spot a large tiger, they keep their distance, often swimming obliquely toward us and then angling away, never getting closer than 30 feet. This particular 14-foot tiger acted differently. It decided it would rather eat me than admire my form. Swimming straight up from 100 feet, the great eater-of-men never wavered in its path directly toward me. When it opened its mouth 6 feet away, I fired. An hour later, the beast lay on the deck still snapping its jaws in defiance, my spear imbedded in its head between the eyes.
I thought after 6 months, I had exorcized the demon from my mind, at least during the day. Swimming yards away from where Greg would land his record the next day, a 10-foot tiger approached me and swam away, never getting closer than 30 feet. "Hey! I’m cool," I thought. "I’m over worrying about these guys." Just then something sharp, floating around in my fin pocket, caught under the tender part behind one of my toes and bit it. After several seconds of uncontrolled leg spasms and leaving a small brown cloud in my wake, I realized I’ll never get over that shark.
Greg is in great shape. A commercial abalone diver in Australia by profession, he manages to catch his quota in just 8 weeks, many other divers require a year. During recent practice for an apnea event, he made static-apnea breatholds for 5 minutes and 15 seconds. Later, he made dives into 140 feet of water. On this trip, Greg spent 6 to 8 hours in the water where he dove to an average depth of 35 feet spending 1 ?? minutes to 2 ?? minutes underwater each dive.
Greg, a governing member of the International Bluewater Spearfishing Records Committee (IBSRC), and current record holder for the southern bluefin tuna, was careful to follow the rules for a world-record catch. He shot the fish freediving, without assistance and fought the fish to a standstill. After his second shot, he tied a 9-foot rope onto the fish’s tail and secured it to the boat. Last, he documented the catch by measuring it and photographing it with his gun in the same picture frame.
Weighing the fish was a problem because of the ocean swells. The fish was simply too large for us to transport to the rocky island and weigh it on a certified scale, and we lacked a land-hoist. IBSRC rules allow for special provisions for weighing at sea. Applicants must provide a 2-minute, uninterrupted video tape of the scale’s readings. Swinging from the boom in the gently rocking ocean, Greg’s fish weighed anywhere from 307 pounds to 316 pounds. Although the fish’s average weight was probably 310 pounds, Greg had to accept the lowest weight shown during that 2-minute period, 307 pounds.
Greg represents the epitome of the bluewater hunter. He’s fit, he studies fish and gear, he spends a phenomenal amount of time in the water and he never gives up hope of landing the "big one." He earned this pending record. Congratulations Greg!