After missing a shot with my speargun, I’m surprised that within 10 seconds there are a number of reef sharks clustering around the scene to see if they can take advantage of an easy meal.
The Tuamotos (French Polynesia) are full of fish, but they are also full of reef sharks. This is one of the archipelago’s wonderful attractions: observing these magnificent creatures from up close, on a daily basis. Fortunately, according to the locals, the sharks are 99% harmless to humans — except if you are spearfishing.
Some background: Reef sharks spend most of their time cruising right next to schools of fish without giving them any grief. The reality is that fish are really fast and are quite difficult for sharks to catch. Like us, they don’t want to waste their energy chasing things they aren’t likely to catch. Sharks need a competitive advantage — hunting at night, hunting in packs, or finding vulnerable fish. Speared or hook caught fish qualify as the latter option. In their excitement, sharks can inadvertently take a bite at whatever happens to be next to the dying fish, such as the spearfisher’s arm, so special attention is needed.
Kristian and Ethan diving down for a shot at some fish. You want a good shot to ensure the fish is immediately put down and ideally does not struggle, so you can get the fish out of the water as soon as possible.
Last year, after our arrival, we spent several weeks in the Tuamotos before even trying to spearfish; and then still we proceeded very cautiously. The turning point for us came when we met Bruno, a Tahitian spearfishing champion who now lives in Faaite atoll. Bruno taught us much about both lagoon reef hunting and pelagic pass hunting in a series of memorable dives. Since then, we have cross-checked that knowledge with a few dozen spearfishers in Tuamotos.
Eventually, we came to understand the principles of when it is safe to spear fish, and how to do it. Our experience culminated in our spearfishing sessions in Makemo’s north pass, which has the highest abundance of reef sharks we’ve seen in Tuamotos– along with Fakarava and Haraiki atolls. Here is what we have learnt, digested into 10 handy rules:
Rule #1: “Always dive with a buddy”. Here Sabrina demonstrates the technique of grabbing the (spear)gun and fending off sharks, while Ethan the shooter has the fish which is still held in the actual spear. It sure is nice to have two sets of eyes in this situation!
Another view of the above photo: Ethan holds the goat fish above the water while keeping an eye down below.
10 RULES OF SPEARFISHING WITH SHARKS
Rule #1: “Always dive with a buddy.” Your buddy should grabs your gun and act as the ‘bouncer’, to make sure no toothy guests enter your party uninvited. This is mainly accomplished by maintaining eye contact. Don’t jab them or make sudden movements — unless absolutely necessary.
Rule #2: “Show no fear.” Sharks sense fear & anxiety. They become excited especially if your movements are erratic and involve splashing. If you’re afraid, don’t spearfish. You will profit from diving with them (sans gun) several more times to get comfortable, and realize they are not dangerous unless you have an injured fish next to you.
Rule #3: “Shoot smaller fish; and get them out of the water quick.” Once the fish is held out of the water, the sharks are no longer sure where it is, and the feedback mechanism instigating their excitement slows down. Smaller fish fight less than bigger fish, so are easier to handle.
If fish parts are discarded off the back of the sailboat, it no longer remains a friendly, attractive swimming environment.
Rule #4: “Get a kill shot whenever possible.” Sharks respond more to the vibrations of a flailing fish in the water – and the excitement of their fellow shark friends – than anything else. If the spear paralyzes/kills the fish with a head shot, you reduce the chances of attracting predators to the scene and creating a mob effect.
Rule #5: “Look before shooting – especially for Gray Reef Sharks.” Like crossing the road, look both ways! Ideally, there should be no sharks within sight when you swim down to shoot fish, in particular for Gray Reef Sharks, which are considered aggressive and unpredictable. Other reef sharks, like black tips and white tips, are much milder and pose no significant threat.
Rule #6: “If you just had a recent fight and are upset due to a quarrel, spearfishing is not recommended.” Although I can’t validate the theory that a disturbed frame of mind due to an argument adds to potential hazard of sharks… however, many locals have mentioned this to me. In fact, they didn’t just say spearfishing in such a condition is unrecommended, they said “c’est interdit” (it’s prohibited). Clear words of wisdom!
Reef sharks chasing our fish scraps. It’s true that reef sharks aren’t considered “dangerous”, but it is also true that when they are very excited / in mob behavior they could make mistakes. As the locals say, “The sharks are polite. But be attentive.”
Rule #7: “If a shark is going for your fish, let them have it.” Seems like an obvious one, but a number of spearfishers hug the fish in an attempt to paralyze it and “hide their catch” from the predators. And you guessed it, that is the most common way that spearfishers get injured by sharks!
Rule #8: “It’s usually safer to spearfish inside lagoons.” Shark populations are usually more sparse deeper in the Tuamoto lagoons, compared to the reef passes and on the outside of the atoll, where sharks are most abundant (and it’s typically deeper, which adds to the amount of time it takes to get the fish out of the water). Plus, currents are usually milder inside the lagoons, which makes it easier to return to your dinghy.
“Shark-infested waters”? The truth is that the sharks seen in this picture are black-tip reef sharks, which are very mellow creatures. However, if you see gray reef sharks, keep a sharp lookout; they are curious, fearless, and occasionally aggressive. Hence the importance of identifying the different types of sharks.
Rule #9: “Wait for good visibility.” The incoming current and lack of wind chop can greatly increase the water clarity and your ability to scan for sharks. Obviously, don’t spearfish around sunrise or sunset as nighttime is their active feeding time.
Rule #10: “Discard fish parts in non-swimming areas!” We learned this the hard way, after filleting fish on Aldebaran at anchor. An enormous congregation of 20+ sharks began swimming around our boat, and they took a long time to dissipate. This made showering in the ocean at night much more nerve-jarring than it should be!
Ethan gutting a white goat fish at the dock, instead of the back of the boat. It pays to take a dinghy ride to shore for fillet duty! Note the parrot fish on the left side of the picture — the parrot fish is a staple of the diet in French Polynesia for many reasons. There is a conservation concern about their over-fishing, since parrot fish contribute significantly to the health of coral reefs.
There is an added complication to fishing (in general) in the Tuamotos: ciguatera poisoning, a toxin from algae that bioaccumulates in reef fish. In every atoll there are different types of fish that may or may not be consumed; along with a number of fish which are always safe. Always ask locals before eating fish to confirm that particular type of fish is safe in the area.