Many Thanks to Sumora for allowing us to use this article.
With Spearfishing you may encounter a variety of dangers including Sharks, shallow water blackout, heavy seas, strong currents, Jelly Fish, and risk drowning as a result fo line tangles. Please read all instructions carefully before going spearfishing, be informed, always dive within your limits, and never dive alone.
Be prepared. Be sensible. Use the right gear.
Spearfishing by its very nature is an extreme sport and few activities can rival the excitement and thrill of landing a quality fish. A portion of this satisfaction is borne from overcoming the inherent risks and challenges that spearfishing presents.
Spearfishing exposes its participants to the wildest place left on earth, perhaps one of the few untamed places still available. Here the diver is not a spectator but is part of the food chain. Whilst diving, the spearo is completely out of his natural environment, and must adapt accordingly. Spearfishermen face at least 3 major perils: shallow water blackout, sharks, and line tangles. None of these threats should be under-estimated.
At SpearfishingWorld, diving safely is important. Please review the following safety sections carefully before going spearfishing:
Shallow Water Black-Out
Without doubt the greatest risk facing spearfisherman is shallow water blackout. Spearfishing Magazine has reported that 8,000 drownings occur each year in the United States, and 81% of these deaths occurred in males between the ages of 14 and 32.
Shallow water blackout is a physiological phenomenon that occurs when an ascending diver’s lungs expand, creating a vacuum that sucks the remaining oxygen out of his blood stream causing the diver to black-out. This usually means the diver will start to sink, and if not assisted, will likely drown. We urge you to read Terry Maas’s section on Shallow Water Blackout. Terry has kindly made this section of his book freely available to the general public.
At Scubas World, safety is important. We recommend that you:
- Know your limits and don’t push them. Enjoyable diving is safe diving.
- Always dive with a dive partner and practice safe "one-up, one-down" diving protocol.
- Always ensure that you are properly weighted and are positively buoyant at depths shallower than 15 ft. In this way, if you black out, you increase the chances of bobbing to the surface and being revived as the fresh air reaches your face.
- If you are concerned that you have exceeded your bottom-time, release your belt buckle, holding the free end in your hand as you ascend. If you black out there is a reasonable chance you will release it and this will help you bob to the surface.
- There are very few warning signs of SWB, which is what makes them dangerous. However, indicators that can occur are headaches from high CO2 levels, uncontrollable swallowing, or tunnel vision. If you have experienced any of these symptoms while diving, you were seconds away from a problem.
- Don’t train alone or do static breathholds in swimming pools. A surprisingly high percentage of freediving fatalities take place in swimming pools. Technically this is not a SWB, but the result is equally dangerous, perhaps more so.
- When deep diving, we recommend that you remove your snorkel prior to breathing up on the surface. On returning to the surface blast clearing of the snorkel can lead to a SWB if a diver has been very close to his maximum. Moreover, retention of the snorkel at depth complicates equalisation and when diaphragm contractions begin can lead to the unwanted inhalation of water.
- Avoid exhaling under water or forcefully exhaling on surfacing. Exhalation on descent has been known to cause problems with equalisation. On ascent it can cause dramatic loss of buoyancy so more effort will be required on the ascent which can contribute to SWB. One must remember, that with any dramatic fall in the pressure in the lungs the remaining reserve of oxygen in the blood will go to the lungs and not the brain, which could be another contributing SWB factor.
- Don't Hyperventilate. Hyperventilation is breathing at a rate of more than 15 deep breaths per minute. Hyperventialiation predisposes a diver to begin the descent in tension and with a higher pulse rate and decreased levels of CO2. This improper balance of O2 and CO2 can prolong the "easy phase" on the decent at the expense of the "struggle phase" on ascent and could lead to a SWB. In order to properly ventilate, and achieve sensible O2 saturation levels and a slow pulse rate, we recommend a few slow, deep, strong ventilations combined with relaxation and concentration.
- Avoid rapidly turning around at your target depth. A dramatic turn around at the end of a long descent can lead to "deep water blackout." A significant amount of blood has moved into the head on the decent with the result that a rapid turn around can result in vertigo. This is particularly true of very deep dives where blood shift into the lungs is already a significant factor.
- Avoiding looking directly up at the surface on ascent. As you get tired, tension does build up in your neck. Neck extension can affect necessary blood flow to the brain and increase pressure in the area of the baro-receptors in the neck sending the wrong message to the central nervous system which may increase the pulse rate, so try and consciously relax the muscles in your shoulders and neck.
- Try avoiding increasing your pace on the last part of the ascent. This is where you are most vulnerable, where lactic acid-build up might be present, and where economy of movement is essential to conserve O2 and keep the pulse rate stable. Try remained focused on calm, steady economy of motion.
- Blowing on an unconscious divers eyes may stimulate the body’s impulse to breath.
- Keep up to date with medical aid training, refresh your understanding from time to time, know how to administer CPR, mouth to mouth, and mouth to snorkel resuscitation.
- If you are diving with a diver that has suffered a shallow water blackout always ensure that diver visits a hospital as soon as he gets on-shore. Often a near drowning victim may have let salt water into their lungs, and the symptoms only appear hours after the event. The effects of salt water on the lungs are serious.
Fitness & Stamina
Perhaps one of the greatest dangers that spearos face are themselves. In freediving the diver exposes himself to a foreign environment, where the water is often cold, where strong currents and surf are prevalent, and the diver pushes himself to extreme depths in search of quarry. Overestimating one’s ability in these circumstances is an enormous risk and a very real danger.
Stay in shape and be honest about your conditioning. You may have been able to easily hunt at 90 ft in the past, but this may have changed, and you don’t want to discover your overconfidence at a dangerous depth.
Use a dive computer, particularly one that shows depth and bottom time. In good viz, and in exciting conditions, it is easy to get carried away and dive deeper than you were intending to or can handle. With a computer you will always be aware of your bottom time.
We recommend that you be strict and disciplined and mentally plan your dive time at the surface. Don’t extend your bottom-time longer than you had planned, and DO NOT swim after fish on your way to the surface. This is the dive segment where you are at your most vulnerable.
Don’t underestimate how exhausting diving is. Studies reveal that active freediving burns more than 1000 calories / hr, (akin to woodchopping) so replace lost energy by rehydrating and eating sensibly.
Be aware that any activity rapidly burns oxygen. If you are fighting a fish towards the surface, trying to free a spear, retrieving lost weight belts or wrestling holed up fish, you may lose anywhere from 20-50% of your normal bottom time.
- Never load your speargun out of the water for any reason whatsoever.
- Never fire your spear gun out of the water. The spear may break the shooting line, whiplash dangerously around, or may bounce-back at you.
- Never point your speargun at anyone at anytime. While we make best efforts to make our safety-catches as robust as possible, if the gun is aggressively jarred there is the potential for an unexpected discharge. So always handle your speargun as if it were loaded and ready to fire. And always keep the spear tip pointed away from your body and away from other divers.
- Always put the safety "ON" before loading your spear gun.
- Do not swim with a loaded speargun through heavy surf. Rather load your gun once you have got past the backline.
- Always unload a speargun under the water before removing it from the water, Never pass a loaded speargun onto or off of a dive-boat.
- When loading your speargun make sure that the handle is securely positioned against your chest, with the spear tip pointed as far away from you as is possible. The number one cause of spear gun injuries occurs when loading guns, particularly large guns with more than one set of rubbers.
- Always look behind what you are shooting at, particularly in bad visibility. A rock might cause the spear shaft to bounce back at you, or another diver may have drifted behind your intended target.
- It's very tempting to shoot at fish that have been attracted by the fish your partner has just speared. Most pelagics are curious and school around the struggling fish, providing attractive targets. So be doubly careful in these circumstances.
- Always anticipate recoil. A large speargun is capable of removing teeth, smashing face masks, and breaking noses if not firmly held while firing.
- Never modify or change the operation of your speargun by permanently disabling the safety or interfering with the firing mechanism.
- Always secure your speargun in the boat and store it pointing towards the back of the boat.
- Always keep the spear rubber on the tips especially when children are near and particularly when spears have been recently sharpened.
- Always rinse your speargun in fresh water after each use and allow it to dry fully in the shade before storage.
- It often helps to give the handle a few good knocks with an open hand to help jar any sand that has collected in the handle out of the trigger mechanism.
- For top performance, always inspect your speargun rubbers for wear and tear. We recommend replacing rubbers at least once every diving season. We also recommend that you check your wishbones prior to getting on the boat. Few things can be as frustrating as having a wishbone break and not having a handy replacement.
- Store your speargun in a dry cool place.
- All speargun shafts and mechanism should be lightly oiled periodically.
Spearfishing on SCUBA
Spearfishing on SCUBA is legal in the United States, but not in most countries. Familiarize yourself with the local regulations before spearfishing on SCUBA while abroad. We believe that for a variety of reasons, spearfishing on SCUBA is considerably more dangerous than freediving, particularly for beginning divers, so we doubly recommend that you speak to your SCUBA dive instructors before doing so.
The one point we can make, however, is that it is unwise to freedive-spearfish after scuba diving. The ambient nitrogen remaining in the body tissues post scuba diving can result in decompression sickness where micro-bubbles get recompressed and then consequently expand upon the rapid ascent during an ensuing freedive. We recommend that you wait at least 12 hours after a scuba dive before you start freediving again.
Surf & Currents
The ocean is a diverse and complex environment where the spearfishmen operates in a completely alien environment. As the spearfisherman gazes down on a boiling ball of sharks attacking a wounded fish, a majestic Marlin feeding, a shoal of tuna gliding through the depths, or a school of circling dolphins, the diver immediately understands that he is witnessing mother nature as close as is possible. And shortly thereafter should realize that the sea is big, and that he is small.
Big surf and strong currents present several potential hazards to divers:
- Avoid launching craft and always ensure that you have a clearly visible diving float that makes others aware of your position.
- Avoid shorediving when the surf is big. Chances are that it will get even bigger while diving, making the dive to the shore that much more challenging particularly now that you are tired, possibly towing fish, and potentially having to come in at a location you would prefer not to.
- When shorediving, select a point of entry that is sheltered from incoming waves such as a protected bay. Remember this may not be the point you get out at.
- Memorize the topography of the coastline and plan your dive beforehand. Such that you have a variety of accessible exit points. Be aware that currents may wash you in either direction of your point of entry, plan for suitable points of exits in both directions, and remember that the surf could build quickly, and that you may have to beach in rougher surf than you swum out into.
- Never try to fight a rip current. In most cases, rip currents are relatively narrow. Rather swim at an angle with the current, parallel to the beach, and you should swim out of it in this way.
- When diving from an anchored craft, always swim against the current, so your return will be possible when you are exhausted.
- Most importantly never panic. Stay cool. Stay calm, and ensure that you stay together with your diving partner.
Line tanglement safety
Anything that impedes a spearfisherman’s ability to get to the surface is deadly. One of the hidden dangers in spearfishing is becoming the victim of line tangles, particularly after fish have been speared and the excitement starts. Please observe the following guidelines:
- The line you are most likely to get tangled up in is your own! Always use an appropriate stiff propylene float line that floats, and reduces the potential for knots and snags.
- With floatlines, we recommend that you customize the length of your floatline for the dive your are doing, if you are drifting along shallow reefs, you can afford to have a shorter floatline which is considerably more manageable.
- The period after a fish has been speared is when you are most at risk. Be aware that any activity rapidly burns oxygen. If you are fighting a fish towards the surface, don’t fight it from depth, give up rope, and try to get to the surface as soon as possible, where your buoyancy will be an advantage.
- Be careful. Even small fish, particularly if they have been speared towards the tail, can be deceptively strong and can pull you under water a lot longer than you are expecting.
- Be particularly careful not to get tangled up while trying to fight fish to the surface. Also be aware that even though the fish may be small, a shark, sea lion, or other large predator may take your speared fish and drag you down along with it so be careful about wrapping the line around your hand to gain leverage.
- Always use a knife when you dive, a sharp easily accessible knife could well prevent problems one day. And ensure that the knife is accessible with either hand. The hand you may ordinarily use for your dive knife, might well be the hand that is caught in your float line.
- Be particularly vigilant when diving with a reel gun. Dynema line is far more prone to becoming tangled than is the thicker and more rigid propylene float line or mono shooting line. It is also not uncommon for a reel to become snagged with the line after shooting a big fish, if this happens discard the gun and swim to the surface. There are plenty more fish in the sea.
- Always use a quick release weight belt. And always put the belt on the same way, with a right hand quick release, so that you can get rid of your weightbelt quickly and instinctively. You should always treat anything on your weightbelt as disposable so should consider putting your diving knife elsewhere.