Getting Started Spearfishing | Understanding Freedive Spearfishing Risks
When you tell someone that you freedive spearfish, people will often ask two questions.
“What about sharks?” and “How long can you hold your breath?”.
Both of these questions identify risks that we need to understand and manage.
SOMETIMES though sharks and blackout are not the only risks we face and they are often not the risks we need to prioritize the highest.
Below I have compiled a list of common risks involved in the pursuit of spearfishing. Following each identified risk, there are instructional videos and pointers to minimize threats to your safety. Carefully consider each risk and identify the highest potential dangers to you and your mates in the environment where you spear fish.
Risk Factors in Freedive Spearfishing
Freedive spearos often share the ocean with other users such as Jetskis, Powerboats, Sail Boats and more. If you are diving near a shipping channel or near a river mouth, boat traffic could potentially be the most dangerous aspect to diving safely. Sometimes boats just either don’t see us OR they don’t even know what a dive flag is:(
- Dive with a buddy. A buddy can scream and wave their arms at an oncoming boat and basically increase your visibility in the water.
- Dive with a Float and Flag (Buoy and flag). All countries and territories have rules for boats and jetskis around dive flags. Make sure yours is highly visible!
- Avoid areas of high boat traffic. Sometimes this is easier said than done HOWEVER….
- Have a boatie (Skipper/Captain) in your boat at all times so that they can position your dive boat between divers in the water and oncoming boat traffic. Use a large dive flag!
- Educate and communicate with your Boatie/Skipper. Boat in neutral when divers are in water close by. Communicate safe distances and general dive plans between crew members.
Shallow Water Blackout (SWB) | Hypoxic Blackout [also Loss Motor Control (LMC), Samba]
When you hold your breath underwater there is risk involved. The most common danger spearos encounter holding their breath is Shallow Water Blackout (SWB). A SWB or Hypoxic Blackout often occurs within 3-6 M (10-20ft) of the surface. A diver will most often blackout (faint) on their return to the surface. A common cause of SWB is hyperventilation (or over-breathing). Freedive spearos will hyperventilate in order to flush carbon dioxide from their body and remove/reduce their urge to breathe (makes them ‘feel’ more comfortable).
The main problem with hyperventilating is that the urge to breathe is your friend and hyperventilating actually reduces your ability to hold your breath for longer.
A SWB will cause your mate to lose consciousness (faint) and if you’re not there to grab him and return him to the surface, he drowns.
Managing the risk of Shallow Water Blackout
- Dive with a buddy. Watch you buddy surface, take 2-3 breaths and then he/she should follow you and return serve!
- Don’t hyperventilate. Breathe-up techniques that involve un-natural breathing flush carbon dioxide from your body and reduce your bodies ability to communicate and compromise your breath-hold ability.
- Don’t push it. No fish is worth your life.
- Learn how to do a rescue on an unconscious diver (freedive courses are great for this). Drill this every now and then as it’s not as easy as it looks!
When we enter the ocean we become part of the ecosystem and as such the risk of a shark attacking you needs to be considered. Sharks can be erratic and unpredictable so assessing the risk they present at different times should be an ongoing consideration. They are fast, big and have a mouth full of teeth. Thankfully though, most of the time, they aren’t interested in us.
Managing the risk of Shark attack
- Dive with a buddy. There is strength in numbers and sharks conduct their own risk assessment. You are far more effective at posing a threat in a team.
- Don’t keep fish on your person OR anywhere near you. Throw your freshly Iki’d fish on the boat or in your float/buoy.
- Get out of the water when sharks display aggressive body language. Move somewhere else.
- Get first aid training particularly on the application of tourniquets.
- Buy yourself a Sharkshield – they have been proven to reduce the risk of shark attack (use the code NOOBSPEARO to save $20)
- Paint or apply eyes to the back of your head/body. 2 out of 3 shark attack victims never see the shark that attacks them. Sharks that think they are being observed are less likely to attack (check out Sharkeyes here)
Being shot by a Speargun
Spearguns shoot 7mm steel shafts under power. A shaft can go through a person just like it goes through a fish. While it sounds like a silly mistake, this one is more common than you think.
Sometimes it’s swimming with a finger on the trigger, other times it’s misidentifying a person on the bottom in poor vis. The spearo see’s movement and squeezes the trigger, bang he just shot his dive buddy. At other times it can be hunting a fish in a big school on the surface and not paying attention to your mate who is behind the fish. Also, speargun trigger mechanisms occasionally fail.
Managing the risk of spearguns
- Treat spearguns like firearms. Never have your finger on the trigger unless you are ready to shoot a fish.
- Consider what is behind the fish you are shooting.
- Don’t point a loaded speargun at anyone EVER (yes even if the safety is on). *This goes for yourself when you have an Action Camera mounted to the speargun!
- Take care with your speargun in surf zones. Unload when exiting/entering the water. Put a spear tip cover on (secure up your wetsuit sleeve when not in use).
Knife Wound | Major Trauma
Pulling in a big struggling fish, subduing it with a hand in the gills and then positioning the fish in a way so that you can reach down and grab your knife is an acquired skillset. Once you get your knife out the risk increases. Knives in general are risky to handle, combine that with moving boats, struggling fish, awkward gloves and gaps in concentration and you can quite easily get stabbed or badly cut.
Managing the risk of knives
- Take care removing and holstering your dive knife.
- Subdue a fish before attempting to Iki Jime (stab) the fish. Do this by placing a hand in its gills and wait for it’s struggles to ease.
- Secure the knife when in its sheath (make it click or secure it with string/cord).
- Take care handling a knife on a moving boat and consider removing your knife hand glove if it’s restrictive.
- Stay up to date with First Aid training and have a trauma kit on hand.
Lost at Sea
Rhys from Noob Spearo Community on Facebook “I’ve got a doozy. I took a good mate out for an epic days diving in my tinny. Big run up the coast and the weather blew right up. But the fishing was super on. One of his first times going ‘boaty’ and we jump in. Spanish Mack’s everywhere. Miss a big one and look up and the boat is nearly out of eye shot and drifting with the wind. We swam for a good amount of time to catch up to the boat screaming “throw out the anchor”. Nearly swam to the headland some 3km in. Got to the boat and the motor wouldn’t start. First thing I checked was the bloody safety lanyard (kill switch). Needless to say I now have a bit of a motor starting speech for all new divers on my boat!”
This story clearly illustrates a scenario in spearfishing that can happen quite easily. New spearos can often be new boaties and so they may need some training before being left alone at the helm.
Also, divers in the open ocean disappear very quickly in windy conditions particularly with swell. Inexperienced boat skippers, Captains unfamiliar with spearfishing practices, distracted (and seasick) boaties, boat breakdowns, divers without float/buoys and flags, untethered/snapped anchor lines and poor buddy practice can all contribute to divers becoming separated from their vessel.
Managing the risk of becoming separated from your vessel
- Maintain good buddy practice. One up, one down. The Skipper can see you easier if you stick together.
- Use a buoy/float and flag. Be visible.
- Stay close to divers if you are the Skipper (maintain a suitable distance for the conditions).
- Teach new Boaties how to operate the vessel and what to do in the event of something going wrong.
- Divers have inflatable safety sausages, whistles or Personal Locator Beacons in the event of separation.
Your Own Rigline
Riglines or Floatlines are essential for new divers. They are more simple to use than a Reelgun and offer other safety advantages. *small caveat here for Kelp Forest and wreck spearos as structure changes the dynamics (this in itself is another risk!)
- You can let your gun go and know that you’ll get it back!
- The rigline will be tethered to a float on the surface that will make you more visible to boats and water craft
- The float will make you more visible to your own boat, Skipper and dive buddies
- Line management is easier with a rigline than with a reel gun
Reel line or a floatline can turn deadly quick. Line management is a skill you need to acquire before you think about shooting a large fish. Any large fish has the ability to drown you if the rigline or reel line cinches up around your fins. Any form of entanglement with a fish fighting hard on the other end will cause danger.
Managing the risk of Rigline Entanglement
- Keep the line behind you and be aware of its path behind you. If you are right handed the risk of crossover comes when you turn left and the line travelling down the right side of your body can easily get caught up on your knife or fin or go between your legs.
- When fighting a larger fish swim forwards on the surface keeping the recovered line behind you
- Read this story by Moss Burmester about fighting a Marlin and getting tangled in his floatline
- For more good info on Reelguns vs Floatlines, check out this post at finandforage
Sea Urchin (Kina) Spike | Reef/Fish spikes | Lobster (Crayfish)
Kina have nasty spikes as do many fish species. If you get spiked and don’t get the spines out an infection is inevitable. Treatment for a sea urchin sting removal followed by soaking the site in vinegar. This will dissolves most superficial spines. If pain persists OR you can’t remove the spines, seek medical attention.
Marine Stingers | Jellyfish
When you spearfish in the open ocean, you will encounter Jellyfish and Marine Stingers. Prevention is better than the cure so wear a full wetsuit or stinger suit in tropical waters.
First Aid for Marine Stingers
- Remove person from the water
- Remove any tentacles or stingers
- Wash with salt water (not fresh water)
- Soak area in hot water
- If pain persists or the area stung is sensitive (eyes etc) call Emergency Services
Smashed into rocks or reef by surf
Getting into and out of a surf zone poses the risk of being smashed into shark rocks or reef. The waves continue to wash you in and out causing not just the initial damage but repeated damage. When this happens you can also end up becoming entangled in your gear, stabbed by your own speargun and/or losing it all.
- Choosing to go out on days that the swell is low/flat or find somewhere to dive with better conditions
- Plan multiple exit points planned in advance
- Stand in front of the surf, observe and assess the behavior of the swell for at least 10 minutes. Choose your moment to enter or exit carefully.
- Have all of your gear secured, spear tip cover in place before you enter the water
What to do in the event you get caught be swell
- Remain calm. You will make better decisions.
- Assess your position and act appropriately. If you are out of the water, climb/scramble higher to get away from the surf. If you are further out into the water, consider swimming out of the surf zone and reassessing the exit point.
- Abandon your gear if you need to, it’s only stuff. You are more important.
Other Risks Not Covered (yet)
- Your own ego (dive watches, prev performances, competitions)
As usual this post is a work in progress so let me know what I’ve missed in the comments below!