The Coral Sea is the pinnacle of Australian spearfishing - it is Mount Everest for spearos. Last week, 8 keen spearos and 2 members of the Adreno Spearfishing Team, including owner of Adreno Tim Neilsen and myself, headed out to experience the beauty and mayhem that is the Coral Sea for the first and, for many of us, possibly the last time with the Coral Sea reefs up for closure in July 2014. Overall, the trip aboard Bianca Charters was fantastic! With the first and last days of the trip spent on the Ribbons Reefs, and three days in the Coral Sea, including two days at Shark Reef and one day at Osprey Reef, a variety of species were targeted and a variety of spearfishing techniques were used - from shallow water reef spearfishing, to crazy ledge diving, and of course the mayhem that is bluewater hunting. We were lucky enough to experience it all in glass-out conditions.
After an overnight steam, day one saw us anchor at the Ribbons Reefs of Pearl and Ruby. It was to be a warm-up day for most of us, having been kept out of the water for various reasons from jobs to families or study commitments and of course the horrible weather that has plagued Australia's East Coast as of late. But after a few dives everyone was back in the swing of hunting, and a variety of great reef species quickly hit the decks. The stories were already rolling in when our two crews met back at the mothership for lunch and dinner. Some large specimens of the ever-ellusive Maori Sea Perch were spotted, and hunted unsuccessfully. Naomi Spicer, holder of many Australian Ladies Separfishing records and National Titles, even spotted a 10kg+ Jobfish at the end of one dive, and I managed to bag a cool 1.2kg Peacock Cod for the Adreno Big 5 Online Spearfishing competition.
During the second half of the day, I stumbled upon a very nice speargun that some poor spearo had lost! The speargun was floating up off the reef edge at about 10m, with the shaft and rig line tangled around a bombie. The speargun was rigged up for big fish, complete with a breakaway and slip-tip. It looks like the breakaway system has failed after shooting something big, and perhaps the float line snapped and the big fish ran the gun up into the shallows where it became tangled and then eaten by sharks, leaving just the gun and shaft. There's no other reason that a perfectly great gun would have been left tangled around a bombie in such shallow water. So if you lost a gun out there and can tell me the brand of gun and details about the rigging, I'd be keen to return the gun to it's lost owner! That first day enjoyed on the Ribbons was only a warm-up day, a chance to fill the freezer with a few nice eating fish before heading out to the real action that awaited us in the Coral Sea.
As the sun rose on day two we eagerly ate our breakfast of bacon and eggs while marvelling at the iridescent purple water that surrounded us. We piled our equipment into the tenders - thousands upon thousands of dollars worth of game fish floats, 30m float lines and bungees, and everything from massive six-rubber bluewater guns, to Aimrite King Venoms. We thought we were ready for anything! Hunting in groups of three or four, myself, Aaron Falls and Sam Dawson rolled over the edge of the 5m tender and into the 30 degree warm, crystal clear water. As we deployed our mirror perspex flashers, we were instantly greeted by rainbow runner and small reef sharks, and within ten minutes the first Yellowfin Tuna arrived. At about 25-30kg, the sleek torpedo zoomed in between our two flashers. At my dive buddies signal, I took the first dive on the fish. As he zig-zagged around, enjoying various pieces of finely diced burly, I tried to anticipate where he would go next. It proved to be a difficult thing to do though and while I may have had one possible shot from above, I didn't want to risk a bad shot and almost certainly losing the fish to sharks, so I returned to the surface. Aaron dived next with a massive bluewater gun that he borrowed from a friend, ready to land a fish of any size. As he dropped to its level in the water column, the YF Tuna circled wide and Aaron extended his gun for a shot, but a few scales from the back of the Tuna were all that eventuated.
With the Tuna disappearing back into the 400m of water below, we resumed our duties of flashing and burlying. Before long, our real target of Dogtooth Tuna arrived and Aaron took a dive. He waited patiently at the bottom of the flashers and sure enough the curious doggies did a loop and fell into reach of the massive speargun. With a mid-body shot though, it took only seconds for the 20kg Dogtooth Tuna to disappear from view, floats trailing behind. As he returned to the surface, Aaron pointed behind me and Sam and I turned to see a good sized Wahoo cruise in to examine the commotion. I pointed to Sam, letting him know the fish was his and he dived to take a shot with his huge six-rubber bluewater gun. The speed of the spear was insane, but only the fin of the fish was tagged as it rolled, dodging the spear, and took off unharmed. The footage of that is pretty awesome. I turned back to the fighting Dogtooth that was giving the bungee and floats a workout. Being such a powerful fish, it's all but impossible to pull them in quickly without a stone shot, and of course the reef sharks got to the fish before we did. It wasn't the result we were hoping for, but Aaron was still buzzing with adrenalin from shooting his first Dogtooth Tuna.
We reset the drift and more Wahoo and Yellowfin Tuna made appearances, but none quite wanted to play the game, or were too small for us to pursue. With each drift we would eventually end up on a ledge that rose from 300m to 18m - it was the hotspot for Dogtooth Tuna, and was covered in thousands of Big-Eye Trevally and baitfish, but the current would only allow us to have 10 minutes on the ledge at a time. Eventually, it was time to head back to the boat for a lunch of tacos.
While we returned with nothing but stories, the other team of four spearos had an amazing morning. Brad Arnott landed a 17kg Wahoo and all of the divers got two great sized Maori Sea Perch each from a school of over 30! While it was tempting to go out in search of this dream-like Maori Sea Perch bombie, our crew persisted in the bluewater for the afternoon in hopes of landing that big fish we had travelled so far for. We split into our two teams of 3 and before the guys had even loaded their six-rubber spearguns I had already had a shot at a 30kg+ Wahoo that snuck in on us. Bluewater syndrome was my enemy though as my spear fell short of the huge fish. In fact, for the next two days, that same Wahoo haunted most of us divers, but no one seemed to be able to judge its distance well enough to land a shot on the curious giant. Over the next two days, various pelagic fish were shot and lost, or seen and unsuccessfully hunted. Stories of 60kg Dogtooth Tuna, footage of spearing 40-50kg Dogtooth Tuna, 100kg Yellowfin Tuna and big Wahoo were shared around the dinner table each night.
Despite pelagics being our main target, some great reefies were also landed. Longnose Emperor, Coronation Trout and Green Jobfish could all be lured in with the help of a bit of fish-frame burly - almost a necessity for hunting the weary fish in 40m visibility. At one stage, after burlying the deep ledge and drifting across it to no avail, Aaron dropped the frame of the fish that he had been chumming. As soon as it hit the bottom a few good sized Jobfish appeared - it was amazing to be able to see everything so clearly from the surface in the 40m visibility! Aaron dived down and took the Jobfish unaware as they munched on the frame of a Trout that we had filleted earlier. He thought they were only small when he placed an awesome shot through the top of the head - until the fish took off with his gun and all. Sam and I dived immediately to intercept any sharks that wanted the fish for themselves, but soon enough Aaron had landed it with plenty of wahooing on the surface - a great first Jobfish at 7.1kg! With the trout frame still up for grabs, we then watched in awe as the reef sharks fought over the frame, only to have a massive Potato Cod swoop in to claim the feed - the sharks backed right off! They certainly know who is boss of that reef.
After an Indian feast on the top deck of the MV Phoenix, complete with papadums and naan bread, we began to steam for Osprey Reef - a dormant underwater volcano which is absolutely amazing to dive. It was a devastating thought for all of us to say goodbye to Shark Reef, and knowing we only had one day to explore Osprey. It's sad beyond words that these spectacular reefs could soon be closed off from recreational line fishermen and spear fishermen thanks to a Green controlled Labor Government, and that our future generations would never experience the sheer beauty, chaos and excitement that we were, on this secluded Australian reef. The hardest thing to comprehend about the upcoming Coral Sea closures though, is that from the time we arrived at the Ribbons, then the Coral Sea, and back again, we did not see one single other boat! The amount of recreational line fishermen, let alone spearfishermen, that are lucky enough to explore these reefs is minuscule because of the cost and distance involved in such a trip - in this way, the reefs protect themselves. But I digress...
I awoke from the queen-sized bed in my air-conditioned room, complete with ensuite (oh yeah, we travelled in style!), to the sound of guys already gearing up - it was practically still dark! When I got up deck the purple water was complete glass and Tim, Ryan and Kel were diving in board shorts straight off the back of the mothership. In the 15 minutes before breakfast they had speared a couple of 5kg+ Jobfish, and some nice Passionfruit Trout no more than 15m from the boat, and some of the guys had caught some beautiful reefies on line as well! Osprey was proving to be a great location already. After a hot breakfast of bacon, scrambled eggs, mushrooms, baked beans and spaghetti, we opted for some shallow reef diving.
Diving Osprey Reef was completely magical. Swim-throughs that started in just a few metres of water would end at sheer drop offs into oblivion - the edge of what was once a volcano. Everyone returned with a mixture of exotic reef species, and Sam and Naomi had landed some awesome 6kg Maori Sea Perch. After a quick lunch and steam to the other end of Osprey we were straight back into it. Following a recommendation from Captain Peter Sayre, I was diving the edge of Osprey reef, along with the two guys that introduced me to spearfishing, Brad Arnott and Andrew Martin, plus Ryan from Sydney and Brooksy from Gladstone. We quickly learned that while the ledge was full of amazing fish, the fish were often flighty and the sharks were plentiful! If we weren't quick, we would lose the fish to 10ft Silverfringe sharks that owned and patrolled the drop-offs.
It's hard to find words that aptly describe the excitement and adrenalin of that afternoon, but it is one that I will never forget (and thankfully captured on my GoPro!) and that the guys hailed as one of their best ever spearfishing sessions. The drop-off went from oblivion right up to water so shallow you could stand up, with barely any in-between slope for much of the wall. We were having a blast shooting reefies and hunting some tricky Longnose Emperor when Andrew dived after a big Maori Sea Perch. He pursued it down the wall, eventually getting a shot into the awesome fish, only to have it hole-up on the ledge. After a few tugs, Andrew pulls the fish free of the wall - but the sharks don't miss a beat and are in hot pursuit. Almost instantly, six Whalers are going crazy over the Maori Sea Perch, and one of the biggest of the pack quickly gets the fish into its jaws. Andrew, knowing this is the biggest Maori Sea Perch of the trip, doesn't give up. He fights the fish and shark all the way to the surface, never letting go of his gun, as Brad dives down and begins poking the shark, with the other smaller sharks still circling, until it releases the fish from its jaws. Almost instantly after the fish is free, a massive Potato Cod then appears from the deep. It just looks at the Maori Sea Perch and every single shark vanishes - just like that! They know their place in the reef. Thankfully, the Cod didn't eat the Maori Sea Perch, and Brad's efforts, along with the Cod's presence, saved the fish from being shark-dinner. Andrew rushed the fish into the shark-free shallows until the boat came over. It was a great moment and a perfect example of team work and the rewards of diving with buddies, with all divers pitching in to help secure the fish for Andrew. High fives all around, and the fish was in the boat.
Shortly after, Brad's cousin Ryan, a Sydney diver relatively new to spearfishing, shot a nice Bluespot Trout. His spear was lodged in the reef though, and the sharks were quick to investigate. We acted quickly to protect the fish. Andrew and Ryan were doing their best to keep sharks away from the Trout when Brad suddenly dived and pursued a Longnose Emperor, getting a nice shot and quickly pulling it up and away from the sharks. With my gun now the only loaded gun we had to poke away sharks, Andrew asked me to watch his back as he again worked on retrieving the Trout. By then, a massive Bluefin Trevally was circling the Trout and although I was eager to shoot it, the two other fish still in the water meant that we could be in trouble if I did!
Finally, Andrew was able to free the spear and pull the trout to the surface. Both fish were just in the boat when two Longnose Emperor came in to investigate the activity. I quickly dived down and placed a high head shot on the larger of the two fish. Instantly, Andrew and Ryan both dived at the same time and simultaneously bear hugged my fish to the surface! They had thought it was a bad shot and so rushed to my assistance, meaning the fish couldn't be claimed as a record, but it was still my first Longnose Emperor and I was over the moon. Once I had dispatched the fish I began swimming to the boat. The sharks were still over-excited when the boatie decided to throw a heap of squid into the water as burly! Sh*t!!! Now gunless, well past the drop off (shark territory) and holding nothing but my dead Longnose Emperor I had to cross a minefield of feeding sharks on the surface to get to the safety of the boat. Thankfully, Andrew was nearby with his loaded gun and, although a couple of sharks snapped up pieces of squid far too close to our body parts for comfort, we eventually managed to get in the safety of the boat. The thing to understand out there is that there is no helicopter capable of flying out for assistance. Sharks have to be carefully watched at all times, and dive buddies have to be reliable. One mistaken, curious bite from even the smallest of sharks, and you are 12 hours from the closest reef for help - so situations with frenzied sharks really get the adrenalin pumping!
With his Maori Sea Perch and Buffalo Emperor safely in the boat, and the sun quickly setting, Andrew was ready to call it a day. We marvelled at the quality of fish and the excitement of the session while Brad and Ryan kept pursuing something good on the drop-off. Andrew and I could hear some angry yells and accusations before finally excited high-fives as the Arnott cousins brought a beautiful 6g+ Jobfish to the boat and quickly jumped in. The story was that Brad had shot the Jobfish, and Ryan pulled on the rigline attempting to save the fish from sharks, only to have the fish pull off from the pressure. Acting quickly, Ryan dived and shot the fish with his own gun, managing to land it. There was fighting over who the fish belonged to, but in the end it was decided that it was a great team effort by both cousins and no doubt a moment that they'll laugh about for many years to come!
The other team, including Sam Dawson, Tim Neilsen, Kel and Naomi had been off chasing species for the Adreno Big 5 Online Spearfishing competition, and they all returned with some huge Goatfish up to 2kg to weigh for the Pacific 5 category, as well as a mixture of great reef fish, exciting stories and some epic GoPro footage of their own!
That night saw us saying a final farewell to the magical Osprey Reef and Coral Sea, and steaming back into the Ribbons Reefs. Our location for the day was a mixture of beautiful drop-offs and caves, and colourful shallow reef bommies. But before I knew it, we were in the final hour of the whole trip. I was diving with Aaron and he had just shot a Corronation Trout. The boaty had thrown some of the last burly into the water and I was reloading my gun when a big Jobfish cruised in and began quickly eating the burly and then darting off - I swear it took me twice as long as usual to load my speargun then! I called Aaron over, telling him what I had just seen. The other guys were already in the tender and keen to move spots when I asked the boatie to throw some more burly. Sure enough, the Jobfish quickly returned and I swooped down, lined up on one piece of burly, and had a mexican stand-off with the mean-looking Jobfish.
We hung there, suspended mid-water column, both of our eyes locked on the burly. He looked at me suspiciously, looked at the burly, back to me, and then rushed in unable to resist. I let the shaft fly, placing a shot straight through the lateral line. All but stoning the Jobfish, I quickly pulled him in as Aaron dove to fend off any sharks. After saying all trip that all I wanted was a 5kg Jobfish, but not having an opportunity on any (except a 4kg Jobfish that I burlied in, dived on and lined up, only to have Andrew steal it from me - and yes, the robbery is all on camera! Ha!), the feeling of sliding my hands into this awesome fishes gills felt almost like a dream. I quickly passed the fish to Sam in the boat and jumped in, adrenalin coursing through me and an irremovable smile on my face as I marvelled at my new State record Green Jobfish of 7.4kg.
It was the perfect end to an unforgettable trip full of amazing people and fish. With two more Adreno spearfishing charter trips coming up later this year, I can hardly wait to get back out there amongst the mayhem that is the Coral Sea!