Here are five risks that spearos need to factor into their dive planning. Understanding the risks and some strategies to mitigate them will make you a wiser diver even if you are just getting into it. Most of it’s not rocket science but you don’t know what you don’t know.
So here are five of the biggest hazards with advice on how to mitigate them!
1. Shallow Water Blackout
“He was over that way”
“Alright keep an eye out, it's time to move”
60 seconds later…..
“Mate, can you see him?”
“Nah, shit he’s been down a while…”
Shallow Water Blackout (SWB) is a spearos worst nightmare and a serious risk to consider while spearfishing. A breathhold diver (freediver) will usually not blackout deep down; it’s while they are returning to the surface in the final 10 meters (30ft) that the body's safety switch can shut the brain down. This usually happens a long time before the diver is in danger of brain damage or serious injury but when the diver loses consciousness, they must be returned to the surface in order to begin breathing again.
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 not only overrides that basic instinct, but can also reduce your ability to hold your breath for longer.
How to prevent Shallow Water Blackout
People fail and overestimate dives, stuff goes wrong and that's why we have a buddy system. This isn't about shame or blame but every spearo needs to be a good buddy 100% of the time.
It's not 50/50, it's 100/100 when it comes to sticking to each other. When you spearfish in more challenging situations you can ramp this up by having two buddies and diving in three’s.
“Your only safety equipment when spearfishing is your dive buddy” - Simon Trippe
Managing the risk of Shallow Water Blackout
- Dive with a buddy. The number one rule.
- Time your dives and recovery correctly. Especially if you or your buddy are going deep. Make sure you always watch for your buddy to surface and allow them to recover before taking your own dive. Recovery time should be double what the total dive time was, for example a 2-minute dive means at least 4-minute recovery.
- Don’t hyperventilate. Breathe-up techniques that involve un-natural breathing flush carbon dioxide from your body and reduce your body's 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!
2. Boats & Jet Skis
Spearos share the ocean with other water users such as Jet Skis, Powerboats, Sail Boats and more. Boat traffic can 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:
Managing the risk of Boats and Jet Skis
- Have a Dive buddy. An aware buddy can increase your visibility in the water and get the attention of a boat using noise or their body.
- Float and Flag (Buoy and flag). Make sure yours is highly visible! All vessels are supposed to stay clear by 50m.
- Avoid diving in areas of high boat traffic.
- Have a boatie in your boat at all times so that they can position your dive boat between divers in the water and oncoming boat traffic. Again use a large DIVE FLAG!
3. Underwater Entanglement
“After a day diving for Sea Urchins we were on our way back from the Barrier Islands and I jumped in on a really fishy looking rock. I dived down and there were pink MaoMao and Goldies and as I was down there this really good-sized Yellowtail Kingfish came in. I got a really good shot into it and I thought I had stoned it (killed it instantly). I got back up to the surface and started pulling it in. Usually, I play a kingfish in circles from the surface and keep the rig line behind me but as I thought it was stoned I hauled it straight up.
As it got to the surface it took off again. I must have just nicked the spine but not enough to really hurt it. As it took off, my float line which was old and limp formed into a perfect slipknot around my wrist. The next thing I knew I was 10 meters down and moving fast (it was a big fish). So I reached for my knife and realized I hadn't put it back on after diving for Sea Urchins. Generally I would put one on for spearfishing but this time I’d forgotten to. So my only choice was to try and drag the fish back to the surface as I couldn't undo the slipknot on my wrist. I remember getting about two meters (6ft) from the surface and thinking I'm not going to make it…
I finally burst through though and hauled in a big breath and held it. After a bit, I took a few more and slowly managed to get some slack in the rig line so I could undo it. I fought the fish back to the surface and it was 28kg (60lb) so it was a decent fish and it was a huge lesson for me.”
Reporting on this type of accident is almost non-existent and yet from 180 interviews with spearfishing legends from around the planet, I can tell you it's far more common than people realize. Old fishing line, your own rig line, ghost nets, shooting line and more all pose a risk. The good news is you have three lines of defense.
Reducing the risk of underwater entanglement
- Avoiding entanglement: Float line awareness, taking extra care around structures that our line fishing buddies love to chuck lead at and keeping your eyes open are the first layer of protection.
- 2 x Dive Knives. 1 should be in your triangle of access (it can be reached with either hand somewhere in the center of your body). Backup knife (often your burley/chum maker) can be strapped to your leg or arm. Having two knives does make you slightly less hydrodynamic and unwieldy however having two knives with different features is a great idea. One for Ike Jime and one for burley/chum is a great feature.
- Your dive buddy. This guy or girl is your last line of defense in all spearfishing scenarios.
4. Major Trauma | Knives, Boat Propellers & Toothy Critters
Part of the joy of spearfishing is subduing big struggling fish. Big Spanish Mackerel, Barracuda, Dogtooth, Wahoo can all be big strong fish with two rows of extremely sharp teeth. Couple that with your knife and a wrestle in moving seas and you have a health and safety inspector's wet dream.
Accidents do happen and experience is how most of us learn. Hopefully you've had an opportunity to watch someone else subdue a large fish. It comes down to securing the fish in the gills, moving the fish to an appropriate position, removing your knife and carefully spiking the fish’s brain, then reholstering the knife.
Spinning props are also a clear and present danger. Having experienced boaties who are clear about staying in neutral, vocal in their communication and careful in their approach to divers go a long way to reducing this risk.
Reducing the risk of spearfishing-related trauma
- Know how to use a tourniquet
- Complete First Aid training
- Have a trauma kit on hand
- Plan: Have a discussion with your dive mates about what you would do in specific emergency situations. Everyone will learn.
5. Spearfishing and Sharks
Unfortunately the best places to spearfish are usually places that have plenty of sharks. The most dangerous sharks are the sharks you cannot see, and that usually is the case in murky water.
There were 3 breath-hold incidents (8%) in 2015 in which animal-involved injury appeared to be the primary disabling agent. All three were shark encounters. None of these divers were carrying speared fish.
Since Australia began record Shark attacks in in 1791 (230 years ago), there have been 236 shark-related fatalities and 1045 people have been attacked, with surfers representing the majority of these statistics.
Managing the risks of sharks
- Again your buddy is your best asset in sharky conditions. Back to back for best coverage and maintain visual contact while communicating with your buddy. Have some hand signals “Big F#%$!*g Shark”
- Get out of the water when sharks display aggressive body language. Move somewhere else.
- Get first aid training particularly on the application of tourniquets
- Have an exit plan in advance for when it does get sharky
- Be aware that dawn, dusk, low light and murky water can be peak feeding opportunity times for sharks
- Secure your catch in the boat, boat float or similar. Dont keep the fish on you at a minimum, string them to the float.
- Don't give up your catch easily. Using teamwork, push the sharks off. If sharks are fed speared fish from spearos, guess what they learn? A behavior; and they will begin to harass spearos for a free meal every time they are in the water. Use a high level of caution but don't give up your fish easily.
- Have a Sharkshield!
In this article I have identified five clear and present risks and hopefully given you some ideas about how to mitigate the risk. You may have noticed that a dive buddy is the one consistent strategy for every scenario. Your dive buddy is your main safety. Be a good dive buddy and look after your mates.
While I’m here!
The purpose of incident data collection and analysis is not to assign blame but to learn from past events. Some accidents occur even when sound experience, planning, equipment, and support are in place. In spearfishing near misses are underreported; whether it’s shark attacks, blackout/samba/lmcs, knife injuries, being run over by boats or lost at seas. Dive Alert Network (DAN) collects some of this info but I’d love it if we found a way to report, analyse and learn together from not only our communities fatal accidents but the near misses too.
If you have any ideas about how we could do this better, reach out to me on noobspearo.com
Isaac Daly ‘Shrek’
I’d love to hear your near miss and what you learned from it, leave me a voice message HERE https://www.noobspearo.com/noober-stories/