Spearfishing Madagascar- A Mad Madagascan Reality
Spearfishing Madagascar by Chris Coates
If you are anything like me, you have had vivid dreams revolving around spearfishing and planting a spear into some great fish. Fish that I will realistically never ever get to see, never mind actually shoot at. It’s amazing how awesome the images in my dreams are, and how the spear always lands precisely where I want it to. Of course it’s always in full technicolour, and seems so real as to actually get the adrenaline pumping and every part of my being excited. And when I land these fish it usually involves some kind of triumphant finale that makes me feel like I could conquer the world.
I have these spearfishing dreams most nights, so when the trip of a lifetime to an exotic, fish-infested place comes up, one dream per night turns into a restless night of re-runs and sequels, with the fish getting bigger each time. These fantasies are generally not very helpful when it comes to realizing my dreams in the real world. Besides the lack of sleep, I have found them to totally screw up perfectly good dive trips by blowing all expectations out of the water and just making the mission doomed to fail before it even starts. You’re probably thinking that I smoke some seriously bad crack, but – I kid you not – I have come to the end of many a trip feeling depressed that I did not get the fish that I had dreamed of. Even though I probably had a first class trip with fantastic fish… just not the fish of MY dreams.
Over the years this dream fish fantasy scenario has become a bit of a love to hate kind of thing, I guess like someone with a major addiction. As a coping mechanism, I have started to lower my expectations of dive trips and have tried to separate fantasy from reality as much as possible. Hoping that this way, I will be pleasantly surprised when something happens that I did not expect.... let alone dream up.
Madagascar was one such trip. The lead up was absorbed by the hustle and bustle of work while I tried not to dwell too much on the prospects that lay ahead. Days went by until it was suddenly the night before and time to pack. Reality then hit like the inside of a large mielie farmer’s hand at a bar brawl. Panic stations! I went into a flat tizz trying to think of everything I needed. This is where the small mistakes become oh so big down the line. I looked at my pile of spears that I usually travel with and thought, “I never use these damn things, they always come back with me… I’ll just take two for my big gun… I will never bend those”.
This is what awaited us in Madagascar, clean tropical water with BIG fish.
Maybe I should have thought just a little about the fish we were hoping to shoot when packing my gear.
It was with this haste and lack of planning that I met Dane at the airport to start our day long sojourn to lands unknown… or should I say waters? It wasn’t long into the flight that I realised that Dane too had suffered a similar fate, his probably more from work overload than the crime of apathy to the dive dream. Anyway, we fought our way through customs at OR Tambo, with the only casualty being my deodorant that the handsome fellow in uniform seemed to like. He said the “volume eez too beeg”, totally ignoring my wetsuit shampoo in a much bigger bottle. I guess we scored in some kind of weird way.
Three flights later, we reached Nosy Be. It was dark and I strained to see the sea from the plane as the moon lit the almost nonexistent swell. Finally, the reality of what was going down started to sink in. First we had to land though, and the touchdown was more of a bounce down than anything else. It was good to note that the pilot was confident that the breaks worked well, as he only decided to use them right before we made a sharp turn at the end of the runway planting my head into the back of the seat in front of me. You have to love the cheap seats.
By now, we had met the third diver on the trip: Ronan, a French journalist for a European spearfishing magazine. French is like the second language of Madagascar and Ronan quickly hooked up with our taxi driver that was there to meet us and sorted out everything that required any sort of dialogue. Our trip to the beach from where we were to be transferred to Sakatia Island was briefly interrupted by a visit to a bar in Hellville to quench our thirsts. Finally, fourteen long hours after leaving home, we were met at the beach by Craig Scott: the owner of Orca Sakatia Spearfishing Charters, our host for the trip.
The dark night sky kept the beauty of our destination hidden like presents on Christmas Eve, with only the lodge’s lights revealing the small patch of sand on the beach. We were whisked away to the bar area and welcomed with some kind of tropical drink made from the local rum, and to be notified that the days diving would start very late the next morning. “What?” We were all rather amped by now, and usually diving is an early morning affair for us. We were quickly educated on the effects of a four metre tidal movement and informed that the right current was only going to get going late in the morning... so “sleep in”.
Madagascan tropical rum welcome drink (Chris Coates, Craig Scott, Ronan Bourhis)
The awesome Sakatia Lodge at first light, I instantly could feel my wife's envy.
Ja, whatever! I was up early bells exploring the island. It was a good thing we had time. After a full three course breakfast, we headed to the Spearfishing Centre to sort our kit out. It was at this point that we realised the extent of Craig’s operation. The centre was fully kitted with enough ‘new’ kit to set up at least 10 divers, let alone 3 of us. We also realised that we needn’t have brought any kit at all as everything was available for hire. When looking through Craig’s kit, we immediately saw that our normal rigs and reel guns were going to be useless. With Craig’s assistance, we quickly changed everything on our 1.4’s to the breakaway system that he recommended. We picked out some additional buoys and speed pouches plus a few little extras, loaded the good ship ‘Orca’ and headed out to sea.
Orca Sakatia Spearfishing and Freediving Center
First stop was a reef called ‘Seven Little Sharks’ that comes out of 70 metres or so of water to around 20m on the top. The incoming tidal current screams over the ledge and we spent most of the day just getting into the hang of diving in these conditions and shooting the odd small Doggie that was patrolling the ledge. Oh, did I forget to mention the water is so clean that you feel like you should be using a 2.5m gun instead of the 1.4m pea shooter side arm that you have in your hand? I have dived ‘clean’ water before, but this really was ridiculous.
Ronan exploring the endless drop offs in the 30-40m visibility.
We took a couple Couta that were milling around, but we were holding back for that special fish.
The next day was even more special. We headed up north to a remote reef that comes up to a 35 metre table top out of the deep. When we got into the water, I was sure we were in the wrong spot as the reef definitely did not look 35 metres down! It was twice as clean as the day before… impossible, yes I know! The current was not as strong here and we had some great diving. We got a couple nice fish, but not that amazing fish we were after. I saw Sailfish on two occasions, but I was late in seeing them and watched them slip away into the blue without getting a shot off.
Dane coming 'right' with anther quality fish
For those who like to shoot tropical reef species Madagascar is a treasure chest just waiting to be opened.
We spent the next couple days being fed like kings at the Sakatia Lodge and enjoying exploratory dives on reefs closer to our island. We shot a couple of average fish and found some great new spots. One Craig named “Coatesman’s” – an awesome ledge coming from 50 metres to 20 metres… the only problem being that it faces the wrong way away from the current. Maybe one day on a reverse current someone will get lucky there. I won’t read too much into this :-)
Sakatia is a tropical paradise definitely a place the ladies would love to go.
Things were getting a bit frustrating; we had been diving in a world class location for a couple of days and were seeing some great fish, but we just weren’t coming right with the really good fish that we were after. Was it the midday tide movement that we were stuck with? Or were we just plain unlucky? I guess my low expectations were coming to pass.
Craig, sensing our desire for better quality fish, revealed his plan to take us to a large reef structure 80km out to sea from the island. The reef system is called the Castor Banks and has almost no documented cases of spearfishing, other than the odd yachty poking his head over board.
The main problem with Castor is the inability to get an accurate weather report for the area, so we would have to take a chance and hope for the best… that’s exactly what we did on our second last day, only to get 40km out to sea and have to turn tail and head home due to the deteriorating conditions and the storm clouds on the horizon.
With the last day looming, we were now super eager to see some real action. We had experienced and seen the potential for great fish, but somehow totally lucked out. We had blown off our hopes of getting to Castor that morning and now were faced with an important question: do we take a chance and try the trip again on our very last day? It was unanimously decided we had nothing to lose and headed off to bed early after dinner as we had to wake up at the crack of dawn for the long boat ride ahead of us.
That night a rain storm hammered the island and I remember lying in bed thinking that this was the final nail in the coffin and that my pessimistic attitude to dive trips was being confirmed once and for all. I don’t know how I eventually managed to drift off, but I remember waking up and realising that it wasn’t still pouring and that the wind had died down.
We headed out around the island into the open sea in the dark while the skipper had to keep a his spotlight on the water ahead to ensure that we didn’t run into any of the locals out night fishing in their tiny wooden pirogues. The boat was gliding smoothly over the flat seas which gave us some confidence that we would finally make it out to Castor.
As the sun peeked over the horizon, the large storm that harassed us the previous night could be seen out to sea, right in the direction of where we were going... No one said very much and I nervously watched the dark menacing clouds as we moved towards them.
While everyone else was getting some much needed sleep on the deck, I just couldn’t keep my eyes shut with the thought of Craig turning the boat and calling off the trip again, I had to see what was going on. So, for the next hour I sat until we reached the halfway mark and the point of no return. To our relief, the storm was moving away as fast as we were going towards it and we pushed on for another hour to Castor Banks.
We arrived at the Banks to see fairly calm seas and a clearing sky. We jumped in on the top of the southernmost tip of the reef to do a quick check on the direction of the current and stretch our lungs. This water was crystal (as it seems to be everywhere in that part of the world) but the drift was fairly uneventful. Dane saw some small Iggies as he jumped in and we all had halfhearted attempts at some Kakaap that were milling around.
Craig worked out the drift and headed up current to drop us past the drop off in about 70 metres of water. At this stage, we still did not know what we were in for. We started our drift and Dane, who was generally the first to dive, surfaced with his gun off loaded, motioning to something going on below. I took a couple breaths and headed down. By now we were on the edge of the reef and I could see it below at about 25 metres. Suddenly, there was a Doggie right next to me, not huge but close. I lined up, praying that my shot would be good, and let rip. The shot was good and the Doggie spiraled down as I headed for air, my buoys meeting me at the surface. I just managed to hold on as they were pulled away. I got the fish with a real good shot and after two crazy runs I could see him circling slowly below me at about 20 metres. By now Dane had joined me in case I needed a second shot, only to see a school of Iggies swarming around the injured Doggie. He dived down immediately, glanced at the Doggie on his way past (I assume he was looking to see if the spear was holding - nudge, nudge, wink, wink), leveled out and let rip into the closest Iggie.
A great Doggie to open the day with.
Dane super stoked with his Iggie that came to look at my Doggie.
Chaos ensued; lines, fish, shouting and the passing around of cameras to capture the amazing moment. We were eventually picked up by the boat, and everyone scrambled to get their kit ready for the next drift. Craig took us back to the drop off point, my heart is still pounding in my ears. “Calm down, calm down”, I told myself in a futile effort to be in any condition to dive. The drop was made and we scrambled to sort out lines, flashers, floats and load up our guns. Dane was a little bit ahead of me and the moment he saw the shoals of Surgeon and Fusilers he plummeted to the depths. I could see him on the bottom and saw that something was holding his attention, but didn’t want to dive down and spook the fish… so impatiently, I waited for him to either do something or surface so that I could dive.
Thwack! Followed by Dane steaming for the surface and his buoy line and bungies being pulled in the opposite direction. His buoys started getting dragged to the depths as they whizzed past Ronan’s head, and Dane managed to grab his buoy that was still on the surface. He came flying past me, popped his head up over the wake and chirps, “check my ride” with a huge grin on his face. At this point I could see some small Doggies milling below and I was tempted to go and shoot one… “Damn, Dane would probably appreciate the help”... so odd I went to chase him. By the time I reached him, his Doggie had burnt out and he was easily bringing it up from the bottom.
Next thing, there was excited shouting as the Iggies once again pulled in to the injured fish… one absolutely dwarfing Dane’s Doggie. I dived down at the same time as Dane brought his fish up, hoping that the Iggies would come up, but they turned just as I reached the Doggie. I watched the biggest Iggie imaginable sitting just out of distance, looking at me. It was the size of a barn door and was by far the biggest Iggie that I have ever laid eyes on. Nevertheless, it was back to the surface for more high fives, untangling, cameras and stories from the depths.
Thumbs up all the way after an insane fight, no wonder they are called the 'strongest' fish in the sea.
Dane and I were now realising what was going on, and made a new strategy over the next few drifts. The big fish were a little deeper in front of the shallow ledge in 25 metres, so we decided to try to drop down earlier and drift onto the ledge from the deep. Craig took us up again and this time when we got into the water, a whole armada of Wahoo swarmed us and a couple loose shots were taken in the chaos. I managed to restrain myself and time my dive perfectly. The moment I passed the 10 metre mark, I started to see the Doggies below. I nervously pushed on not knowing if I would spook them or not. I reached their level and watched as they swam around almost without any regard for me. My heart felt like it was going to explode it was beating so fast, and I battled to stay down at 20m, but more Doggies just kept coming. Closer and closer they came until a beast of a fish was so close that I couldn’t ignore it any longer. Camera rolling, I lined up and planted a perfect shot behind the pectorals. The thick fish gave a shake and disappeared down and along the reef. I could see my bungees stretched full, trailing horizontally at about 35 metres. I met my buoys at the surface and was swung around in a wake as the Doggie took my front 11 litre rigid float down.
Milli seconds before 'All Hell' breaks loose!
There was much hooting and shouting; I had a spear in an absolute dream fish. I was dragged for a minute or two only to have the line go slack and my spear return fishless. At this stage I was rather bummed, but the prospect of more fish kept my spirits up.
The next few hours are pretty much a blur of Wahoo, Doggies, Sailfish and Marlin… on every drift we were greeted by Doggies, Wahoo, Iggies and overgrown specimens of almost every type of bottom fish and even sometimes Sailfish. I didn’t have any Sailies come close but enjoyed watching Dane and Ronan falling over themselves with these fish coming in on them a couple of times. I saw a couple of decent Wahoo that I half paid attention to, but with the prospect of giant Doggies below, there was no way that I was going to risk shooting anything else.
This is me lining up on a rather large Giant Kingfish around the 30 plus kg mark. All I needed to do was actually pull the trigger.
On two different occasions I saw Black Marlin. The first one was a real bruiser that was cruising slowly on the surface when I was coming up off the ledge after shooting a Doggie. The second was smaller, about 150kg, and I almost had a shot, but I had already trashed all my spears and was diving with Craig’s big wooden gun. My confidence was not all there and I hesitated, only to see it glide out of reach.
I pulled back on so many 20 to 30kg Iggies, a huge Fulvie and loads of Wahoo that would have been cause for much celebration on any other day. In hindsight, I should have at least taken another fish, that Fulvie would have been special. But, believe it or not, I found it was almost impossible to pull the trigger on anything other than a giant, knowing that the fish of a lifetime could easily be right behind you.
Aiming up on another Doggie .....They are a whole lot easier to shoot than to land!
And that’s how the day went. Jumped in, left anything under 30kg alone, shot a giant Doggie, got reefed, snapped up and broken off. Spent time diving out tangled lines and spears at 30 metres; all the while watching more Iggies and Doggies swim past. I eventually tried to shoot a smaller 40kg fish just to land one and I still got beaten. I was watching Dane on the bottom on one of the drifts and saw him angling in on a monster Doggie of about 60kg, into which he placed the perfect shot. I could see that his spear had gone right through the body and the fish was hurt badly. It literally stopped dead, shook its head a couple times and regurgitated its stomach contents.
I was just waiting for the fish to roll over, when all of a sudden it turned on the gas and went from zero to hero full throttle for the bottom. The next thing we knew, one of the metal clips between Dane’s floatline and bungies had burst on the fish’s initial run!
Dane and I repeated this scenario for most of the day in the hope that somehow we would eventually get that one special fish… until all we were left with were our 1.3m reelguns on the last two drifts. I remember being down drifting onto the ledge and a smaller 20kg Doggie coming up to me. I lined up with my reel gun and for the first time went, “it’s pointless taking the chance” and pulled back. Dane took a slightly different approach with his reel gun and did shoot and land one of the smaller Doggies. As luck would have it, I did not come close to any Wahoo on those last drifts and landed up with only one fish for the whole day.
The last drift was coming to an end and my heart sank as the reality of defeat set in. I know I was the one who made the call to go big, and I gave it everything. Exhausted, I just lay on the surface trying to soak in everything that just went down, when the tranquility was broken by chaos. Ronan and Dane had got stuck into a shoal of Sailfish. Dane unfortunately dropped his, but Ronan landed a perfect holding shot and was getting towed towards the horizon. He eventually tired the fish out enough to get close enough to place a perfect kill shot and landed a beautiful fish. There was no better way to finish the day.
The 'Cream' ontop of an insane trip ... the stuff dreams are made of.
Anywhere else in the world, we would have pestered the skipper for at least three more “last” drifts, but with the long trip back to base, time was up and the fat lady had sung. Still euphoric from the insanity we had been part of, the boat ride home was full of mixed emotions. My mind tussled with dealing with the plain cold fact of defeat verses the pure wonder and bliss of the most surreal place I had ever dived. The action replays in my mind were as unstoppable as a big Doggie with a spear in it, and the wheels were already grinding as to what we could have done differently. Shorter lines, stronger this, heavier that, what if we... and on, and on.
So here I sit, a couple days later, still absolutely bewildered over what we experienced. Friends call to ask about the trip and I try and explain the best I can, but I know that I could never do it justice. Only Dane, Ronan and myself will truly understand. It’s like seeing the ‘other side’. Like a religious experience that we will forever compare every other dive with, every fish and situation.
My dreams now have a new reality that I can no longer ignore or fob off as fantasy. I close my eyes and there is a real place where 50kg Doggies swim up to you, Marlin glide the surface, and Wahoo shoal like Salad-fish. I am ruined. How can I fix this, how do I get back there? Maybe I should just sell my car and deal with the consequences later, I need my fix.
Here are some more pics from the trip
The view from one of the bungalows, only meters from the waters edge.
Some more of the Bungalows at Sakatia, every one absolute first class.
Craig Scott a real waterman and a fantastic guide, and runs the most
professional spearfishing charter I have ever been on.
The good ship 'Orca' a super spacious and comfortable boat that has been custom designed for spearfishing.
The Bay at Sakatia Lodge,even here the water is crystal clean and the coral reef
starts meters from the shore line.
Ronan and myself enjoying the local brew and some fresh tuna sushi-mi
... and that's all before the 3 course meal!