But For The Grace of God
Spearfishing Sodwana by Warren Blackmore
I am not a religious soul. But, there are moments in life where certain tragedy is avoided thanks to what can only be referred to as the Hand of God.
Our recent trip to Sodwana will not be remembered for the awesome weather and perfect diving conditions; nor for the cementing of a great friendship. It will not be cherished for Personal Best fish shot by both Mike and I, nor the fact that we both achieved our deepest dives ever to 31.5m at the exact same time.
It will not be forever etched in time for the fact that I had my most memorable and lethal hunt to 29.5m for 1min 55 to shoot my Personal Best Kaakap of 7kg. It will also not be remembered for the smoking hot “Windgat” chilli sauce at Maak n’ Jol, which saw both of us with hardcore ring sting and me doing woes boat-kaks three days in a row, much to our poor top man’s disgust!
This dive trip to Sodwana will be one of those legendary grandfather to grandson tales around a campfire for one distinct reason…were it not for the grace of God and his one special act of compassion, all 3 of us miserable souls and my beloved “Agent Moonshine” would have been struck down, rolled over and spat viciously out of the proverbial other end, AKA the shore break.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not a religious soul. But, there are moments in life where certain tragedy is avoided thanks to what can only be referred to as the Hand of God. More about that later…
Early morning on Monday the 8th of February (4am to be precise), Mike Constantinou and myself were chuckling nastily to each other at the beginning of our 4-day spearfishing trip to Sodwana. We were going diving, while all the miserable sods driving past us were off for another week slaving away at work! After a long blur of toll booths, numerous dive stories and some carbo-loading, we rolled into sleepy little Sodwana Bay, to be met with a soft NE wind caressing the crystal clean back line of Jesser Point – Mother’s Milk!
The first morning’s diving saw us hurtling up to 9 Mile to acclimatise to the deep, clear water diving. The famous 20m ledge would serve to stretch our tightened lungs, loosen our taut muscles and maybe, just maybe, have shoals of Couta filing through – kind of like those sick puppies on the highway heading off to work.
As is often the case, our first visitor was an inquisitive Tiger Shark. Tending to glide secretly in from behind, they have a knack of surprising you. This is where a dive buddy comes in handy and even though Mike missed this shark, I didn’t, and simple eye contact and a dive in its direction sent it off into the murk.
9 and 7 Mile were quiet. Other than Mike slotting a 10kg Couta to break the duck, we could sense that fish lunchtime and human lunchtime simply did not coincide that day. It was time for a change of scenery. After a quick inspection at 5 Mile with no luck, we decided to spend the afternoon patrolling Hotspots for game fish…
Now I must tell you that I’m not one for sharks, and Hotspots has some real ominous characters lurking down in the deep. One monster of a Zambie, in particular, patrolled the very bottom for the entire duration of our dive and were it not for four pale remoras flanking it, that shark would have had some serious frightening ability – it looked like a F17 Stealth bomber with four white stripes painted on it!
Fish wise, Hotspots did not disappoint. Agitated shoals of baitfish were a clear indication that there were hungry game fish around. We thought it safer to dive a “one-up-one-down” system, using Mike’s deadly flasher as a reference point. We connected an 11lt float to the chicken float to make it more visible to the top man, and easier to hang off when waiting at 20m for fish to approach.
Mike drew first blood again with a Kaakap, and after a good tussle and a couple of underwater pics, we had our second fish of the trip on the boat. Not wanting to be outdone, I took the first drop of the second drift, and ended up taking a sweet 16kg Couta. Mike then replied with another beaut Kaakap, and I landed a 13kg Couta with a classic spineshot from behind.
On starting the next drift, I noticed that the baitfish were being rushed by something large. Swimming out deeper to the front of the bait, I breathed up and dived to find a decent sized Iggy cruising in my direction along the bottom.
As the thick-bodied fish drew level with me, I let fly and plugged him a solid shot right in the gearbox. Needless to say, he still shot off at one hell of a rate and gave me some really good gas! Wanting to keep the fish off the bricks, I applied steady pressure on the reel - just enough to slow him down and still let me get to the surface safely… After a good tussle, I bear hugged the kingie and brained it. A great fish of 23kg – my personal best thus far.
As the first day of diving drew to a close, we had speared seven quality fish. A great start.
Day 2 saw us head straight to Hotspots and we were greeted once again with great diving conditions.
We soon came across a huge patch of nervous water, indicating the location of the baitfish. With 25m visibility and masses of fusiliers and sugar mackerel, it was not long before we found the game fish. A couple of Kaalkap, a good Fulvie and a brace of shoal size Couta later, we high tailed it back home to brew up some serious chow and even more serious plans for the following day.
Day 3 will always be known as the day of reckoning. A superb weather forecast had sown the seed for a trip up to a great reef some 30 kilometres north. A much earlier-than-usual wake up call saw us the launch site at 4.30am, buzzing with excitement and anticipation of large shoals of game fish. Moo Fraser and his dive partner timed their arrival perfectly with ours and all of us were champing at the bit to get out to the reef. Naturally, the ski-boat fishermen were still dossing while the spearo’s were already ready to launch.
Moo launched just before us, choosing a sharp line out toward the breakers. I decided to follow as soon as the next break in the swell appeared. This is, however, where the rubber hit the road, and matters aboard Agent Moonshine became highly precarious!
Selecting my gap in the swell, I gave it full taps. Three quarters of the way out, a large swell picked up, flaring itself out fully across the sandbank like a steroid-ridden bouncer blocking our entrance into a throbbing nightclub. I reckon all 3 of our poepols knyped shut at the same time and “OH F%#K!!!” was yelled out in unison!
There was really only one painful option - to punch through... We already had so much speed and momentum that turning would have seen us crushed by the looming wave. With our army of 3 fully committed, we charged towards the legion of water. Just then the ravenous wave showed its full set of flesh-ripping teeth about to come crunching down on our bow! Oh shit!!!
When I say that there was a head-on collision of severe magnitude I am not kidding. All I remember was a thunderous bang, then finding myself in the water behind the roll bar with the motor cavitating wildly and the boat swinging lazily to port side. That gianormous bouncer wave had cuffed us so hard that it knocked me right off the consol and into the warm Indian ocean.
I screamed crazily for Mike to take the helm and to regain the boat’s composure. He reacted like a super hero, and swung himself off the fish hatch and onto the consol. In an instant he had the motor powered up and spun the boat around in front of the next wave.
There was an instant though, where the boat was completely on its rail and about to flip over… where not even Captain Mike was in control. It was at that moment that I am sure the hand of God reached down to intervene. The boat was leaning at nearly 90 degrees, then suddenly, miraculously, fell to a stable position and punched over the next foamie.
There were no immediate sets looming, so Mike stopped alongside to pick me up. We motored the last couple meters out past back line to safety, where all 3 of us sat in a bewildered state, trying to figure out how we had made it through such a frantic situation without injury or damage to the boat. Like I said… the hand of God…
So there we were, dusting our feathers off and recovering from a good dose of “snot en trane”, when someone pipes up, “Are we still going to …” Well, the Yammie was still purring, we still had 50 litres of fuel and a barrel full of luck, so off we went trying to catch up with Moo.
45 minutes later on a glassy, calm ocean we reached our destination. Fantastic 20m visibility greeted us and we wasted no time in locating the bait and hopping in for our first drift. I remember thinking that the spot was tailor made for giant Couta…
But, other than seeing a bus of an Iggy on the bottom and a shoal of brazen Queenfish bullying a black fin shark on our first drift, things were dead. I think we were both of the opinion that this was a real hotspot, and that sooner or later something had to give. I drifted out deeper in front of the bait into 25m and looked across to see the alien-like, steel coloured head of a Wahoo approaching from my right. The fish kept on coming but stayed nervously on the surface. I managed a brief stare in its direction only to see the fish angle away from me and slither into the shoal of bait. Clever fish these Wahoo. No point chasing it, rather just hope that it did not feel alarmed and would come back in for another pass.
5 minutes later the Wahoo did just that. After a solid shot into its rear half, a few lightning bursts of speed and a screaming reel I loaded it into the boat. Meanwhile, Mike had slotted a Couta, probably attracted from out wide by all the commotion caused by my Wahoo hunt.
We both sensed that these fish were to be our only bounty at this spot and that it was time to try our luck somewhere else. After a few fruitless drifts at Island Rock, Mabibi and 5 Mile we headed back to our trusty hotspot for another recce…
At Hotspots the current was absolutely perfect. We decided to go all out and chum the guts of our two fish, as the “Notorious B.I.G.” Zambie was absent. 200m up current on the outside ledge, in we went with our top man peppering us with bits of gill and guts.
No sooner than the guts had reached mid-water, I turned and looked out to sea and saw a beaut of a Wahoo come snaking in, all lit up and mesmerised by the intoxicating smell of blood in the water. It never even knew I was there! I dropped down as quietly as possible and caned it with a solid shot between the dorsal and anal fins. The fish smoked off like a supercharged V8 and after a couple of reel emptying runs and a few tense moments I managed to grab hold of the awesome 14kg fish. “NICE”, I thought to myself, “This day is starting to smooth out all its rough edges!”
It was on the next drift that the two most incredible feats of my spear fishing life were experienced, my deepest dive and most effective hunt…
I descended smoothly, letting myself free fall into oblivion. Being comfortable with your diving ability and just letting go is a truly exhilarating feeling. Speargun tucked closely to my body, I passed my flasher at 20m and sank to my final destination.
At 31.4m I settled quietly on the reef and as the seconds passed I caught sight of something moving to my extreme left. Perched on a small pinnacle, not even 10m away, was Mike. “How cool is that?” I thought. We had both made our deepest dives to 31.4m at exactly the same time. What made this dive even more special was that it was made after four hours of hard diving and not when we were at our most fresh.
Not even 5 minutes after my deepest dive I made another breakthrough in achieving my deepest, most effective hunt. Dropping down onto a great looking ledge that reeked of Kaakap, I out-waited and out-witted a Kaakap at 29.5m during a dive of 1 min 55. After a few powerful runs and a bit of Potato Bass evasion I boated the fish and was extremely satisfied with the readings my Suunto D4 dealt out to me.
On our next drift, Mike slotted another Kaakap, and with six quality fish on board and a freshening NE wind, we decided to call it a day. Day 3 of our trip will, unless I develop Alzheimer’s, always remain in my memory as the day I used up one of my nine lives at sea. I learned three things from the experience though. One – Know your launch site backwards. Two – Yamaha is the only outboard! Three – Always have an experienced back-up skipper on board.
Day 4 was a quick affair. We launched at 5am, shot straight out to Hotspots and started operating the outside ledge. There were no great sparks. The resident sharks were patroling, potato bass were lurking in wait of a free meal, and the baitfish shoals were abundant. The current was not playing game and the Couta were scarce. We did, however, manage to bag 5 Kaakap of between 3 and 7.5kg and a nice 10kg Couta before our 9am cut off time.
We headed back and after some high-speed boat cleaning and packing, we were on our way back home . It had been a great trip, so complicated yet uncomplicated, stressful in certain parts and absolutely relaxing and enjoyable in others. Great weather and perfect diving conditions prevailed at Sodwana, while the rest of the Natal coast was battered by gale force easterlies and sweltering 35-degree Celsius heat.
Awesome, awesome, awesome!