Spearfishing Tanzania - The Great Doggie Expedition
Spearfishing Tanzania by Dane Salmon
I have been obsessed with spearfishing Dog Tooth Tuna ever since I first saw that silver dot coming in on me just over a year ago in Madagascar (see USM vol 4 – A Mad Madagascan Reality). On that spearfishing trip I was given a small taste of the power and grandeur of these fish and also a very large slice of humble pie at the same time. When I arrived home from Mads (with no spears, bungis or working guns left), I made a promise to myself that I would find a way to land a decent sized Doggie one day.
Since then, I have prowled the internet, fishing & spearfishing magazines, and blogs all over the world to consume as much info on where the best place to hunt the big Doggies is as well as the type of gear setup that should be used. After all my research, it was clear that I would need to get to either Fiji or Tanzania and that I would also need to invest quite heavily in some heavier duty gear if I was going to even stand a chance of landing a sizable Doggie.
Craig Heslop, Iain Ewing and Garrick Morris had been planning a trip to Latham Island for over a year and via the grapevine I had heard that they were 1 diver short. After a quick chat with Garrick via BBM, I was in. All that was left was to convince the wife that 2 weeks away from home and our businesses was a good idea (I mean, the other guys were all doing it and they also have young children and important jobs, so why couldn’t I?). Permission was granted rather easily (I’m sure I will be reminded of this fact for years to come) and my brain immediately switched to spearfishing mode and anything not directly concerning the upcoming trip went in 1 ear and straight out the other.
The morning of departure finally arrived and I met Iain and Craig at King Shaka airport to start the long trek via Jhb where we would meet up with Garrick then on to Dar es Salaam and finally arriving in Zanzibar. Everything went smoothly until we arrived in Dar and found that our connecting flight to Zanzibar had been delayed. Luckily the airport had a pub so we settled in and sampled a couple of the local beers. The first one tasted similar to cat piss, but by the time we finally boarded our flight they were absolutely delicious. We finally arrived at Nungwi a little worse for wear and after a quick catch up over dinner with Captain Dunga from Extreme Blue Water Spearfishing and meeting Dash (an American on a spearing tour of the world who would be joining us) we finally hit the sack.
The last stragglers arrived the following morning and we were now all set for our big adventure. Our party was made up of 4 Natalians (myself, Iain, Garrick and Craig), 1 Vaalie (Cameron) and 1 American (Dash). We also had Barret Harvey from Apnea Productions on board to shoot some footage for the next edition of the African Spearfishing Diaries DVD.
When we finally boarded Walkabout, the 50ft cat that was to be our home for the next 10 nights, it was a mad rush for cabins and comments were thrown around about who would be shagging who for the next couple days. I am just pleased that I ended up bunking with Iain as I don’t think there are many guys out there who would be able to fend off the Morris monster if he decided to get amorous… Everyone immediately set about sorting their kit out and everything was going well until we realised that the compressor on the boat was not working and that we would need to pump our mountain of floats up with a mini bicycle hand pump.
We left Nungwi on Walkabout just after lunchtime towing the 21ft Butt Cat tender and were hoping to reach Latham just before sunrise. Sea conditions deteriorated as we got further from land and I started to feel a little ill. I don’t normally get sea sick, so I put the nausea down to something that I had eaten and carried on with my mission of trying to drink all the beer and rum on board in the first night. Everyone else hit the sack early, but my illness had reached a point where I could no longer go below deck so I ended up spending the first night on deck where there was a steady supply of fresh air.
As we reached the shallower water on the lee of Latham Island, it felt like it took hours to get the anchor down and the tenders ready to go. We would be diving 4 up on the Butt Cat and 2 up on the dingy. The swell was still pretty large and throughout the 5nm journey to the start of our drift I was happy that I was not on the dingy that was getting battered around in the distance behind us. For safety reasons we had decided to pair up and dive 1 up 1 down for the duration of the trip.
We were dropped up current of the ledge that comes from the deep to just over 40m as the doggies would hopefully be patrolling this area. The plan was to wait until you could see shoals of Rainbow Runner and then to dive and hopefully come across some Doggies underneath them. Normally I am quite level headed when diving and had told myself that I was there for a big Doggie and that I wouldn’t shoot anything else until I had at least landed one. All prior plans went out the window as soon as the first Wahoo came into view and spears started flying from all directions towards the poor fish. No one was quite used to the crystal conditions and I don’t think anyone’s first shot was even within 5 meters of a fish and nothing was shot on the first drift. We were taken back up current for the second drift and Iain and I decided that one of us would shoot a Rainbow Runner and would leave it down in the hope that it would attract a Doggie. Ching chong cha determined that Iain would shoot the first Rainbow and that I would return the favour on the next drift.
We came onto the first shoal of Rainbows and Iain lined up on a fair sized fish and missed (on purpose?). Being the great mate that I am, I quickly swam down and slotted a Rainbow which I let down while Iain was reloading. He breathed up and disappeared into the depths beneath the distressed Rainbow. The first sign that something was happening was when Iain’s first bouy suddenly came alive and submarined off into the distance. When surfacing, he told me that he had seen a nice shoal of Doggies and had got a shot into a fair sized one. The first Doggie of the trip was finally landed and the pressure was now really on. A nice Wahoo came into my flasher and I could not hold myself back and I planted my spear into it. The fish sounded on its initial run and when I brought it up, a nice Iggie came up with it so Iain obliged its death wish and quickly despatched it. When Iain got his Iggie off the reef, it came up with some nice sized Doggies but no-one else was around to capitalise on the opportunity.
That evening, we all discussed the afternoon’s diving over fresh sashimi. It was unanimously decided that flashers and chum had zero effect on the Doggies and that the only way to bring them in was by shooting another fish and letting it do the work for you. I was still feeling a bit queasy so I undertook to be the subject of an extremely scientific experiment over the next couple days to find the cause of the problem. I will have to jump ahead a couple days here, but I am pleased to report that my findings were conclusive and that the nausea had nothing to do with overindulgence and was written off to the movement of the boat in the rough sea. This meant that I was free to continue enjoying the beers, rum and other local delicacies for the rest of the trip.
We spent the next 2 days at Latham honing our Wahoo hunting skills and pushing serious depths in the hope that someone would land one of the many monster Doggies that were being seen on a regular basis. Most of the divers had landed smaller Doggies of up to 40kg, but Iain and Garrick showed everyone up by landing fish of 70kg and 80kg respectively on the second day. All the other divers had got spears into good fish, but had lost them before they were boated. After seeing the size of Garrick’s fish, it was decided that we would only target the seriously big Doggies in the hope of someone landing one of over 91kg (which would be a new world record). The XXXXL fish were there and it was just a matter of time until someone landed one.
After the third day at Latham we decided to give the fish a rest and moved overnight to the north of Mafia Island. The swells were still big and we once again got into the anchorage later than we had hoped. The storm that moved in as we dropped anchor put an end to any plans of diving the area for the next couple days. Luckily our beer and rum stocks were still reasonable, so Garrick and I piled into them again to relieve some of the excess weight the boat was carrying.
Since we couldn’t dive anyway, we decided to leave Mafia and head south to Okuza through the night. While the reef at Okuza was beautiful, there just weren’t many fish around (or maybe they were just too deep for me to find with the severe hangover that I was nursing – it’s funny how rum just never tastes as good the second time around). We did manage some small Couta and Craig and Iain spotted a lone Doggie early in the day. After a hard day’s diving with very little reward we decided to travel further south to Kilwa in the hope that the fish would be loose and that we would cream it.
The reef at Kilwa is stunning and runs right from the shoreline and then drops from 8m down to sand at 30m. The vis was initially not very good, but as the tide came in, conditions improved and everyone was just waiting for the fish to come on. It seems as though someone had told the fish about us in advance and anything decent had made very sure that it was nowhere near where we were diving.
Even with the usual mass of local dugout fisherman at Kilwa, there was still a surprisingly healthy reef fish population with some awesome Harry Hotlips and Napoleon Wrasse swimming around. I can imagine that Kilwa would be a great place to dive when the conditions and fish are right and it’s definitely a place that has been added to my “must dive before I die” list. As we had had 3 days of relatively easy diving, we were all refreshed and were chomping at the bit to get back into the fish action. With the wind and current in our favour, it would take us less than 12 hours to get back to Latham and the call was made to head north and try our luck at the monster Doggies again.
When we arrived back at Latham, we had 3 diving days left, so the pressure was on to get a world record fish onto the boat before time ran out. We were now properly into the doldrums and the conditions were even better than when we had left a couple days previously. The wind was dead calm and the sea was glassed out. This would have been absolutely perfect if we were on a sun tanning trip, but we had to actually get back into hot wetsuits and swim round like little frog men with toothpicks in the hope that we would be able to shoot and land a monster fish. Now that I think back about it, Iain might have thought that he was on a sun tanning trip as he was spotted doing some sun tanning in the nude on the front of the boat. It was not a pretty sight.
On a more serious note, I was teamed up with Dash and on the second dive on the day I was watching him come up from a dive, when he saw a shoal of Doggies coming in, turned in mid water and went back down to 38m to shoot one. I knew he had pushed himself to the limit so I swam down to 15m to surface with him. Just before we hit the surface, I saw his body go limp and start to sink. Oh Fk! I had already hit the surface so I took a big breath and swam down to grab his sinking body and brought him up. I literally almost crapped myself, but luckily I had seen a similar thing happen on a freediving course I had done a couple years ago and was able to handle the situation. Once the boat finally came over and we had got ourselves and all our gear onto it, I decided there and then that I was not in good enough physical condition to be hunting fish at +35m and that I would not push it as hard as I had on the previous days.
Craig had by this stage of the trip gotten his spear into almost 10 brutes but had not been able to successfully land any of them. He had the misfortune of 2 barbs being sheared off and another that was actually bent backwards by a fish until it pulled through. I have never seen a diver more determined to get a fish and his hard work and patience finally paid off when he literally stoned a beast of a Doggie that was just over 70kg. He says that he shot the fish and it didn’t even twitch, it literally just rolled over and floated to the surface!
On the last morning of diving we saw a big ski boat on the horizon coming directly to us from the direction of Dar es Salaam. The boat pulled up alongside and informed us that we were illegally fishing in Tanzanian waters and that we were under arrest. Our skipper produced all the relevant documentation and permits relating to our trip (which are 100% valid for the area we were in!), but the officials were not interested and demanded that we pass all our kit over to them and follow them back to Dar. We asked the friendly gentlemen with the AK47s for some sort of identification, but they were not able to produce anything so we refused to hand over any of our gear. One thing everyone knows is that you don’t argue with an African when he is pointing an AK47 at you, especially when he is sea sick 45nm from land and can hardly focus, never mind enter any sort of reasonable conversation. A shot was fired over the boat to show us that they meant business and we promptly handed across anything and everything they wanted. It has since come to light that JJ, one of the charter fishermen from Dar es Salaam felt that he should be the only one allowed to fish Latham and had paid off the fisheries department and army to come out to sea and harass us.
Since there was no way we were able to carry on diving without any of our gear, we started the long journey home. A marathon game of pasta poker was played that night and it was the perfect ending to an epic adventure. Extreme Blue Water Spearfishing provided us with the trip of a lifetime that most definitely exceeded expectations - and I highly recommend them.
P.S. If you want a glimpse of the footage from this awesome trip, make sure you get your hands on a copy of African Spearfishing Diaries Vol 4.