Spearfishing Expedition to Walter Shoal
Have you ever dreamed of a dive spot teeming with life and monster sized fish? Does the thought ever cross your mind, that one day you might find that totally untouched spot, and experience some epic spearing, the likes of which you’ve only heard of in tales from the days of old? Well, when I first heard of an expedition going out to the Walters Shoal Sea Mount all these thoughts came tumbling through my mind once again; and I felt that maybe, my dream was going to come true.
You see, the prospect of a trip to Walters Shoal was unlike any other I could ever imagine. We would literally be going into uncharted territory.
The sea here at home has all been explored. There’s no mystery to it any more. Even when I’ve gone to spots up in Mozambique for the first time, there have been GPS coordinates and some knowledge handed down from guys who had been there before. Sure, these trips have been adventures and have offered new experiences, but there has always been a game plan and some kind of idea as to how to dive the place. The Walters Shoal on the other hand was going to be a total unknown.
The Walters Shoal Sea Mount is a group of submerged mountains off the southern coast of Madagascar, and 1250km south east of Durban. It was discovered in 1963 by the South African hydro-graphic frigate SAS Natal, captained by Commander Walters. Since then, there have been a couple research voyages, but the most recent one occurred too long ago to have made use of any sophisticated GPS plotting machinery… so we were going in blind. All that we could discover, was that there were apparently loads of Galapagos sharks, and that the long-liners got Tuna and Broadbill out in the deep adjacent to the sea mount.
This information proved to be just enough bait to lure a group of spearo’s to take part in a new expedition, which could easily go one of two ways: seriously big wild goose chase, or epic voyage of discovery.
Jeremy Williams from the Dive Factory was the one who did most of the enticing, and in the end it was a group of six spearo’s who joined the expedition party: Jeremy, Barret Harvey, Karl Maingard and myself from Durban; and Neil Barnard (a previous Springbok hero) and Jan Louw from the Cape. The rest of the party was made up of fishermen and a chap from ORI (Oceanographic Research Institute) who wanted to collect species and DNA samples from sharks and fish caught in the area.
The Thomas B Davie was our vessel for the expedition. The trip to Walters Shoal took 4 harrowing days, as we left into a cold front. It was strange becoming accustomed to the boat rolling through the swell, it made me scared of drinking. It was hard enough to stand up sober, let alone navigate through the ship’s steel haul and obstacle course of dive gear and fishing tackle while the Tomas B Davis rolled though the untamed Indian Ocean. The days and hours could not pass quickly enough. If it weren’t for the great anticipation we had for the shoal I think we would have gone mad.
Before we knew it we were almost there. We were due to arrive at midnight and I was too excited to get any real sleep. The plan was to wake up at first light and get on the water. I had been up in the wheelhouse till very late watching the plotter scan the shoal. They had done a broad grid over the southern part of the shoal. It looked amazing, like an old volcanic crater with a shallow rim surrounded by very deep water. The centre is fairly flat and about 50 to 60m deep, while the rim showed areas that were in the 20’s.
The wind had picked up when I eventually got my ass out of bed, and I heard that the fishermen were climbing into some Yellow Tail. Although the sea looked really bad with a 14knot wind blowing, the guys did not seem the slightest bit perturbed. We loaded the small duck that the guys at Durban Yamaha had kindly lent us with all our gear and the crane dropped her into the rolling sea.
Like a hoard of crazed lunatics off we careered, the small duck battling to even get on the plane in the large swells. I took the first top-man stint and it wasn’t long before Jan Louw shot the first fish: a decent Yellow Tail. It wasn’t a massive fish, but being the first fish in history speared on Walters Shoal made it very special.
We were happy to have the clean water we had hoped for and had scouted a couple of spots. The currents had us a bit baffled and we battled to find the right drift onto the hot spots. Although we all got some great fish (Karl took the biggest fish of the day, a 17kg Yellow Tail, and I was behind him with a 13kg fish), it was not what we had hoped for. There were no large shoals of fish and not as much life as we had expected.
Diving with buoy lines and large floats proved very difficult in the rough windy conditions, and this combined with the rather frigid water made getting to the reef in over 20m rather challenging. I was diving in an experimental pair of Rob Allen Carbon fins that are slightly longer than standard. This seemed to help me a bit, but we decided to change to smaller 11l floats and thinner buoy line for future dives.
When we got back, Jeremy and Barret were chomping at the bit to get in. So it was back out into the rough sea. Jeremy enjoys hunting in caves and cracks for reef fish, so we found some good ledges in the mid 20’s and he went about seeing what species he could find with Barret following him to get some footage. I was glad that I wasn’t the one having to scrounge around on the bottom in those conditions, especially since the water temp was 19˚C, slightly too chilly for my liking.
Back on the Thomas B Davie, Lucky, the chef had made up a batch of fish and chips with fresh Yellow Tail, which went down very well. Soon, we were out the kitchen and back in the main lounge area, chatting through the days diving and planning the next few spots on the chart the guys had made.
Unfortunately, the sea started to turn from rough to rather ugly. The ship was at anchor, and the motion was very different from what we’d felt under steam while we were traveling. What had been a rolling motion was now accompanied by lurching. While the fishermen passed their time in the pub, us spearo’s – tired from the day’s diving – headed for our bunks.
The next morning, my alarm woke me from my disturbed “shaken and stirred” sleep. I noticed that no one else was out of bed. This was not good, and meant that it was too rough even for the fishermen to be out. I climbed the stairs to the deck level and peered out the door… the sea was huge and the wind was pumping. My heart sank knowing that the dive was off, and it was back to bed for a few hours.
The sea did not calm down at all but instead the swell just got bigger and bigger, and by midday the swell was being recorded at between 10 and 12m in the wheelhouse. We went out on the top viewing deck when the weather cleared and sat in amazement at the size of the swell. It was like watching multiple-story office blocks marching towards us. And although no one would say it, it looked like there was no way we were going to get a dive in on the next day.
The next morning we were all up early, hoping that the sea had calmed down. The swell was still relatively big, but nothing like the previous day, and the wind had backed off. The duck was lowered into the water and we charged out to some marks on the opposite side of the shoal. After a couple of very quiet drifts with only the odd average sized Cape Yellow Tail coming through, the boys were getting a bit frustrated. We moved spots a couple times and only landed up with a few fish. Karl landed a 25kg Yellowtail, but nothing else of much significance was happening, so we called it a day and headed back to the boat.
In the meantime Neil and Jan had organised with the ships crew to use the fishermen’s duck and were already in the water when we got back. On hearing that it was quiet where we had dived, they headed off to some spots in the south that we had not explored yet.
Karl, Jeremy and myself stayed on the Thomas B Davie, and after a hot shower and clean up, had Lucky the chef whip us up some fresh Cape Tail in batter (it was delicious) followed by a post dive snooze. I was woken by the news that Neil and Jan were back. Judging by the smiles on their faces, we knew they had found some fish. Sure enough, they started to offload their catch and for the first time we saw some different species. There were Amberjack, Tropical (Longfin) Amberjack and some quality Cape Yellow Tail. Neil had also shot a really interesting fish – which we later identified as a White Kingfish – a strange combination of a Yellow Fin Kingfish, a Bludger and a Rubberlips. Neil said that they got them off the Cape, but only small ones. This one was bouncing the scale at over 10kg.
The spot they had dived was full of sharks, according to Jan the most sharks he’d ever seen, but fortunately not a single fish was lost to them. Now there was a good buzz on the boat, and with 2 days left to dive we felt like we were going to finally get some great fish.
The next morning we were up as early as possible and decided to use the fishermen’s big duck as it meant we all go out together. As we were about to get going, the crew informed us that they had decided to leave that evening – a day earlier – as they were worried that the weather was going to turn.
With this in mind, we decided to hit it hard and stay out on the water until that afternoon to make the most of the last day. We got to the spot that Jan and Neil had dived the day before and even from the boat you could see that something was going on. There were whales and dolphins everywhere, and to top it off, the conditions were perfect. We dropped a marker buoy and jumped in for the first drift. From the moment we got in the water there were the sharks, hundreds of them! Most of them were 1 to 1.5m and they looked much like dusky sharks, but were identified as Galapagos sharks. The sharks would come in shoals of 10 to 30 at a time, and underneath them came the fish. The reef came up to 23m and dropped off either side into very deep water. The top of the reef was fairly flat and void of any structure other than the odd large crack running through it with very bright white coral sand at the bottom.
We got fish on almost every drift, it was spearfishing mayhem. There still weren’t huge shoals of Cape Yellow Tail, but they were plentiful. The fish were swimming fairly deep and it was necessary to get to at least 18 to 20m and hang there for a while for the fish to come in. Jeremy got two very good fish, both at the bottom of the reef: a 14kg Cape Yellow Tail and a Tropical Amberjack of 16kg.
While he was pulling his Tropical up, I dived down and hung just off the reef watching his fish trying to keep itself on the bottom. Next thing, this Amberjack swims in underneath all the sharks and turns just short of me. I squeezed off a mid body shot. At first the fish did not seem to be pulling that hard, they are not like Couta and Wahoo that bolt at pace once shot. But after about 5 minutes of being pulled around and not being able to get the fish off the bottom, I realised that these fish were just something else. It took me another 5 minutes to start gaining line on the fish, with the sharks all over the place coming right up to the Amberjack and even nudging it. This was quite bizarre, as if these sharks did not know what was going on. At home the fish would have been chomped in a few seconds flat. Maybe its because these sharks have never seen divers, let alone a speared fish. Even as I landed the fish the sharks were swimming around me just a few meters away. I was super stoked as this was my first Greater Amberjack and it weighed over 16kg.
The next 2 drifts produced good fish; I got a good Cape Yellow Tail of 14kg and another personal best: a 12kg Tropical Yellow Tail. All 3 of these fish gave me incredible fights and provided some of the most enjoyable shooting I have experienced.
On our next drift we landed up smack into a pod of some of the biggest bottle nosed dolphins I have ever seen. They were fairly inquisitive and hung around for most of the drift, chasing all the fish, and even the sharks, away.
We changed the next drift to avoid the dolphins, and as we came to the end of the reef, it started to drop away where a big crack ran along the edge. Neil dived down about 30m from me. I drifted down to see if he was into any fish. We were both at about 20m just past the crack, when a whole shoal of White Kingfish came swimming up the crack from underneath Neil. The shoal swam right in front of me, and with the camera rolling I raised my Rob Allen 1.3 and picked out a good fish from the shoal. I had to leave the line as I surfaced, as I had been down a while, but fortunately the shot was good and I landed the fish with no problems.
Back on the duck the ship called in on the radio and informed us that they had moved up our departure time and that we needed to meet them within an hour. We tried desperately to get a few more drifts in and Neil caught a great Cape Yellow Tail of 18.5kg. It was a good fish to end things on, but we were all bleak that we had to leave early. So, like a bunch of kids being dragged by their parents from the amusement park, we headed back to the Thomas B Davie for the last time.
On deck we were able to stand back and tally up the morning’s diving. Everyone had great fish. My White Kingfish weighed in at over 11kg, possibly a world record, so I wrapped it up in clingfilm and put it in the freezer to take home and weigh on a certified scale. It would be really cool to get a world record… Rob Allen has a deal that anyone who gets a World Record gamefish of over 20kg with one of his guns will be rewarded with a new Rob Allen speargun. At 11kg, I’d missed the mark to claim my reward... but still a pretty awesome achievement.
Now I am back home trying to recollect the events of our voyage of discovery, and the big question that every one seems to be asking is, “Was it all worth it?”
Most definitely. We went and explored a place unknown to any other spearfisherman. I landed up with 4 personal bests: a Cape Yellow Tail of 14kg, a Tropical Yellow Tail 12kg, an Amberjack of 16kg, and best of all a new IUSA World Record White Kingfish of 10.955kg.
This has to rate as one of my all time most incredible adventures that I don’t think can be topped in a hurry. But I’m still plotting my next trip, and hoping for something that will come close to the expedition to Walter Shoal... though I think it’ll take a lot to beat the feeling of getting a World Record with my favorite 1.3 Carbon Rob Allen.
Life just doesn’t get better.
- Tags: spearfishing