Stories

Getting Back on the Horse

Mark: “Sliding over the edge, I was in first as usual: a reputation I was keen to uphold. I loaded my Rob Allen carbon gun, did a quick scan of the area and saw the tightly huddled bait ball sitting just down current. I took a few big breaths and headed towards the bottom. With the previous three days of spearfishing having been very quiet, this particular morning was filled with the anticipation and the hope of finding some better fish. We had headed out at sunrise from our base at Vilancoulos in Mozambique, and after about a 60 minute boat ride, had arrived at our destination to find average sea conditions and about 8m visibility. The spot we were diving was a big circular shaped piece of reef coming out of 35m up to about 20m, and had a good reputation for holding big game fish including Wahoo, Marlin, Sailfish and some nice Spanish Mackerel.

I slowly drifted towards the bait ball and was soon gliding through it; I knew I was in business as the fusiliers seemed anxious and were very tightly huddled together.

As I broke through the bottom I saw the reason that the fish were so nervous: I lined up a nice Kakaap and let fl y. No sooner had I let the shot off and there he was, a pretty big Zambezi who had definitely heard the dinner bell, and was getting all excited. I swam up hard, trying to pull the struggling fish with me. As I hit the surface I yelled for Rob to come and second me. The fish had given me a good tussle but was weakening as I pulled it up hard, trying to get him up and off the bottom as soon as I could to prevent losing it to the shark. The fish came into view directly underneath me… and then it happened. Before I knew it, the shark had come straight up off the bottom at high speed… straight past the fish and into me.

After the incident I could only conclude that at first, the shark had become excited by the struggling fish and followed it up. As it neared the surface however, the shark’s attention was focused on me, probably because the fish had stopped struggling and I was still kicking.

What could have compounded the attraction was the fact that I was basically vertical in the water, still kicking hard, and all the shark could see would have been my waving fins. On my fi ns I had used large shiny stainless steel fender washers to hold the blade in the foot pocket. These must have looked like fish eyes or just a struggling fish.”

Rob: I was in the water a minute or so after Mark and, because of the wind and current, we were about 20m apart. As Mark made his first dive, I was loading my gun. I then heard Mark calling me, so I swam towards him, not quite knowing why he was calling. Did he need a safety shot on a fish, was there another fish with his, was it a shark? I had to swim hard to get him into my visibility. When I did, I stopped fining to assess what was needed and to get my breath back as I assumed I would need to dive. I saw Mark pulling frantically at his buoy line so he obviously had a good shot and did not need another. Just then, the Kakaap came into view a couple of metres below him. I could see it was a good shot so, figured that either he’d seen another fish, or a shark was below him. As I was about to dive, the Zambezi came into view. He was swimming hard and straight towards the surface.

At this stage I could see he was going to get to the fish long before I could get down to try prevent him eating it, so I aborted the dive. But, instead of taking the fish the shark swam straight past and directly at Mark, still at full speed. The speed he came in at was faster than I’d ever seen a Zambezi swim. Mark literally only had time to pull his feet up towards his chest. In that same moment the shark bit into his left foot. It then turned and headed straight back the way it had come, at the same speed.”

Mark: “I could not believe what had just happened, the Zambezi had tried to bite me on the thigh. I had lifted my legs into my chest and all I knew was that there was blood pouring from the top of my foot. Rob helped me back to the boat. I was in serious agony and the look on everyone’s faces told a story of disbelief. I came on board and took my fins off with caution but it was only after I took my booty off and my foot parted to the bone did I realize how seriously I had been bitten and that the amount of blood being lost was going to be a problem. The crew members, Alan and Fraser, made a makeshift tourniquet at the bottom of my leg to try curb the blood loss. After pulling in the fish and gear we headed back to Vilancoulous with every bump sending shock waves of agony through my body.”

Barret: “I wasn’t on the boat that day, so I’m reliving the incident through the accounts of Rob Allen, Fraser Bray and of course Mark Rogotski.

I’m not quite sure how to react to what happened that day. How do we react to stories like this? We have all thought of the dangers presented by sharks in the water and know that an attack could happen at anytime, yet we still all override those fears and head into the water as often as we can. So, why talk about it, if it’s just going to make us feel a little less comfortable the next time we go spearfishing? Well, maybe feeling a little less comfortable is important. Maybe we all need to be a little more aware and learn what we can from Mark’s unfortunate incident, be better informed about the risks of spearing and have a better understanding of how much danger we might or might not be in.

Now, like many of my fellow divers, I’m no expert on sharks. I have learned from what I’ve experienced with my time in the water and what I’ve seen on TV. What I have worked out, however, is that no fish is worth going up against a shark for. Yes, on many occasions you can get the fish out of the water with a little aggression… but surely if you shoot a fish and you have sharks showing interest in your catch, it’s time to call the boat and land your fish from the boat. No fish is worth a potential attack. Mark had seen the shark come in as soon as he shot his Kaakaap, and although his reaction is probably what 99% of us would have done I can’t help but feel that if he had erred on the side of caution and left the fish down there until the boat came over, his attack might not have happened.

Another attack at Cape Vidal earlier this year furthers my point. In this incident, a diver was fighting for his fish from an agitated shark and got bitten when loading the fish onto the boat. I wonder if he had just left the fish and brought it in from the boat, whether the tragic loss of a fellow diver could have been avoided. We all know that sharks don’t normally consider humans a target, so why did the shark go for Mark? Everyone involved believes that a combination of unfortunate circumstances resulted in Marks attack. Mark was fighting the fish off the bottom from directly above and was giving the fish no quarter. A nice size Kakaap is very strong and obviously the tussle involved a lot of struggling, making the shark over excited. The shark’s view of Mark was from directly underneath, in other words all the shark could see was mark’s fins frantically kicking as he fought with the fish. Mark had also put big silver washers on the bottom of his fins, which possibly imitated fish eyes.

Luckily for Mark, he saw the shark coming and as it came for his thigh, he reacted quickly by pulling his legs into his chest and the shark only managed to get the top of his foot. The second thing that I’ve learned from the story of Mark’s accident is how essential it is as a spearo to have some sort of basic medical training and knowledge. Mark was losing a great deal of blood, if the guys hadn’t known how to apply a tourniquet and monitor its tightness, Mark might not have survived the long journey back to the base. The third thing that worked in Mark’s favor is that he had the right medical assistance. As spearfishermen, the more remote the location the more excited we are about going there.

But remote locations are far from medical assistance, and this is where an organisation like DAN (Divers Alert Network) comes into its own. Many medical aids will cover you for diving and spearfishing and some will not. However, the reality is that when a diving related accident occurs, time is of the essence and there is no time to wait a day or two for approvals, which is often the case with medical aid. Having a good medical aid is not going to help you when you are badly injured in a remote location such as Mozambique.

The fact that DAN offers medical cover specially developed for divers puts you in the hands of people that understand what needs to be done and at what speed it needs to be done. DAN has recently extended their cover to include spearfishermen as well as scuba divers, and I think that their cover is essential to all spearos. Their assistance to Mark, who has DAN cover, was essential to his recovery and the fact that he did not lose his foot.

Once Mark was back at Vilancoulous, DAN was contacted and they immediately sprang into action. 2 Doctors and nurses on a Lear Jet were sent from Johannesburg and in a matter of a few hours Mark was being loaded onto the jet with superb medical attention. He was operated on later that same day. The support given to Mark’s family was also impressive, and they were kept regularly updated.

I might sound like I’m doing an ad piece for DAN, however as a diving instructor, I have heard many stories about DAN’s reaction time, backup and excellent service, and have come to the conclusion that if you don’t have DAN insurance, that you are putting yourself at risk. Mark was lucky: after a few operations and therapy, his foot was on the mend and he was back in the water. He has not changed how or where he dives. The only difference is that he religiously uses a Shark Shield every time he enters the water. A year and a half later, the time came for his recovery to come full circle with a trip back to Vilanculos. So in March this year Rob Allen, Mark Ragotski, Fraser Bray, Ronan Bourhis and myself headed up to Mozambique for a week of spearfishing. We had some fairly good diving. On the first 3 days, we shot some nice Kaakaap, Couta and had some awesome Dugong sightings in the channel between Bangwe and St Sebastian. On day 3 we decided to head a little further South to the spot where Mark had had his encounter with the Zambezi. The vis was about 15 metres and I slipped over the side with Mark, keen to document his first few dives. The bait fish were sitting on the same spot they had been a year or so ago and the Kakaap where once again patrolling the edges. Mark did three dives with a camera mounted on his gun and me in tow with my camera. I headed to about 15 metres and turned to film Mark gliding down towards me. Mark was relaxed, drifting down until at 10 metres I saw his movement change as he stretched his gun out in front of him. I panned right with my camera and there it was, a beast of a Zambezi headed straight up off the bottom at Mark. I could not believe my eyes. Could this be the same shark coming to say hi to his old friend? I immediately thought, time to put your Shark Shield to the test Mark… I had spent the last three days diving with Mark and Fraser and was pretty impressed to see how easily they dived with their Shark Shields. They said it gave them, especially Mark, a sense of safety.

Well that was all good, but the mucho spearo in me was still not convinced that the Shark Shield really worked, but what I saw next put paid to any doubts. As the Zambezi came within a couple of metres of Mark and into the electric field, it shook its head in discomfort, turned and headed back to the bottom. The shark definitely got zapped. Whether the same would happen at speed I’m not sure, but what we filmed that day definitely convinced me that the Shark Shield works and with the comfort of use is probably worth wearing if you have one. I interviewed Mark as he broke the surface and his sense of relief was clear. I think an unspoken truce was made between the two hunters that crossed paths on that morning. I learned a few valuable lessons from Mark’s experience and I hope you can all take my advice and observations into account, to keep you safer and help you make better informed decisions next time you are faced with the decision of whether to fight the apex predator in the ocean for a fish. Relive Mark’s entire experience in the African Spearfishing Diaries DVD – The next installment is coming soon.”

Fraser: “The last thing you ever want to hear from your dive buddy in the water is “I have just been bitten by a shark.” I have spent the last fifteen years diving extremely remote locations around Madagascar , the sort of places where Mark would have succomed to septisemia long before any medical assistance could have arrived. With experience and age we hopefully gain a little wisdom. Perhaps as spearos we have all been a little too focused on the prize and lost a little focus on what is truly important to us, for most people this can be many different things. For me this incident was extremely emotional, the actual day itself and the days and weeks that followed. It was only due to shear luck that Mark is actually still with us, a few millimeters either way and a major artery could have been severed, we were at least an hour from shore, he would not have made it. This incident made me take a closer look at what is truly valuable to me and as Barett says “No fish is worth it”.

I now also dive with a Shark Shield, I owe it to my family. For those sceptics out there I now dive better than I ever did before. Whether it is a placebo or not I am now a lot more relaxed, dive longer, deeper and enjoy being in the water more.”

On a lighter note:

The day after the incident we went fishing with Rob and Allen Potter who decided to return to Durban thereafter. Peter Muil, who was the fifth spearo on the boat, and myself made a pact that we needed to get back on the horse as soon as possible, we were being a bit optimistic in hind sight though. Twenty four hours later we were back out on the water in more or less the same area. The vis had dropped to about 6 metres and had turned a bit green. Peter jumped in, had a quick squiz, and before I could blink, he was back in the boat. We just couldn’t do it. There was a bait ball not far from the boat being hammered from underneath, how could we resist? 

For future reference this is what you do. You get your dive buddy to lay on his belly inside the boat between the motors and you hold him by his ankles. He obviously doesn’t need fins or weight belt, only a mask and gun. You then push him forward into the water still holding him by the ankles on the boat for rapid extraction if need be. Peter saw a big school of Snoek, let off a few shots from the surface, missed obviously, lost his flasher in the props and decided to call it a day.

Oh well, at least we tried.

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