Madagascar Revisited

I had just landed back in South Africa after a long trip working offshore, when I got a call from Ryan Burmester. He told me that he was back home in Nosy Komba in Madagascar and that he would be moving back to Durban soon so this would be my last chance to dive with him in Madagascar. Within minutes of putting the phone down, I booked my flight and frantically made arrangements to head over and spend a fortnight with Ryan and Catherine. It’s never easy leaving home so soon after being back, but I was sure that a bit of blue water, big fish and Catherine’s pancakes would help ease the pain…

Two days before my departure date, I got a text from Ryan saying that violence had flared up in Nosy Be and that two foreigners were burnt to death for organ trafficking. The locals were understandably irate and the thought of flying straight into a hornet’s nest of hostility wasn’t overly appealing, but the call of the ocean was way too strong to deter me. Upon landing in the tense atmosphere of Nosy Be, Ryan met me at the airport and we sped along the potholed roads. We arrived at a small port in Hellville, where the boat was waiting to ferry us across the channel to the sanctuary of Nosy Komba.

Catherine is a fantastic hostess and it is unbelievable what came out of that tiny kitchen every night for dinner! After a hearty meal of Zebu steak (the Madagascan equivalent of prime beef), I went to bed early in anticipation of the following day’s diving. We started the first day by diving close inshore, warming up and getting comfortable with using the longer guns and a thinner wetsuit. The Kingfish are unbelievable on all the inshore reefs and in no time we had both shot Golden and Yellow Spot Kingies on a sunken dhow. I got my first of many new species for the trip on the first day. I even managed to land a Brassy Kingfish that was swimming with the Goldens – they are fantastic fish that fight really hard. The next few days were plagued by strong winds which kept us working the reefs and drop offs close to home. Ryan has found some insane spots and although we weren’t seeing the Dogtooth Tuna that the area is famous for, the Couta, Kakaap, Coral Trout and myriad of Kingfish species kept us busy.

I did have a moment of terror, when a Pilot Whale swam up in my blind spot and appeared right next to me while I was breathing up on the surface. Anything dark and massive in my home waters of the Eastern Cape is cause for concern and I got such a fright that I nearly dropped my gun, much to the amusement of the top man who was watching the scene unfold.

With four days of my trip left and the weather finally settling, we fuelled up and started prepping the big guns and float systems. We were ready to hit Castor Bank the following morning, but that afternoon disaster struck. The GPS/Sounder combo unit stopped working. Ryan and I stayed up well into the evening and tried to get it working again, but to no avail. Madagascar is a great place, but one quickly realises that it’s still rural Africa when you try and find a replacement unit of any kind to get things going again. We spent the following day missioning around Nosy Be, trying to find someone who could help us. Eventually, we accepted that no one could as the only response we were getting from the locals were shrugs and blank stares.

Ryan and I were both desperate to get a final shot at Doggies in the blue water, so we decided to roll the dice and head the 100 odd kilometres offshore, without a fish finder and only a small hand held GPS. What can I say, desperate times call for desperate measures. The alarm went off at 02:45am and we quickly got the gear and fuel packed on the boat.

It’s a three hour journey to Castor Bank from Nosy Komba and we wanted to give ourselves as much time in the water as possible. After throwing a mountain of equipment on the boat, we finally left at 03:30am. Fortunately for us, it was a clear morning with the moon still shining brightly and we were able to spot the small Pirogues that are scattered around the bays. With the radar, plotter and sounder all gone, we were winging it and literally flying blind. After a harrowing couple of hours dodging Pirogues and Whales, we finally came onto the bank. Huge shoals of Yellow Fusiliers hung on top of the drop offs, birds were working bait balls and Bonito were busy smashing anything that moved. Ryan put us spot on the drop off without a sounder. I was well impressed and it wasn’t long before I was overboard, sorting out bungees and float lines and loading my big Cape style Tuna gun.

Tommy Botha makes the wooden guns specifically for the huge Yellowfin Tuna off Cape Point and with that sort of fire power, I knew I would be in good stead to get a spear through anything that Castor Bank sent my way. On my first dive on the ledge, I finally saw some Doggies, but without breathing up properly, I had to bail early. I was disappointed with myself for making the rookie error of rushing the first dive of the day, but it still turned out to be one of the most exciting days I’ve ever had diving. Ryan and I were in the thick of things, where current, tide and time of day all came together and the fish were everywhere. We shot Ignoblis Kingfish, Dogtooth, Fulvi’s, Kakaap and a pile of different Snappers and Groupers. The fish of the day had to be Ryan’s Long Nose Emperor that he managed to spear in deep water. Those Emperors are arguably the hardest fish to get close to and neither one of us have ever encountered them. In the two years Ryan has lived there, this one was his first. It took both of us a couple dives to get the fish out of the coral structure it had wrapped itself into and it was such a relief when Ryan finally had it in his hands.

I really wanted to spear a one of the billfish which Castor Banks are famous for, but the only encounter we had was when one swam past Ryan while he was busy having his morning aqua turd. Having speared Marlin and Sailfish before, Ryan wasn’t concerned about shooting one, although he did try and call me over when the Sailie was eyeballing him.

As the saying goes, all good things have to come to an end, and all too soon we were packing up and starting the arduous trip back to Nosy Komba. The enormity of what we had experienced that day only sunk in when we reviewed the GoPro footage and went through the photos the next morning. Huge shoals of Ignoblis, Bigeyes, Fulvi Kingfish, Wahoo on the surface, Black and White Snappers in caves and a couple of huge Giant Sweetlips, Dogtooth Tuna and the ever present Zambezi sharks patrolling the ledge.

Ryan and Catherine treated me like a king in their home during my stay and made the trip truly memorable. It was without a doubt, a once in a lifetime trip. They have now packed up and are headed back to South Africa after a two year stay on Nosy Komba.

Ryan and I have both said that we will go back one day, although we already have plans for a mind blowing trip to a different destination in the very near future, but that’s a whole different story on its own!

It was Thursday morning and the weekend had been a disappointing Central Coast Sea Lions spearfishing comp. I had got up at 2.30am to drive 3 hours to Forster. There I had joined Al Cooke and the boys for a very bumpy and unpleasant ride to sea. The plan had been to run to Seal Rocks to find a big Yellow Tail King, but the moment we rounded the first headland into the raging 25 knot Southerly wind, we knew there was no chance of that. We scrounged the headland and retreated from the drumming rain and whistling wind. But as we all know, “a bad day on the water is better than a good day at work” and after all, we had seen dolphins and most of us had a feed of some sort, so no real grump. Still, there was unfinished business with the Seal Rocks’ Kings…

When Ian Stewart called the next day to propos a mid week raid to Seal Rocks, I didn’t hesitate! After all, dreams come true in the Blue Camo (Ian’s elderly and much loved/neglected Haines 16R). The forecast offered us a narrow window on Wednesday when the winds turned for a day and we eagerly monitored the swell and wind forecasts. By Tuesday it was clear that the window had drifted out by a day and it was all hands to move Thursdays workload back to Wednesday. Done! Pass from my dear wife, clear diary from work, alarm clock set!

How does one describe that anticipation to anyone who does not spear? A day with mates, a boat, on the sea, in the water and the chance of seeing a hundred stunning new things. No day runs the same; no sight is seen in the same way twice; every moment is new and packed with possibility. What a rush.

The plan was to meet at Ian’s place at 3am and be in the water by 6.30. At 2.50am I am just around the corner and remember my well packed car is missing my fi ns! F@$k. I called and suggested he get going and I would catch him on the freeway at the first servo where I’d

ditch my car and jump into his. Game back on! The crew for the day includes Ian, Ben Rizner and Jeremy Veness and the banter fl owed as we drove. Seal Rocks is deceptive, the bay always looks so calm so you can’t really tell what it is like around the corner from the light house. You can’t afford to let your hopes get too high but it is a glorious sight to see flat water in the predawn light after hours of driving.

After a perfect beach launch, the first stop was at the Fingers. These are a set of pinnacles that come up off the sand on the outside of Statis (Bird Shit) Rock and can often surprise. Today they are dirty and despite bait, seem too quiet. Next stop Balmona. Balmona is a rock that comes up out of 25m to perhaps 12m on the top. It is best dived when there is a current over the top of it and today there is! The water is hazy with a great deal of white fibre suspended in the top 5m. Below this the visibility improves and my first dive lands me right on the top of the rock. I’m escorted down by a few dozen Sweep and the odd Blue Stripey. I can see down onto the sand now. It feels dark and cold with cloud over the early morning sun. I feel very exposed, aware that I am a visitor here. The Urchins down the sides of the rock seem to stand as a warning not to come close. At the same time, I feel myself becoming mesmerised by the activity around me. A Blue Grouper flaps in to check me out. Red Morwong cast weary eyes at what must be a strange sight. They are like red Indians in war paint. A few small Bream break off the sand further below and make a pass. Two Angel Fish seem oblivious to me. A Puffer Fish hovers over my shoulder wondering what is about to happen. The sloppy chop feel distant down here. There is a gentle push and pull of the swell. It is not silent but quiet. The crackling of living things feeding on the rock provide a background to pops and sharp cracks as bigger fish smash things or bolt away. No King materialises out of the gloom, so I return to the surface. The current now pulls me off the rock and into 35m so the boat picks me up and puts me up current of the rock. I re-load my rubbers, breath up and as the rock starts to come into view I dive.

This dive, I tuck my chin right in and pull my gun close to my body for maximum streamlining. I fall faster and with less effort and arrive deeper than before, half way down the side of the rock. As my hand touches rock, I look up and around. Time to work my magic shaker. My magic shaker is a sealed tube with galvanised nails in it that rattles when shaken. I made it after watching a video of Wahoo coming in to a spearo shaking an old rattle lure on his flasher. I have my home made version on my rig line and now start to give it short, urgent shakes to simulate a fighting fish. It’s an experiment that the day would prove works.

Perhaps 20 seconds after I start shaking, a solitary Kingfish swims straight in to me. I wait for him to turn and place a solid shot just behind the gills. He stops dead still, dazed. My elation at stoning him is short lived as he comes alive on my return to the surface. My line tears through my gloves at a burning rate. Now I’m afraid he’s heading for the rocks and I try put the breaks on. I just get pulled under and give up more line to get back up. I let out a whoop of joy to let the boat know I’m on and call Ian over for a look-see and perhaps a second shot.

There are no other kings following mine and I watch Ian line up on a tiring fish. His spear glides smoothly through the water as my King changes direction so that it misses and gets tangled in my shooting line. Now it’s time to take care. My King is coming up and starting to circle below me. I resist the temptation to keep following him around and around, but let the line pass from my left to right hand and thus avoid getting a loop of rig line wrapped around my legs. I reach my gun, then finally the shooting line. As so often happens when I touch my spear, the fish make one last valiant run for it. I’m ready and quickly grab the tail with my right hand and slip my left hand into the gills. This leaves my right hand free to pull out a spike and brain the fish. I have the first 15kg King of the day in my hands and the boat is right there to pick it up! I’m pumped!

At this point I feel it is only fair to go boatie and jump in to untangle lines and bleed the fish over the back of the boat. The boys do another two or three drifts over the rock, but nothing is seen so it’s time to move.

Ian takes us back to the middle of Saw Tooth. From the light house, there is a series of rocks that stick out of the sea bed like a row of teeth. Against the cliffs there are Jew Fish and Crays. As you head out, the Kings patrol the sandy 20m bottom against the rock walls. The water is slopping all over the place and the wind not quite forming white caps but only just avoiding doing so. The swell hits the cliffs and rebounds to cause a double chop on the water. The current from the North comes up against the rocks and then rushes through the gaps in the teeth. It is an exciting place to be. I drop the other three off to get pulled through the middle gap and head around the outside to pick them up on the calmer Southern side.

While waiting for them I have time to look about. The lighthouse stands out against a blue sky. The rain washed colours of the trees, scrub and rock cliffs are dazzling and contrasting in the morning sun. White spray is flying over the teeth and I can feel the warmth of the sun. It is so good to be here. When a diver breaks the surface they clear their snorkel and that sends a plume of spray into the air. Looking away from the where the guys are diving I see a whole series of these plumes against the sun. I can’t see what is causing them and I’m sure there are no other divers in the area. It is not long before the answer is clear. The distinctive fins of several dolphin break the surface and then I start to see more and more of them heading towards the boat. Ian is just passing me his gun and I tell him to dive again. He does and 30 or 40 dolphin fill the water above him. They are all around the boat and then gone again in an instant.

The water on the inside of Saw Tooth is dirty so we decide to have a look further out at Edith Wide. This ridge of rock is similar to, but bigger than Balmona and is also 3km off the beach. There is a ‘grand canyon’ on the east edge formed by a massive crack in the ridge of rock. The bottom of this canyon is around 30m deep and the current rips through it at times. The Western area of the ridge gradually tapers off from perhaps 14m on the top to 30m on the sand. North and South the ridge quickly falls in 2 steps making it easy to rest and wait for pelagics to come up over the ridge. There was not much of a current and it was possible to stay in position over the high part and do several dives without much effort.

Time to put my secret rattler to the test again. I dropped onto the first step at 16m and settled in. Heart rate slow, mind fully engaged in the life around me I started the rattle. Short, urgent shakes of distress. Bingo! A lone King cruises brazening up from the deep. Head down to avoid eye contact, gun extends to intercept, line up, satisfying ‘Thwok’ and I see the spear emerge just forward of mid body. Game on! I call to Ian to have a look for any hangers on but there being no followers, Ian provides a second shot and my second King is being bled off the back of the boat.

What a day! There is nothing like a good fish to motivate other divers, so I take over boatie again. Ben follows my trend and soon adds another king to tally. Ian and Jeremy are busy tearing their hair out or putting second shots into other’s fish. With no more fish coming in the next 20 minutes. we move in to where Edith enters shallow water. The water is not very clear but as it is only 8m – 13m deep we can see the outline of the reef from the surface. I was not feeling very hopeful as I hung on the murky surface sorting out my shooting line which had got a tangle in the rubbers. The others were a good distance away before I started my first descent. There was a good deal of bait and Sweep, which followed me down. Every trip I go on, my daughter asks me to pick up a crayfish. It’s a bit of a joke with us, like asking for a litre of milk while I’m at the shops. I hate to disappoint her so I have in mind to find a few cracks to look into. The first likely crack comes into view and I put my head over the edge to look in. What is there makes me recoil in total shock.

Three crayfish are easy to identify, but the size of them makes them look like prehistoric aliens. I have a fear that if I get too close they will reach out and drag me into the crack. I’m not kidding. I need back up! I dropped my gun to mark the spot and get the boat to bring the other two over. Non one can believe what we are looking at. There is also the small complication of a 7’ Wobbegong sharing the crack. We discuss a strategy on the surface among much nervous laughing and exclamations. We agree that only the smallest might be under the maximum legal size and that is my first target. Behind me Ian and Jeremy will attempt to catch the other two if they make a dash for it or pull me out if I get pulled in!

The smallest one is still a good fight to extract, but it is soon on the boat. Now I want to collect the big one for a few pictures. This may be looking for trouble, but I get away with it. It takes a great deal of leveraging to extract the monster but I have the advantage of his HUGE back to grip without having to get my hand under and in reach of the tail or claws. On the boat the caprice measures 25cm long and 18cm wide and its legs around 40cm each. The video footage of its release tells a tail of great respect for this ancient alien looking beast.

It’s time to start heading home but I want to stop in for a quick drift on the outside edge of Saw Tooth. I quickly load and drop down. I’m on a ridge that drops away nicely on the outside and clinging to the edge of it I watch a surging mass of fish. Sawtail, Drummer, Bream, Luderick, Mowong, small Snapper and bait fish. Man this is like fish stew. I focus on the gloom for something big. Nothing comes in so I return to my world for air. I think it is time for my secret weapon again. I give it a few shakes on the surface and start my decent. At 5m I want to scream; disappearing into the gloom is the shape of a large tail and I think I’ve missed the chance on the fish. At 10m I notice another king and then another and another. There must be around 15-20 in the school and all around the 15kg mark. It’s Christmas! In no time I’m holding on to my rig line and calling Ben over to get one for himself. He does and the water is soon filled with guns and rig lines. I don’t like fighting fish in close proximity to another shot fish, but what can we do but make the best of it (It’s a first world problem to have!). Ben calls for backup and Jeremy jumps in to second shoot his fish not a second too soon. That’s mates for you.


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