The Trip That Nearly Wasnt

I am sitting on the stern of the Catamaran laughing at having just missed a shot on a Marlin of well over 100kg. What else can I do? There’s no point in getting bent out of shape over it. Just get back in the water and do the drift again and again and again. That’s what we Blue Water spearos do. It’s what I prepared myself for all those years ago when I started, when I first laid eyes on what was then the world record Yellowfin Tuna at Greg Pickering’s house.

One look at that fish and I was hooked. When I asked what it took to get such a fish, Greg was brutally honest when he said “Be prepared to spend thousands of hours in the water and not fire a shot, spend thousands of Dollars on a trip and not see a fish, and then to miss a shot on that one fish and spend a thousand hours wondering what went wrong.”

So I now find myself sitting on the stern as we head back upcurrent, laughing at what has just transpired. I know exactly what went wrong. I know what I didn’t do, what I should have done, and most importantly what I will do next time. Yes, there will be a next time. I will not give up and neither will Greg. He’s here with me patting me on the back and offering encouragement. I don’t need it, watching Greg is encouragement enough for me.

The fact that Greg is on this trip, even alive today, is a miracle in itself. I have to rewind to late 2013 to explain how we ended up where we are, in the Mozambique Channel on a yacht, laughing about my missed shot. In October 2013 Greg was quietly working away diving for Abalone when a 5.5 metre Great White Shark decided he looked like a pretty good chew toy and promptly half swallowed him head first, had a bit of a chew and spat him out! I was devastated when I heard the news, then elated when I found out he was alive and still in one piece. I cried for him when I got home after visiting him for the first time after the attack. I secretly hoped Greg would get back into the water but I never asked the question. I knew he would make the decision when he was ready.

Over the next month, I watched as Greg got better and his wounds healed. I watched that shine return to his eyes and I knew that he would be back as good as ever. Then, one day I mentioned that I was going out diving with my son and Greg offered to drive the boat for us. When he turned up with his gear, I suspected he had other ideas and he did not disappoint me.

That is pretty much how 8 weeks to the day of the attack, Greg got back into the water. His first dive was to 22 metres. Not long before Greg’s attack, I had asked if he would like to accompany myself and our other friends Will and Chris on a trip to Madagascar. He thanked me for the offer but declined, saying he had Abalone to catch. I thought no more of it and made plans for three instead of four. Then, after the attack, Greg asked if he could still come, explaining that he may not be able to dive all that well but he could probably float around and take pictures. I was elated. I knew he would be able to dive properly, he had just set himself a goal and he achieved it in style.

Over the next few months, the other guys dropped out and left us wondering if we should make the trip at all. In the end, we decided to go and make it the trip of a lifetime. I had been in constant contact with Chris Coates and kept him up to date with developments so he could make the required arrangements. He was able to tailor things to suit just the two of us and managed to pull off a splendid trip despite all the challenges thrown his way. 

We started our trip in Nelspruit staying with friends prior to traveling to Madagascar. While there, we visited the Kruger National Park and saw the Big 5. We also helped out for a day at a game farm darting and relocating Impala. We bottle fed baby Rhino and played with a baby Hippo named Emma, tubed down the river and played on a rope swing in a deep pool. The trip was epic right from the start!

We then joined Chris Coates and Richard Leonard in Johannesburg for the journey to Madagascar’s Spot X and Castor Bank. The fun started courtesy of Air Madagascar. We had flight delay after flight delay just getting there. We also had unscheduled stops at unknown airports once in Madagascar. We were stranded at sea for hours when our boat motor died 15km from shore on our first day diving, but we both got good fish. We had a tropical depression turn cyclonic and delay us by 2 days, then give us a very uncomfortable first 2 days at sea.

We had language and money barriers when none of us spoke French and we couldn’t exchange our money. We battled on and made things happen when others would have given up and gone home. We made every obstacle an opportunity, with help from both Chris and Richard.

We used the two day delay to visit Lemurland on Nosy Be and saw lemurs and chameleons in their natural habitat, hand feeding them and experiencing once in a lifetime interactions with these creatures. Greg was able to see all of the reptiles he’s wanted to see since childhood – Day Geckos and Chameleons, Tortoises and Water Monitors. We swam in a beautiful lagoon under a jungle waterfall. We were making this trip a good one, one way or another.

Finally we were able to board the yacht and set sail to Spot X. We used the strong winds to our advantage and made good time as we waited for the weather to improve. We sailed past the fabled Mitsio Islands, home to 18th century pirates, where the height of the islands was used to hide the masts of their ships from those seeking to punish them at the end of a rope! We anchored in the lee of an island for the night for a bit of respite from the mountainous seas, then rose early and pressed on despite the wind’s strength and large seas. The wind was a double edged sword in that it gave us good speed but it also made diving impossible once we arrived at our destination.

We decided to play it safe and wait for the weather to become more moderate before we risked putting a diver in the water. The wind finally calmed down late in the afternoon and we geared up despite the still huge seas, determined to get in the water as soon as we could. We dropped into amazingly clean 40 metre visibility, which was a pleasant surprise after the past days’ weather. The water was also very warm at 29oC, quite a change from the 19 to 23oC we are used to in Oz. We drifted over the high points on the edge of the reef and I had my first glimpse of a Dogtooth Tuna way down deep, too deep for me.

That was all we saw that first afternoon and we clambered back onto the boat as the sun set, hungry and tired but eager for the morning. We ate a wonderful dinner and fell into our bunks exhausted after the past few days of rough weather and lack of sleep.

We rose early and after a small breakfast of fruit, toast and tea, eagerly started to gear up (though I have yet to find anything exciting about getting into a cold and wet wetsuit) to again enter the water at Spot X. We slid into the water and deployed the flasher in the misty morning visibility, the sun’s rays not yet fully penetrating the depths. I loaded my gun and set my slip tip and started to relax, when all of a sudden a dark shape materialised to my left. I had no time to breath up properly, only to grab a quick breath and dive as a Black Marlin glided below me. I kicked after the fish and lined up what I thought would be a good mid body shot. I squeezed the trigger and watched in disbelief as my shaft flew over the fish’s back, the fish danced a little jig and lit up before swimming away unharmed.

Stunned by what had just happened, I retrieved my line, re-rigged my gun and climbed aboard the boat to be dropped back upcurrent.

That is how I came to find myself sitting on the stern laughing at what had just transpired. I didn’t aim far enough forward on the fish, simple as that. Greg patted me on the back and said he thought that I had that fish. He knows only too well the disappointment that comes when those thousands of hours of effort amount to nothing.

Not discouraged, we dropped back into the water and drifted in the current preparing to dive on the edge of the reef. As we neared the drop off, Greg went down and after a fairly deep dive, shot a small Dogtooth Tuna of around 15kg. As Greg was fighting his fish, I spotted another three fish down deep. Greg also noticed and held his fish at depth, enabling me to dive and place a good shot in my first ever Dogtooth, a fish that weighed in at 22kg. We often use this very same cooperative tactic at home when hunting Spanish Mackerel.

Not long after I had landed my fish, Greg shot another larger Doggie only to have it disappear into the depths never to be seen again… Did it pull off the spear? Did it get eaten by sharks? We just don’t know. The shark activity did increase dramatically after that, with the Silvertips getting rather excited and zipping in very close at times. At one stage I had to give one a decent poke after it came a little too close once too often. Richard captured the scene on video and we watched it later that night. Late in the afternoon with the light fading, we climbed back aboard and over dinner discussed the day’s events, and what to do for the next few days.

We decided that as the fish weren’t playing the game, we would sail overnight to Castor Bank and dive there for the next two days, hoping that the fish activity would be better. So while we slept with full bellies, the crew sailed the yacht South to Castor Bank. We arrived sometime in the early hours of the morning, the anchor chain stirring me briefly as it clattered its way to the bottom. I drifted back to sleep still tired from the day before and woke to the sound of small waves slapping the hull a little after sunrise. Over breakfast, we discussed the day’s plan before performing the diver’s nightmare of climbing into a cold, wet wetsuit.

With the unpleasantries out of the way, we dropped into the water for our first drift and managed to miss the reef completely. We tried again and missed again. Something wasn’t right… we should have drifted onto the reef. On our third try, we dropped on the edge of the reef and everything became clear: the current was flowing in the opposite direction, off the reef instead of onto it. This was going to make things difficult. We dived hard most of the day with Greg putting in some exceptionally deep dives, some in excess of 35 metres. His determination finally paid off and he landed a respectable Dogtooth followed by a monster Coral Trout.

I worked the edge of the reef with Richard and late in the afternoon we found a magic bommie that was just alive with fish. In three successive dives I managed to land three firsts: a Football Trout, a large Rubberlips and a Green Jobfish weighing in at a respectable 9kg. Along with the Long Spined Unicorn Fish and the very large Coral Trout I had landed earlier (only to lose half of it to the sharks) I’d had a great day with the reef species. Then just as things started to happen – the fish turned on, the current turned a little and we found a big finger of rock that held fish in deep water – the sun set, and we lost the light.

We climbed aboard the yacht exhausted but satisfied that we had done our best. We anchored not 100 metres away from the reef edge and ate a wonderful meal of Dogtooth Tuna skewers and Jobfish sashimi. We discussed our plans for the following day and decided we would again work the edge of the reef and the sand gutters that we had seen Dogtooth in. Then, after the current changed with the tide in the afternoon, we would work the reef. Having decided on a plan of action, we retired for the night exhausted but eager for our next and last day’s diving.

We rose early again and after breakfast were in the water searching the depths for fish. Greg had success on a Dogtooth of around 35kg after a very deep dive, only to lose half the fish to sharks as he fought it to the surface. Not to be discouraged, we kept at it until the current changed in the afternoon, though neither of us landed any more fish that morning. In the afternoon we worked the edge of the reef and were surprised to see small Wahoo on two separate occasions. Richard and I drifted along the reef looking for the bommie we had located the day before. We found it soon enough, and in the process located another just as good.

Once on the bommie, I managed to shoot and land a monster Coral Trout after a couple of long 22 metre dives. Then after a long surface pursuit and a dive of around 25 metres, I shot and landed my second Jobfish of the trip, a nice fish of 8.5kg. As Richard and I were swimming over the second bommie, we saw a monster Harry Hotlips of about 20kg swim under a ledge and not come out. I made three long dives, and each time waited on the bottom for him to come out but he hid behind a pair of Brindle Bass, denying me an opportunity. I was pretty tired by this stage so called Greg and Chris over to give Greg a chance at the fish.

We told Greg what we had seen and where the fish was and after breathing up, he dived and waited just as I had done. We repeated the process three more times, only to have the Brindle Bass deny him a look at the Hot Lips each time. On his fourth dive he saw a very large Jobfish in the background watching him and decided to try and take it.

I watched him slide across the bottom slowly and pursue the fish. Greg was using a new roller gun that Chris had brought along for us to try and when he finally took the shot, I actually thought the fish was out of range. The spear landed right where Greg aimed and the fish took off across the reef, dragging the floatline behind. Greg surfaced and started to retrieve his fish as I swam close by to keep any sharks from attempting to steal it, while Richard and Chris captured the scene on video.

Greg soon landed the fish and we both climbed out of the water and aboard the yacht for the last. We coiled up our floatlines and stowed our guns before having our photos taken with our fish as the sun sank low on the horizon. The day finished with a fine photo of two mates with two almost identical fish and exhausted grins at the end of an amazing trip that almost never took Place.

Getting home proved to be just as epic as the rest of the trip and I believe we set a new record, just making a flight when we arrived to check in 10 minutes before the scheduled departure time. We arrived safely back in South Africa, reluctantly said our goodbyes at Johannesburg’s O.R.Tambo Airport and went our separate ways. Once he was back home in Perth, Greg asked me where we should go next. I replied that it was his turn to pick… at which he shot back “OK then, I’m thinking Mozambique.” So Chris… get ready we’re coming back next year!!!


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