The Real McCoy

I have been working in Nigeria for approximately 10 years now, employed as a commercial diver in the oil industry.

One of my first jobs in Nigeria was with a company that had a bit of a bad reputation for scarce food rations. So, on my second trip out, I took my speargun, and a set of Picasso fins with me, hoping to catch a few fish to eat. Little did I know that I would soon be supplementing the whole barge with fresh fish when supplies ran low, which was quite often!

After getting permission to spear some fish, I quickly unpacked the guns and assembled them. As I jumped into the water, it was amazing… there were fish everywhere!

I quickly loaded up my 1.2m Picasso speargun and started with a few Snapper. I soon realised that Snapper are tricky fish to spear. Initially, they are quite curious… but as soon as that curiosity is satisfied, they disappear. In addition, they tend to drop down deeper and deeper every time you dive on them.

On my first dive I managed to land a Snapper and hung it on the side of the barge. Being my first ever time spearing out of South Africa, I really wanted to get a variety of species, so after the Snapper I started looking for something different. There were plenty of Kingfish around, and soon a few of these joined the Snapper on the side of the barge. The Kingfish out in Nigeria are tough, and they’re quick to wrap themselves around a horizontal or riser; and the result is that either you lose a spear, or it gets turned into a pretzel. After loosing a good number of spears, I learnt to try and place my shot in a good holding position, and to hold the float-line and swim like mad to get away from any structure that the fish could be aiming towards. I only had a limited number of spears and nylon at the time, and there’s no shop in Nigeria to make a quick run to when you run out of spears, rubber or wishbones. I started bringing spares with me and what I could not bring with, I used to manufacture on board: barbs out of stainless steel pipe cut in half; wishbones and line releases from Teflon.

Back to that first dive in Nigeria… Virtually the whole barge had come to a standstill to see what was going on, with everyone crowding the work deck, heli deck and anywhere else with a good view of what was happening. Now that I think of it, it must have seemed rather strange for the Nigerians – watching a white guy wearing just a pair of shorts and a rash vest, jumping into the water with nothing but a spear to catch all those fish!

First dive done, I climbed back on board and was swamped with locals asking for fish. Everyone wanted some, and actual physical fights started up as they bickered over who was getting what. I soon implemented a rule: everything goes to the kitchen, so everyone on the boat gets a share come mealtimes.

As mentioned before, there were always food issues with this particular company, so I soon became tasked with catching fish twice a week to make sure we had something to eat. It wasn’t an easy job, but I was only too happy to be of service. Eventually, there were 2 or 3 of us spearing regularly off the jacket or the platform. If we were really low on food, we would be allowed to take the Zodiac for the day and spear all the surrounding jackets.

Nigeria has many rivers running into the sea, carrying years’ worth of sediment and creating a general haze of bad vis on the bottom. Once they’d had enough of us, the fish would hide in the haze, forcing us to move on to another jacket or give up for the day.

I learnt something interesting purely by accident, when trying to dive through the haze. I thought that there might be only a thin layer of dirty water with clean water underneath, but I was wrong. When I came back up from the dirty water into the clean water, I saw that all of the fish had moved into the clean water apparently looking for me! I learned to take advantage of their curiosity, and my tactic became to dive into the haze, wait a bit for the fish to move back into the clean water, then pop my head and gun up and target fish that were now in clear, plain view.

Another time, we where anchored up next to a production platform with a flare-stack, and we noticed the fish bubbling. We decided to try our hand at night spearfishing. We launched the work boat at 1am, cruising under the flare. It was so hot we started to sweat. As I fell into the water, I was surrounded by four Manta Rays, what a fantastic sight! They were just swimming in a circle under the flare-stack. There was enough visibility to start shooting fish, so we speared a Snapper and a couple Barracuda. Funnily enough, the Mantas didn’t seem too mind the commotion too much. 

One of the guys diving with us that night was from the

  1. He had never speared a fish before, and was keen to get in and try. Eventually, he speared a Kingfish, but took a bit too long to bring it up, and a Bull shark came out of the depths to rip the fish off the spear. Thrilling for all of us to watch!

Diving under the flare was very different to anything I’ve experienced. There was about 8m visibility, but as you dropped down, the light dimmed and then suddenly went to nothing. In complete darkness, under the water, I involuntarily pulled my legs very close to my body. A moment later, the fl are brightened again, and we were back to 8m vis with the fish right on top of us! Quick decisions were required, deciding which fish to target before the flare dimmed again or the fish moved off. This was exciting stuff, especially with the Mantas circling us all the time, coupled with the knowledge that literally anything could be beneath us and we would be none the wiser because of the darkness.

Eventually, I changed companies and ended up working on a vessel that serviced SBM’s: a large mooring buoy anchored by 8 chains to the seabed, for offloading products to tankers. The buoy offers a lot of structure on the bottom and it is normally deep. There are lots of Barracuda around with Kingfish, Snapper, the odd Prodigal Son, and Atlantic Mirror Fish.

Normally the current is strong and it is a challenge to spear under the buoys. The fish are normally in front of the buoy trying to get the food first. The most successful tactic is to swim to the side of the buoy and breathe up while continually finning, then dive down, while holding onto the chain, and wait for natural curiosity of the fish to bring them in. Once the fish is speared, it’s best to pull the gun and fish away to the lee of the buoy. This way you ensure that the fish is kept off the chains.

On one of the buoys, the two hoses join the pipeline at 35m. I managed to breathe up in the lee of the buoy, dive down to 30m, place a spear into a very nice Snapper, subdue it and bring it all the way up to the surface without getting tangled in the chains and hoses. To say I was chuffed with myself was an understatement. I hardly ever dive deep.

After that Snapper, I stayed near the surface and landed a Barracuda of 14,5kg that was swimming away from

  1. I took a long shot, and hoped it would hold. As I was playing the fish I could see the barb of the spear sticking out on the side that I shot the fish. I started to get a bit worried, because if the fish managed to shake the spear loose it would surely try to take revenge on
  2. I played it very slowly, and eventually landed the fish without any problems.

On that day, my first Prodigal Son swam past me and I thought it was a shark. I looked at it, looked again and decided to leave it. That evening I spoke to one of the guys who does a lot of line fishing and he said that it might be a Prodigal Son. Being from the Cape, I had not been exposed to this species before.

The next day, I did a couple dives and in swam the Prodigal Son. I looked at it very closely this time, and decided to take my chances and took a shot. It was not a huge fish, but what a fight! I eventually landed it, my first Prodigal Son!

I’ll leave readers with one last piece of very important advice for divers who want to get a bit of spearing done when they’re working offshore: Do not leave your spearing gear behind for other divers to use while you’re taking time off. When you get back, you’ll have no spears and discover that someone thought that a shorter rubber would be more useful. I now pack all my gear away when I leave, it’s much easier and avoids a whole lot of disappointment and irritation in the long run!


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