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The Disappearing Act

Matt mu and job 2(copy)One of the perks of running a Spearfishing shop are the numerous trips I get to go on guiding divers around New Zealand and in the Pacific. One of my favorite and most regular overseas adventures is to the clear waters around Nuku’alofa in the Kingdom of Tonga. For me you can’t beat escaping the winter cold here in New Zealand to spend a week swimming in the clear, warm water of the tropics – shooting some of the world’s most challenging fish species doesn’t hurt either! When it comes to tropical destinations for New Zealanders it doesn’t get any easier than Tonga. Nuku’alofa is only a three hour flight from Auckland and the regular and cheap flights make it more accessible than a lot of the great dive sites around our coastline. Things are cheap and efficient once you get there if you know where to go and most importantly the Spearfishing is amazing! If you plan on sitting on the beach or doing the tourist thing ashore there are much better places to be but if you’re going to spend the majority of your waking hours in and on the water Nuku’alofa is pretty hard to beat.

I’m just back from our latest trip north and it would rate as one of the best I’ve been on so far. I made my first Spearfishing trip to Tonga back in 2007 and have been back up once or twice every winter since then. That first trip was a bit of a stab in the dark as we really didn’t know what to expect once we got up there. A friend of mine had been there on a job for a couple of weeks and had taken his snorkeling gear with him. He’d been out for a few shore dives and came back raving about the spot he’d named Shangri-La. It didn’t take him long to talk a couple of us into going back up with him.

That first trip we had booked ourselves into one of the cheapest beach bungalow type resorts and were expecting to shore dive each day. Instead we met a young American guy Ben with a small boat who was a fanatical spearo. He took us out each day to the spots he’d been diving alone all his life and I think he enjoyed showing us his backyard as much as we did. The accommodation was a mosquito infested dump and they gave me food poisoning but the diving was amazing. Since that first trip we’ve stayed at a few other spots and our friend Ben has made a bigger boat and now runs charters for a living. We seem to have finally got the formula just right and have had some spectacular catches as a result.

On this most recent trip we arrived into Nuku’alofa late on a Weds evening and caught a taxi to our Bed and Breakfast. That morning we woke early and began the routine we were to continue with for the rest of the week. Breakfast would be served about 7:30 then we’d buy our lunch at the dairy outside the accommodation before crossing the road to meet the boat at the wharf at 9:00. From there we’d dive hard all day until coming back to the wharf about 5:30-6:00. Back across the road to the B&B for a shower before wandering down the road to our favorite Chinese restaurant. I can’t tell you what a difference it makes having good accommodation and food on a dive trip like this. If you’re well rested and fed you’re diving gets better over the trip as your CO2 tolerance increases and you get used to the pristine conditions. If you’re not, well you deteriorate and by the end of the week you’re a zombie. Even when you’re eating and sleeping well you lose a significant amount of weight over a week of hard diving so it’s crucial to keep your energy levels as high as you can. The little things like having a decent shower to wash the dehydrating salt water off and a fan in your room make a world of difference.

For most Kiwi divers adjusting to the great vis in the coral is very hard. In New Zealand we generally know that if we can see a fish it must be in range or very close to it. Not so in the tropics. When your visibility can be 30m plus learning to judge distance accurately is vital. This amazing vis also makes you much more obvious to the fish and because light is getting deeper you often have to dive deeper to get to where the fish are. This means that to do dive well in the coral you need three skills that are far less important here

• Accurate shooting
• Freedive ability ie depth and time
• Body language and trickery

The first two skills are pretty self explanatory, in cleaner water you need to take longer shots so you need to be a better marksman and in deeper water you need better freedive skills.
The last one, body language and trickery, needs a bit of elaboration. Most of the species we target here in New Zealand are not particularly flighty. As long as you don’t eye ball them too much or chase them they’ll eventually swim in to check you out. The exception to this is obviously our snapper which are very flighty but we hunt them very shallow and use stealth and the cover of rocks and kelp to sneak up on them. In the islands very few fish will come close enough to check you out to get a shot, especially if they can see how big you are. Given the extra depths you’re diving and the clear water it is pretty unlikely for a fish not to spot you on your descent so we need to trick them into coming into you.

My favorite trick is the ‘disappearing act’ and my favorite two fish to hunt, the mu and the job fish fall for it all the time. It is not uncommon to spot either of these fish from the surface but if you’re not already hiding under a rock when they swim past it is very, very hard to get close. The disappearing act is one of the only ways I’ve found to consistently get close to either of these fish when you see them from the surface. Once you’ve spotted the fish you need to look for some structure with a bit of sand and/or rubble nearby. From there you need to make a slow controlled descent. You’ve no chance of getting close if you swim at them directly so make sure you don’t eyeball them and that all your movements are slow and relaxed. About two thirds of the way down you stop kicking and glide the rest of the way. This makes you less threatening and uses far less oxygen. The fish will be watching you drop down, starting to get a little nervous and most probably drifting away from you. Don’t worry about that and don’t try and follow them. As you come to the bottom you need to disappear behind a rock or into a cave. Once you’re on the bottom make sure you’re tucked up against or under something and relax for a few seconds. As soon as you disappear from view the fish will let out a sigh of relief as they realize you weren’t coming straight for them. Then they’ll start to wonder what you were and where you’ve gone. Now you start scratching around and throwing handfuls of sand up and rubbing the coral. The little fish will start flitting around above you and your target will see all this and really start wondering what’s going on: “What’s he got in there? It sounds like he’s eating something. Man, that sounds delicious. I’ve gotta check it out!”
Now we wait and hopefully the fish will come around the corner and drift straight into the ambush we’ve set for them. Make sure you’re ready!

Over our week in Tonga we managed a heap of species including four species of trout, mangrove jacks, amber jacks, various parrot fish, snappers, drummers and of course the jobfish and mu. We dived every day, got tired and sun burnt. These trips to chase new and unusual fish species are one of the main highlights of Spearfishing for me. Challenging myself against wary prey and going on tour with my mates, what could be better than that?

Matt Lind