Mac’s" or would you call them ‘whoppers'
The video brought from Australia by a friend
finishes among cries: “What a fish”, “Incredible”, “We have to
go There!”. The video of “Freediving in Remote Western Australia”
has been a success. The open water fish, and the hope to find again the
sensations of never ending possibilities, hidden behind the blue, almost
lost in the Mediterranean sea, convinced my friend Francesco and I to come
In Italy fish are disappearing day after day and
the encounters with big predators are becoming very rare, even diving far
away from the coast, (20, 30 or 40 miles) on beautiful reefs. In the
Mediterranean sea the most exciting fish are amberjacks (Seriola dumerilii),
groupers (Epinephelus rarely bigger than 25 kilos), snappers (Dentex). The
only fish which can be considered a bluewater fish is the big bluefin tuna,.
Without extreme specialization, but diving only with a reel and not
slip-tip we have been able to catch some specimens of about 60 kilograms.
The rapidly disappearing of this giants from Mediterranean sea makes very
hard any plan to try to catch them.
Even so short of fish, in the Mediterranean sea
are present several sharks. All the reef sharks are naturally missing but
there is a consistent number of big open water sharks (White Pointer, very
rare but present everywhere). In Malta a big specimen of 7.5 meters has
been caught in a tuna net. We have been able to spot and follow a White
Pointer of 5 m while were diving with Francesco in a reef situated several
miles out of the coast. I’ve even some nice close pictures of the beast
to help me remember the encounter.
Anyway, after 2 days trip and a heavy 6 hr.
jet-lag, we landed in Perth. Steve, a dear friend member of WA Undersea
Club, was waiting for us. He had already arranged to meet Barry Paxman at
Ningaloo Reef: 1380 km North of Perth. The day after, at 8 a.m., we were
at Coral Bay ready to start the endeavor in the tropical water of the most
remote part of Western Australia.
The last part of the road, 60 km of 4 WD track
and sandy dunes and then finally the camp. Obviously deserted. Barry was
The following days have been plenty of
astonishing marine close encounters, specially for us, Italian
spearfishers, not so used to dive with so many fish around. And all with
the constant roar of the swell on the Ningaloo Reef as sound track.
Day 1. The very second dive, good water 15 m of
viso, I’m attempting an European “aspetto” e.g. waiting on the
bottom for the fish to close up the distance. A dark shape is slowly
materializing in front of me. Suddenly I realize it’s a big shark. From
the bottom it rises the muzzle and swim upward, up to me. For a moment I
see the perfect torpedo shape of the shark framed by the three aileron of
the dorsal and the pectoral fins. Then it swims lazily away, showing the
beautiful banded side. My first tiger shark.
Again day 1. The first shot in the Ocean, a
school of caranx (now we know them as trevallies) of 6-7 kilos swims by.
Francesco shoots one of them and proudly bring the fish to the boat. Barry
smiles... and, with our dismay, promptly cut the fish in little pieces.
That was our introductions to the Australian practice of burley. From then
on it’ll be a constant struggle for catching the “good fish” and
avoiding the bad ones.
Day 3. Mantas, mantas everywhere. Big lone
mantas and schools of little ones. A huge manta ray swims up to the
surface and then reverse itself and plunges directly to the bottom. Before
if fades in the depth, Francesco chases it and pats it back. The manta
jumps, frightened folds its wing on the back for the first powerful stroke
and swims rapidly away. Francesco, surprised, round itself in a ball and
nearly loses the gun as he’s tossed on the wake. I promptly attempt
seriously to drown myself, just laughing. Moments later he doubles up for
the same reason as I foolishly swim at breakneck speed chasing a school of
shy little mantas, for the pleasure of seeing a little longer their silver
“horns” and graceful dance.
Day 4. The quarrel with the cods. I shoot a
little trevally and a big potato cod comes rapidly from a cave and grabs
the fish on the spear. Surprised I try to recover it and furiously
retrieve my line. I succeed in snatching it from the big mouth but there
is no way, the cod chase the receding fish and sucks it again, bumping at
top speed against my fins. With the fish sideways in the mouth swims back
in the cave. In the Mediterranean sea such a fish would fulfill a dive’s
life, and here I’m not even thinking to shoot it... Francesco, some days
later will encounter one more aggressive, and bigger, which will suck away
the fish bending the shaft and breaking the line on the bottom rocks.
Day 5. The peak of fishing. Francesco, after a
very long dive and careful approach, stones a huge Spanish Mackerel of 35
kilos. Half an hour later, I’m bounced from wave tip to wave tip, by an
ever greater Spanish, who hit the scale at 37 kilos. That was at the same
time great and disappointing. Great because only in my wild dreams I’ve
seen such fish. Disappointing because Barry, after a heartfelt “bloody
bastards, look what a catch”, will tell us that my fish was only 1.6
kilos below the Australian record.
Day 9. The whales. Not so much perhaps as an
encounter, but I’ve never seen a whale so close and in 20 meters of
water. The attempt to approach them, swimming with them underwater, is a
great filling. The whales run away at such speed that the strokes flatten
out the rough sea surface, creating an ephemeral two hundred meters long
glassy blue road.
Day 4 and 12. The dugongs. The fourth day I see
a strange, big, light blue-green shape on the bottom. I swim to it and
suddenly I realize I’m staring at a grazing dugong! I dive to the bottom
and slowly try to approach it... but the dugong scuttles away uninterested,
swinging up and down that funny fat tail.
Later Francesco succeeded in caressing a perhaps
more lazy dugong: “I’ll remember well the strange, milky, color, the
walrus head and the profusion of tiny barnacles on the skin.” he said.
All days. The turtles. Again, in the
Mediterranean sea we have for sure turtles, but the sheer presence of them
where overwhelming. They where everywhere. Swimming, big and lonely, very
slowly few meters from the surface, reaching some time the surface for a
gulp of air. Swimming fast on the bottom when we were chasing them for a
little hitchhiking. Sleeping, maybe, in caves on the bottom, three or four
of them. In more than a dive I had four turtles at four cardinal points,
gently rolling in the swell.
Day 14.The last day on Ningaloo Reef. Evening.
Barry has left few days before. We are diving with Hans Beyeler, an
accomplished diver, formerly from South Africa and member too of the WA
Undersea Club. We are near the reef catching fish for the successive
burley as usual, when a big shape show itself on the bottom: it is a tiger
shark. It swims slowly away, fading in the background. We continue to
dive, not too impressed: we have already seen several during the last days.
Five minutes later we’re cutting a lot of fish in the murky water when a
larger shape looms up. Another tiger? No. The biggest, is what Hans will
later affirm, whaler shark he had ever seen, up to 4 meters. This one is
not obviously thinking about fading away. It swims on the bottom, slowly
but purposely closing the distance. We keep on diving and cutting up
burley, just reducing the distance between each other. The target fish are
not showing up at all, maybe the big shark, so close, is scaring them away...
Once in a while it opens the mouth and swallow up a thicker bit.
Suddenly the big tail lashes and the shark dart
on the surface, where it starts, slowly again, to circle us. I don’t
recall any movement, apart my heart’s, but I’m bumping against the
shoulders of both Hans and Francesco and scraping my fins against theirs.
No one is saying anything, we are stubbornly burleying our fish, straining
for maintain the shark in full sight. We’re gently drifting in the
current but the shark isn’t doing anything gently. It’s now swimming
nervously, circling, but every time it points the muzzle toward us and
swims faster directly at us, then stops and again resumes the circle.
We’ve stopped burleying and we’re only watching intensely the shark,
craning our necks. Hans suggest that, maybe, is better leave the place.
OK. We’re moving. The shark is now behind us and soon it’s not on
sight. We swim perhaps 200 m and then we begin again the burley. Not later
than 30 second and the shark is again circling us, already on the surface,
still very aggressive. Hans shakes his head and acknowledge the defeat:
we’re chased out from the water by a hostile shark...
At the end, thinking it well, the easiest part
for us to manage was the fishing. At the Ningaloo Reef Marine Park you can
only fish pelagic fish. In Italy we haven’t Spanish Mackerel or similar
but it’s not so difficult to understand a fish behavior when you have
experience of more than 25 years. Obviously we had helpful advice from
Barry (thanks Barry), very field experienced. We are still however lacking
the ability of searching for the fish, of find it when it’s not yet
there, suddenly materialized under the fins, motionless.
The nights also have been magnificent, stars
everywhere and bright till the horizon, with the South Cross in the center
of the sky. The first nights were moonless (good also for fishing), the
spectacle truly glorious. The life around the campfire was equally
incredible. After two days spent with Barry and his two sons, Lee and
Scott, and the dive buddy John Pentland and son Matthew, joined us Hans,
Ian Fearley, Brian Loxton and their respectively families.
The perfectly organized camping of Hans and his
campfire promptly became the very center of these cold nights. Fishing
stories of Australian, Mediterranean and South African waters intertwined
each other around the campfire. Cocos Islands, Sicily, Coral Sea and Cape
Town the names that rose into the sky mixed with the sparks. And fish,
always fish, most landed, some lost, but all accurately memorized, like in
a slow motion movie, with that incredibly detailed underwater memory only
the divers seem to have. And fishing gear comparison, recipes and bit of
life in that immediate comradeship of persons who share happily a strong
and long cultivated passion.