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Princess Alice Bank

 

First news about this Bank I had in the far away ’97 in a French magazine. In it there were pictures of an Amberjack to have fit about and the story of a Bank in the open Atlantic Ocean from which jumped sharks, tunas, Wahoos and a lot of Amberjacks of different species.

Seen on a sea map the Princess Alice Bank is a truly Dream Spot. It’s 50 nm SW from the Central Group in the Azores, almost mid space between Europe and America. It comes to –30 m from deep abysses all around: 1 nautical mile from the Bank and the bottom is already 500 m deep; not even 3 miles and the depth has reached 1000 m, 5 nm and is 2500 m! Whales and deep diving Sperm Whales are common in the zone. A place that simply HAS to be frequented by every kind of fish…

Moreover, in ’98 Paulo Gaspar took “in the Azores” his World Record Yellowfin Tuna.

So… year 2000, let it be Azores, then!

That trip however was a complete, total, dark failure. Horrible weather, a full July of gales, dirty and very cold water (15 degrees!). The old fishermen were appalled like us; they did not remember a month like that in all their lives. It was only possible to dream about the Bank.

Doggedly, summer 2001, Azores again! Weather definitely better. Clear waters, a good 22-23 degrees the water temperature, our contact there, Victor, with a brand new 8 meters Faeton Moraga with diesel engine, a boat to dare the Ocean: Princess Alice Bank, we’re arriving!

The Day finally is upon us. We’ll be three spearfishers on board, my old pal of many adventures around the world, Francesco (Checco for all), a Portuguese friend, Fernando, good diver and me. First day trip, 20 nm, from S. Jorge, the island were we stay, to Faial, the island nearest to the Bank. Uneventful journey, except a not so close encounter with wary Risso's dolphins (Grampus griseus). We sleep at the picturesque Horta harbour with its lot of trans-oceanic sailboats and their sometime unusual crews. That is, we TRY to sleep because, unmistakable fact, the wind is blowing. Obviously the weather forecast had predicted flat sea!

Next day, August first, at 5.30 a.m. we more or less wake up in the fathomless night. Victor, at the helm, is lighted only by the electronic glow from the instruments. Out of the harbour the wind is strong, and from the nothing before our prow a restless sequence of breakers hurl themselves against us. The boat groans and creaks at every blow. We have a 50 miles trip of that in front of us: will Victor decide to go back? If the weather is so settled at 6’o clock a.m. what will it be at 9’o clock?

Slowly, the dawn lights a grey and restless Ocean. But, even if more slowly, the GPS writes lowering miles to the Bank. So Victor has decided to reach our destination. Really, really we’re going to the Princess Alice Bank! After years of dreams and one full year waiting for it! I take shelter in yoga and wait, suspended in the rhythmic respiration…

The highest point of the Bank is at –30m. We arrive there, dutifully guided by Victor’s cartographic GPS, full equipped. My high hope for monster fish has forced me to use the Steve Alexander tuna gun with 30 m bungee and high-density foam float. Checco has a powerful air gun with a 10 m bungee and 20 m floating line connected to a couple of Rob Allen round floats. He sports our latest gear improvement: a beautiful slip tip for the air gun. It’ll work more than nicely.

Fernando is the only one with a reel. He has build himself an excellent European style gun with 2 rubber bands and almost 100 m of very thin Kevlar line on the reel. This however will later demonstrate a mistake.

 

In the water! Not even over with the loading of the bands and already there’s fish: three little Wahoo (Acanthocybium solandri) six-seven kg arrive investigating the invasion. I can’t shoot yet and so they quickly fade away. Good, there’s life around after all!

I start with my routine of diving around 10-15 m, waiting as long as I can, the gun ready. Soon I realize the water is not really clean. Even from my hunting position I can’t see the bottom so at best there’s not more than 15 m of viso. Some dives later a big dark shape appears. Then another and another one. After a short moment of doubt I recognize them as Mantas but not “classic” black-and-white tropical Mantas (Manta birostris) we are used to but Atlantic Mantas (Mobula mobular). They seem to share the dull colouring of these waters: dark green above and dirt white underneath. They fly around me for a short while then slowly disappear in the blue-green of the Ocean.

No other fish around…

Checco has vanished. As a rule we fish together but this time I lost him almost immediately. I hope that things are better with him but I never heard the sharp noise of his hyper charged air gun so I reckon that he never fired too.

Other dives with nothing to disturb the colours of the Ocean then the boat suddenly comes to take me, Checco already onboard. Victor tells us that he has anchored a float on the top of the Bank and that the sounder is signalling fish only around it.

Ok. There we go. With a fixed point to refer to we suddenly realize that the current is strong. We cannot, with floats and bungees, swim against it so we start fishing with the current, three dives, and then we take the boat to go up-current again.

Here some trace of life really exists. A huge school of barracudas, with some massive specimen on the bottom, comes near but I’m not even thinking about shooting one, even the big ones. Because… where are the Tunas? And the large Wahoos that last year have been seen here? I start worrying about an empty bag. Here, of all places!

Fernando in the meantime fully exploits his light gear and dives very deep. He shows me his depth-meter: -28 m and there finally he discovers the Amberjacks. A full school of them. With my tuna-gun I’m not able to keep with his unhindered strong swimming and slowly I’m being swept away. I see him rise the fins to the sky and dive. I start swimming toward him, perhaps he’ll need assistance, it’s a deep dive. After a short time I see something dark and then, below it, a white sparkle. It’s Fernando and he has caught something! I swim faster but suddenly I realize that something’s wrong. He’s surfacing way too slowly and now he’s starting to use his other hand to try to swim faster. I see now what the problem is: the reel is jammed and the fish, a beautiful Amberjack, is still swimming toward the bottom, keeping down the spearfisher. I’m almost on him but behind his shoulders and he can’t see me. His movements are now jerky and he’s still too deep. Now I’m worried. I dive, extend my arm, I’m a hand span from him when he suddenly open his hand, let slip gun and fish, and dart to the surface. I follow him there; he breathes a huge gulp of air with an inarticulate bellow. He’s not in the best of shape but he’s now breathing hard but regularly and so I can think again about the Amberjack. Too late! She’s now a little white glimmer down below. Lost. A real pity.

 

Checco in the meantime keeps regularly to fish with the current and to use the boat to be lifted up-current by a rope tied after it. In one of the round however Victor shouts: Fish on the sounder at –25m. Checco, very fast, gulps down a huge mouthful of air and dives. We see the red floats slip to the surface approaching to the point of his immersion… slow down… we’re holding our breath as well… and Checco resurfaces with a big shout: caught! Then he grasps the float line and is promptly swept away by the unseen fish. The speed is so high that white foam rises all around his body. But he manages to tie his gun to the last float so to have both hands free to work the fish. To the anxious questions raining on him he’s only able to confirm that’s an Almaco Jack (Seriola rivoliana) and that the shot is a good one, then he’s been again carried away.

Slowly but surely Checco reaches the 10 m bungee, and starts working from there the fish. Generally a good signal: the fish is being pulled to the surface. A lot of line and bungee is floating around him when suddenly dives: he’s going to catch the fish a couple of meters below the surface to shorten the time of the fight and to avoid the usual mess of splashes and savages tail strokes on the surface still trying to take a firm hold on the fish. He re-emerges, an able swift knife stroke and the Amberjack stills.

Now we can approach and admire the fish. She’s a beautiful, even if not huge, Almaco Jack of about 30 kg. Checco is positively beaming.

 

To tell the truthful truth I should report now that some time afterwards a tiny dot on the horizon revealed itself as a big boat, surely from Horta, that dropped anchor, of all the huge, open space in the Ocean, at a spit distance form Victor’s boat. And promptly vomited some ten Bubblers to whiten the Ocean surface.

 

And this is, sadly, all the story. The huge Igloo tank full of ice that in our wild dreams had to be filled till the brim was too little for the Almaco Jack that had to lie on the deck covered by wet sackcloths, and so remained absolutely, totally, desolately empty…

 

Now. On the Azores in general: in the islands you fish well, Almaco Jacks till 15-20 kg are relatively common. A lot of barracudas and Atlantic Bonito everywhere, even in shallow water. There are Bluefish also, even if not so easy to catch. Some are really huge.

On Alice’s trip: on the gear’s side, the new slip-tip we made for the air gun worked very well indeed: both the holes, in and out, are clean ones, without any sign of the lacerations always to be seen in fish that fight so hard. A success.

For the fish, was perhaps the choppy weather disturbing and keeping them in lower layers? Was really true that an almost full moon could perturb them? We do not know.

It’s certain however that not a single Tuna was seen in the whole day. The biggest Wahoo was a beautiful but wary 20 kg specimen too far away even for my long reaching tuna gun. I never pulled the trigger in the whole day. I knew it was a daring decision to use the tuna gun but I REALLY hoped in Big Blue Water fish moving around. Even when nothing was showing up I kept expecting a school of something spectacular at any moment. Madly optimistic or in the true spirit of Blue Water Hunting?

Riccardo A. Andreoli

August 2001

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