In April, Ryan Sweeny and a friend went spearfishing for white sea bass in kelp beds off the North County coast.
They held a contest to see who could land the biggest fish. When the friend scored first with a 48-pounder, it was game on. Sweeny remembers diving down through a kelp forest so dense it was like trying to swim through a salad. After a couple of attempts, he spotted a suitable target hovering at a depth of perhaps 30 feet. He took aim, squeezed the trigger, and hooked up. The sea bass surged and ran the line in the reel attached to his speargun, and that’s when the trouble began.
“It started towing me through the kelp. I thought, if I get stuck in here, I’ll be dead. We’d be talking body recovery at that point.”
As a spearfisherman, Sweeny represents a fringe minority of the sport. Most spearfishermen depend on scuba tanks for air, but Sweeny is a free diver. In its simplest terms, free diving is an extreme form of snorkeling, one of the most physically challenging forms of underwater hunting. That’s because free divers hold their breath for two minutes or more and plumb depths below 100 feet. According to statistics, free diving is the second most deadly of adventure sports. You can run out of breath and drown. You can also get eaten by a shark.
But in the majority of cases, what kills a free diver is not a toothy predator but a phenomenon called shallow-water blackout. Most of the time, shallow-water blackout happens within a few feet of the surface, or even after a diver surfaces — hence the name. The Diver Alert Network claims that up to 40 people die each year around the world from such free-diving accidents, more than half in the United States, and most of those in the warm waters off Florida. But it happens here, too. In October 2010, a 25-year-old man from Rancho Peñasquitos drowned near Mariner’s Point in Mission Bay while free diving for lobster at night.
Deadly or not, free diving has mushroomed in popularity over the past decade. The attraction is this: unencumbered by scuba tanks, which are bulky and loud and release clouds of air bubbles, the vastly quieter free diver gets much closer to sea life.
Sweeny’s bass did in fact hang him up 40 feet down in the kelp, and the symptoms of hypoxemia — the medical term for oxygen deprivation — set in quickly.
“I started to get dizzy, started to see lights. I started to go numb and have contractions.”
With his dive knife, Sweeny chopped at the stalks that gripped his legs and torso until, finally, on the doorstep of losing consciousness, he got free and kicked his way to the surface. When Sweeny was sufficiently recovered, he reeled in the fish still struggling at the end of his line.
“Fifty pounds,” he says. “I won.”
Free diving is divided into two different camps: sportsmen and competitive deep divers. Free-dive photographers or spearfishermen comprise the bulk of the sportsmen. They rarely stay down for more than a minute and a half and prefer to work above the 100-foot level, a depth that your average competitive free diver would scoff at. The world record is just over 700 feet, down and back, on one breath.
Spear fishing without air tanks
Ryan and Volker discuss the process of free dive spearfishing. Ryan relates the story of his largest catch, a 50-pound white sea bass, which was also his closest brush with death.
Competitive free divers use a weighted sled that pulls them into the depths. Once there, they inflate a balloon that will jet them back to the surface. A pilot named Herbert Nitsch is the current free-dive world-record holder. Last year, he attempted to drop to 800 feet and topple the 700-foot-depth benchmark, but a severe case of the bends required that he be brought topside with assistance, thereby negating his bid for the title.
Competitive free diving may be a relatively new sport — the first world championships were held in 1996 — but the act of free diving itself is not new. People have been free diving of necessity since the fifth century, especially in Korea and ancient Greece, where the best breath-holders, according to archaeologists, found work harvesting sponges off the ocean floor. A crude form of free diving has been described throughout the Hawaiian Islands and in Japan. But modern free diving, as we now know it, began in San Diego.
“Before WWII, in the 1930s, the first official free diving in the U.S. started in La Jolla with a club called the San Diego Bottom Scratchers,” Stathis Kostopoulos says by telephone. A free diver himself, Kostopoulos lives in Los Angeles and publishes articles about the history of the sport. The founding Bottom Scratchers were Glenn Orr, Jack Prodanovich, and Ben Stone. “They likely witnessed divers in Japan or the Polynesian islands. They wore crude homemade masks back then, and they made their own snorkels from garden hose.” The La Jolla Cove was ideal. “Conditions were good. The water was always clear in the cove. Back then, there was no construction and no residential runoff.” Kostopoulos says there is no evidence of free diving in the U.S. before the Bottom Scratchers.
Lamar Boren, who became a famous underwater cinematographer and whose résumé includes work on the television shows Sea Hunt and Flipper, was a Bottom Scratcher, as was Carl Hubbs. Hubbs taught biology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography from 1944 to 1969.
Bottom Scratcher membership topped out at 19. When the original members died, so did the club. They are credited with designing the first face masks and modern goggles, snorkels, and fins. The La Jolla Cove is where a Scratcher named Wally Potts perfected the rubber band–powered speargun design still in use today.
“You get one shot,” Sweeny says of spearfishing. “You’re connecting yourself to a big fish with a line. You play a game of tug-of-war in his environment, where you can’t breathe. And one of you is going down.”
A veteran of seven or eight years of free diving, Sweeny at 36 is thin and wiry of build, not unlike a soccer player. “I’ve jumped out of airplanes, fallen through the ice on frozen lakes, broken bones snowboarding. I’ve raced motorcycles. I’ve woken up in hospitals and wondered where I was.” Sweeny designs actionwear by trade, clothing and protective gear of a sort worn by snowboarders or cyclists, surfers, skaters, spearfishermen, rock climbers, divers, and so on.