Jan 13, 2020
The Hunt For a Monster Tuna: Pelagic Renaissance
A freediving spearfisher who hunts tuna bit off more than he could perhaps chew, in dangerous conditions in the Gulf of Mexico. A first-person account.
Eduardo Lopez Negrete Quijano
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Editors’ Note: The Outdoor Journal does not endorse hunting in general, given our Purpose of wilderness conservation. However, we do believe that sustainable hunting for sustenance or personal consumption is ethical, and possibly the most ethical method of eating meat or fish. In this article, the author speaks of a self-imposed moratorium on eating tuna unless he personally catches one by spearfishing, which is a highly selective mode of fishing with no bycatch. Despite the trophy-hunting “voice” of the article, we are reasonably assured that this article falls within our viewpoint of conservation. We would also like to note that as a media organization, we are committed to providing a reasonably neutral platform for all points of view
Author’s Note: “My initial obsession with this fish caused me to adopt a self-imposed moratorium on eating tuna unless I, or a friend of mine, caught one whilst spearfishing. As I learned more about commercial fishing methods, I quickly expanded this restraint to all of my fish consumption to come strictly from spearfishing. And so it has been for me for the last 13 years.”
For over twenty years, ever since I saw the iconic Terry Maas photo with his world record bluefin tuna, I have been dreaming about spearing a monster tuna of my own. However, I could not fathom that anyone could land such a massive fish, let alone accomplish such a feat on a single breath of air.
This is how it started…
My friend Luis Turrent, an accomplished spearo (Ed. a term used in the sport when referring to spearfishermen) and former national free diving champion, called me on a Thursday afternoon. A friend of his had found a spot some 70 nautical miles offshore where the tuna were huge. For years I had dreamt about searching for tunas in the Gulf of Mexico – I had heard different rumors about large schools of Yellowfin and even Bluefin Tuna migrating throughout the Gulf. On a couple of occasions, I had discussed the prospect of making plans to go in search of them with a couple of friends. But that was all it had ever come to – unrealized ideas.
However, this time, solid information had fallen into our hands about the location of our ‘white whales.’
We knew from previous experience that we could not afford to wait. The weather, water visibility, water temperature, and moon phase were just right. The Gulf has a reputation for bad weather and the days of blue skies and flat seas in this part of Mexico were already past us. The time for Northerly winds and foul weather was upon us.
“We had left the tranquil waters of the riverbank and began sailing north-eastward into a pitch dark night brought upon us by a new moon.”
We realized we had a very short time window to give it our best shot. So, we called the rest of the guys to set up our trip, but no one else could make it. We considered postponing it for a week but soon realized that these conditions would likely not hold and the tuna was certainly not going to wait for us either.
We made the decision to give it a go on our own. I grabbed my car on Friday afternoon and drove the first three hours to catch up with Luis. We ditched one of our cars and made the rest of the 10-hour drive together. We arrived at the beach at midnight, where we were supposed to get a few hours of sleep and head out before dawn for what we thought would be a three-hour panga ride. However, our panga captain had other plans. When we got to the beach, he was sitting on his panga, and as we got off of Luis’s truck, he quickly instructed us to load our gear onto the single-engine, 27-foot skiff, with the intention to head out straight away. This idea was immediately met by a firm protest on my behalf. I needed to get some sleep before navigating 70-plus nautical miles and freediving for some 8-10 hours, chasing giants of the deep. The mere idea seemed outrageous to me. But all my arguments fell on deaf ears. I quickly found myself loading coolers, spearguns, gear bags, fins, and all sorts of gear onto our humble vessel. Our captain even had the nerve to tell us, “Don’t worry, you can sleep on the boat.” Having had my share of panga rides before, I knew my chances of grabbing some shuteye were, well, null. Still, we asked for some blankets to throw onto the already wet panga deck to try to make our journey a bit less uncomfortable.
Before we knew it, we had left the tranquil waters of the riverbank and began sailing north-eastward into a pitch dark night brought upon us by a new moon. This was the first “bright idea” of our trip.
“Neptune himself pulled the ocean from beneath us.”
As I anticipated, with every mile we ventured seaward, the ocean greeted us with ever-increasing fervor. The size, power, and frequency of large waves increased steadily, making our trip more and more wild, while turning our possibility of resting before dawn to a mere illusion. As I laid on my back on the deck of the panga, miserably trying to get some rest, my thoughts wouldn’t stray far from images of massive tunas at the end of my speargun. However, this wishful thinking was continuously interrupted every few waves by what seemed as if Neptune himself pulled the ocean from beneath us, making us suddenly drop a good few feet to what felt like solid concrete, for what I imagined, was king Neptune’s mere delight. My ears would buzz and my back and kidneys felt as if a truck had just slammed into me at full speed. In short, we were getting hammered. As if the pounding of the waves wasn’t enough, the sea began shooting some kamikaze flying fish our way. One of them crash-landed onto Luis’s forehead. He hadn’t even touched the water and had already made his first kill. Certain promise of what was to come laid bare right there. I laughed my ass off.
At around three AM, we suddenly felt a suspicious cool wind blowing ever more strongly. Soon enough, rain began pouring on us as the waves caught on to the wind’s force, making their power felt within our tiny skiff. The darkness gave way to light for just fractions of a second, as lightning fell all around us. It was in those instants of light that I could see the waves, many times the height of our boat, trying to engulf our tiny pangas. As we had planned to fair so far from shore on a 27 foot, single-engine panga, I had insisted on not heading out there on our own, so two other pangas set out with us. Not bringing any sort of emergency signaling device whatsoever, it seemed like the very least we could do in order to barely avoid total and complete stupidity (I really don’t think we managed it, though).
“Fear was creeping up on me, and I started wondering what I had gotten myself into.”
Suddenly, one of the pangas began having engine trouble right in the middle of the storm. It was then that all the reality of my poor judgment began bearing down upon me with the same speed as the lighting that kept falling all around us. My mind began racing with negative thoughts and I started having a hard time controlling the surmounting terror… “How are we going to deal with this? Are we going to have to tow that panga all the way back? That will just make weathering the storm so much more difficult, and riskier… where the fuck are our floats? Oh shit, they are on the other panga…. I need a float, oooh shit, oooh shit…” Fear was creeping up on me, and I started wondering what I had gotten myself into. The captain of the panga with the engine trouble started to panic and wanted to head back, but Toño, our panga’s captain, insisted we had to brave the storm and continue our journey. We were already too far from shore. I guess the call of our oceanic ‘Cthulhu’ momentarily silenced our life preservation instincts. They were now kicking in, hard.
By now we started shivering, having gotten completely drenched by the storm. The cold had conquered what only a few minutes before had been 90ºF weather. So we decided to don our wetsuits right there on the panga in order to endure whatever else the ocean had in store for us.
Fortunately, after only a few minutes, the other boat sorted out whatever battery troubles they had, that is, by beating the hell out the battery connection with a wooden bat, and thus managing to get the tiny 50 horsepower engine running again. Regardless of the methodology, this example of “by-any-means” mechanics helped me get a hold of my monkey mind before it raged off and transformed into some kind of monster. Not long after, the storm continued on its way towards land as we persisted into the open ocean. At least the storm distracted me from my sleep deprivation concerns.
As the sea relaxed its onslaught, we were able to regain our previous pace, but our plan for a three to four-hour journey had suddenly been transformed into a six and a half hour panga ride from hell.
Eventually, dawn began to linger on the horizon. The sky painted itself into a colorful pink tone, a very welcoming and soothing sight, after hours of engulfing darkness. With a final show of huge force, the sky completely lit up with a massive stroke of lightning that, instead of bolting down to the ocean, made its way across the clouds, right above us. Horizontal lightning – a rare, beautiful, yet somewhat menacing sight.
“Enter Jurassic Park, ocean edition…”
As we approached our fishing spot, a small pod of dolphins came to greet us at the bow of our boat. Soon after, we spotted a couple of mantas right beneath the surface, showing their elegant winglike fins through the ocean’s surface. Only a few minutes later, we caught sight of the main attraction, yellowfin tuna breaching only a few hundred feet from us. Enter Jurassic Park, ocean edition…
Adrenaline kicked in again – the good kind. We began sorting out the many pounds of gear we had hoarded from our respective home towns and had scattered throughout the three pangas. If you are committed to landing one of these fish, you need to be dead serious about everything, your physical and mental condition, safety precautions, and last, but not least, your gear. We completely desecrated the first three, but at least we got the gear right. This meaning: large 2-atmosphere floats, 100-foot bungies and massive 72-inch tuna guns with 10mm (3/8”) shafts, powered by six 16 mm bands.
By the time we got everything ready, the sun had fully made its way onto the horizon but was covered by clouds that still lingered above us – the remaining evidence of a stormy night. Nonetheless, we now had some decent light to work with. By now we had been awake for some 26 hours. Let’s just say we were not beginning our day in top form.
A regular day hunting in the blue open ocean means repetitive dives on a single breath of air, jumping in and out of the boat countless times in order to make innumerable drifts over the area of interest. It gets exhausting, but I was about to redefine the meaning of this word, and so many others before the day was over.
It was time to begin our bluewater hunting session.
Once we finally jumped in the ocean, one of us would work the flasher as the other chummed the water, trying to make the perfect chum trail so our targets would swim up from the depths into our hunting range.
Given my physical condition, I decided to keep my diving at 50% of my regular spearfishing max depth in order to minimize the risk of a blackout.
My very limited experience hunting these fish had taught me that sometimes the only way to become aware of their presence is when a piece of bait suddenly disappears before your very eyes. These fish, especially the smaller ones, swim past so quickly that you miss them completely. Their speed and perfect deep blue colored loins make them almost impossible to spot.
And so we lay, drifting through the beautiful blue, clear water, staring at the pieces of bait we dropped down the water column in the hopes of spotting a large one.
Then, suddenly, a piece of chum disappears. Was there a tuna in our midst? Something had definitely just bolted at it – hopefully our target fish.
A few seconds after, a shadowy, yet familiar figure makes its way to the edge of my vision – a tuna!!!! My heart immediately jumps from a completely relaxed beat into a marathon runner’s pace.
As I began making my duck dive, trying to contain my impulses, I see my friend Luis make a dive as he stretched out his massive Sea Sniper tuna gun, taking aim and making the shot.
Almost immediately, the fish made a sharp turn and raced to the deep. Luis’s bungie stretched out and he quickly began an underwater tug of war. We signaled the boat and within a few minutes, had a nice 60-pound yellowfin tuna on board. A perfect start to the day.
Along with a large amount of gear, I had brought my underwater camera with me, so we made time for an underwater photo shoot to record this brief moment of triumph, and forget the beating we had endured to get here.
Having a fish on the boat certainly gave some validation to our madness, but I was still aching for my own catch to make the painful journey worthwhile.
Before making it onto the boat I suggested to Luis that we leave one of our spearguns on the panga and take turns making dives in the interest of safety, given our exhausted condition – a suggestion he immediately discarded. Knowing Luis, this should have alerted me about what was about to unfold.
And so, we picked up where we left off and continued making drift after drift in hopes of getting another chance for success.
Sometime around noon, only seconds after entering the water for another pass, I saw a massive fish swim some 10 meters below Luis, gulping up the bait. The sheer size of its enormous sickle fins screamed about the size of this fish.
And here go the primal, split-second reactions shooting off all over again…heart rate through the roof, adrenaline pumping through every corner of my body, predatory mindset on full swing.
Trying to contain the uncontainable, I made my dive. I was only a couple of feet deep when I saw Luis shoot his gun with his butt up in the air. That’s right, he shot from the surface! I couldn’t believe it! He just spooked MY fish, on a fantasy shot!!! – I thought. I was fuming! Then, I noticed the bungie racing behind the beast. I was completely taken aback. The fish must have been at least 30 ft away. I couldn’t believe how he could have possibly struck it. My astonishment did nothing to soothe my acute displeasure, which I immediately let known to Luis. I should have known better, he just can’t contain himself – no wonder he rejected my one gun, one up/one down suggestion – I thought. Anyway…I see him fighting the fish that has plunged several meters below us, completely stretching out Luis’s bungie. As he drew the fish within sight, he asked me for a second shot.
Swallowing my recently brought about irritability I dove down and did the right thing to secure my friend’s fish. As I approached it, Its true size became clear to me. The damn thing was enormous! As I stared in awe, it spooked and darted off with a few short bursts of its powerful tail. I held my trigger finger until I had a true shot, I squeezed the trigger and secured the fish. After battling it for a few moments, we brought the fish on the boat and I congratulated Luis on his catch, only to immediately bitch at him for taking such a shot. I confirmed that it had been a fantasy shot by the fact that his slip tip had penetrated the fish no more than 2 inches. The force of gravity and not the power of his six band speargun seems to have saved the day. The slip tip was literally clinging onto the fish by its skin. I still can’t believe it didn’t break off. I reckon he must have broken at least two laws of physics right there.
I felt the most urgent necessity to get a fish of my own and recover a piece of my honor. But I would have to wait a while for that to happen as the activity in the water came to a complete stop.
Back to our previous routine we went. Drift, chum, dive, repeat…It went on like this for a while. Toño our panga captain decided to join us in the water with a speargun of his own. Toño makes his living as a fisherman, making most of his catch through spearfishing. He was the real deal in our team, leaving myself and even Luis as mere amateurs. Legend has it that on a freediving competition he entered some years ago, he went down to 50 meters where he found a No Limits sled on the bottom. The air tank that was meant to fill the balloon and propel it to the surface was empty. However, he felt he still had a good amount of air in him, so he decided to haul it all the way back to the surface! Respect.
Finally, Luis’s chumming technique summons a nice tuna from the deep. I can feel my heart pumping as it makes a fast pass in front of me, I aim and take my shot. It is a…… miss!! A devastating miss!! As I see the tuna swim off unscathed, I just wanted to stay there, underwater, until my body had consumed the last molecule of oxygen it possessed. What made it almost unbearable was the fact that I knew my shortcomings had been witnessed by Toño and Luis, who were waiting for me at the surface to finish me off! I began to imagine the brutality of the humiliations that were about to unravel on me. I can still remember the nauseating feeling as I kicked up towards the surface. I must say, at this time, my will to continue the hunt temporarily wavered.
I guess the guys caught on to my despair, exacerbated by my completely debilitated mind and body, because they went relatively easy on me, at least for the time being. By now we were going on 30-plus hours without sleep. Luis suggested to rest for a few minutes and get some badly needed food and water into our heavily strained systems. I agreed and took the time to change one of the rubbers on Luis’s tuna gun. We munched on a sandwich and hydrated ourselves. This gave me time to reflect on what I had done wrong which caused me to miss my long-awaited opportunity. Luis suggested that I change my aiming technique. He saw me trying to aim as with a euro-style gun, to which I am more accustomed and mentioned that with mid-handled guns you need to aim with a slight downward angle. These moments, relaxing on the panga also allowed me to gain some perspective and focus on what we came to do. Fortunately, not long after, tunas began breaching in the distance again. Just what I needed to get the juices going and letting behind every defeatist thought in my mind!
We got the chum ready and jumped in for our last round of drifts. As we approached the end of our drift, Luis tells me a tuna just made a pass below us. Toño went down but found no luck. As he made his way up I took a deep breath and dove down, barely kicking, trying to make myself as stealthy as possible. I made a conscious effort to just float there, trying not to move at all, and just stared at the pieces of bait. All of a sudden, literally out of the blue, a torpedo made its way directly at me, just at eye level. I have Luis’s tuna gun aiming some 30º downward from the trajectory of the fish. I started pulling the gun up towards the emboldened tail-propelled torpedo, but it is not easy to move such a massive speargun in the water. Finally, I got the gun leveled. The tuna is still on a crash course with my head. I began to squeeze the trigger as the fish made a sudden turn left, swimming completely off target! Damn that was close. I swear if I had pulled that trigger just 1mm more, the shaft would have shot off, probably missing again. My heart was about to break out of my rib cage, depleting my oxygen levels with every beat. But I knew I had to hold my position and wait for this fish to make another pass. What seemed like an eternity later, out of the corner of my left eye, I saw it approach from left to right. It was then that I was able to get a brief sense of its size. I noticed the huge, bright yellow, half-moon shaped fins running from the middle of its body all the way to its enormous tail. I took aim, remembering Luis’s advice to aim at a downward angle. The shot is true! I could see the shaft hit its right loin. Immediately after, the fish darted off into the depths.
Luis quickly grabbed the bungie and began pulling on the fish. Not long after, Toño put a second shot right on the nose of the fish. I jumped into the panga and got the fish to the surface, finally realizing the true dimension of my catch – the fish I had dreamt of for years! Cheers exploded all around – a true moment of celebration.
Finally, it was time to head back. It was already five PM by the time we decided to begin to make our way back, so we knew that night would fall on us before reaching shore. As I began throwing the insane amount of gear into my dive bag, one of the other skiffs pulled up beside us. I could hear Toño and the captain of the other boat arguing about something, but I really didn’t pay much attention. All I wanted was to wrap it up and begin our journey back to throw myself on whatever remotely resembled a bed. Then someone interrupted me to ask me whether I had a compass with me. I really didn’t make much of the odd request as I considered our day to be almost over, but I answered that I didn’t and continued packing all my crap. Soon it would become clear to me that the crew on that panga had decided to stay there in order to fish throughout the night and make the best of the long journey which had demanded such an expensive gas bill on them. Small detail, they had no navigation instruments whatsoever, hence the reason behind the compass query. It became clear to me that it was not only Luis and myself who were full with bright ideas on that particular day. Toño, Luis and I insisted that they called it a day and headed back with us to no avail. Their minds were set. I figured they knew what they were doing. After all, this was their trade. Luis and I were but mere tourists.
So two out of the three pangas that headed out the night before began our path back to land. Exhausted, we dashed towards shore. Hell, it was time to break out the beers and take it all in.
Luckily the weather gods had no more surprises to unravel on us and we were able to make the crossing in just four hours. After all this, we finally got some sleep after a total of 44 hours of complete sleep deprivation.
The following morning, we headed to Toño’s house and began slicing up the tunas and getting them into our coolers to share them with friends and family. It took over 2 hours to fillet and get them in ice.
On the following Wednesday afternoon, while in the comfort of my air-conditioned office, I received a message from a friend of mine who knew of my little weekend adventure.
It was an official message alerting of a small single-engine skiff with a crew of three that had gone missing since Sunday morning….our third panga.
I refused to believe the writing on my phone’s screen. I quickly forwarded the message to Toño in the hopes he would discredit it or perhaps he had news that they somehow made their way back home. Toño simply confirmed the terrible news. All I could respond was to express my condolences.
The brutal reality and a sense of guilt crept in as my phone began ringing. Other friends who were now eager to set out to the same spot had gotten the ill-fated news.
It was not that I was unaware of the dangers associated with their trade, but this experience certainly gave me a first-hand view about how these fishermen make a living, heading out dozens of miles into the deceptive beauty of a calm sea, which in an instant can show its ugly, brutal side, without much warning or mercy. Fatalities abound.
On Thursday afternoon, I received a new message, this time confirming that the fishermen had somehow made it back home! An unusual happy ending to a very recurrent drama in the coasts of rural Mexico.
As I look back on our little adventure, I realize there are many lessons to be learned. To get over the obvious, safety should always be the primordial concern. It’s been said over and over but it seems some of us need to hear it one more time…no fish is worth your life.
Technology has put forth a number of true life-saving emergency signaling devices that we can carry with us at all times. Get the one you feel suits you best within your budget limit, but get one. When on offshore trips, carry a compass with you just in case electronics fail, and they do fail.
For Luis, achieving this dream in the land where he grew up as a kid and where he first fell in love with the ocean, made it particularly special. I am very happy to have been a part of that.
To me, it was the culmination of a long-awaited dream, inspired by a true ocean legend, Mr. Terry Maas.
My initial obsession with this fish caused me to adopt a self-imposed moratorium on eating tuna unless I, or a friend of mine, caught one whilst spearfishing. As I learned more about commercial fishing methods, I quickly expanded this restraint to all of my fish consumption to come strictly from spearfishing. And so it has been for me for the last 13 years.
I believe this method of harvesting fish from the ocean is the most sustainable, given there is little to no bycatch. It allows you to be selective of what you catch. Not to mention it can get incredibly difficult at times.
Given the fact that I live in the very center of Mexico, six hrs away from the nearest ocean, my access to fish is highly limited. The upside is that is I enjoy immensely every fish I harvest from the ocean. It has become not only a true delicacy for me, but an entire process to relish. What I enjoy the most is sharing my catch with friends and family. This particular harvest has, to my best calculation, already fed some 40 people, and there is still plenty left in my freezer. I can’t wait for my next tuna meal amongst friends.