Diving in Poor Visibility
Diving and poor visibility is the sad reality for quite a few of us divers.
However, there are ways to mitigate the risk of spearfishing in these conditions while at the same time making the experience more productive, and enjoyable.
First, let me give you a little background and a few stores about my experiences diving in poor visibility. Without going into too much detail, for the last 20 years my job has required me to exclusively dive in bays, channels, surf zones, sounds, estuaries, etc. throughout the world. Some of the most memorable experiences involved diving during a tsunami in 2011, diving numerous days in the surf zone during high surf advisories, spearfishing during “red tide” and diving in silty back bays and under piers looking for lost objects such as wedding rings, and trolling motors. Due to these experiences, I have developed and been taught certain techniques that maximize your effectiveness as a diver and as a hunter.
Streamline Your Gear
The first rule to spearfishing in these conditions where 5’ or 1.5m is considered “good” is to streamline your gear. Streamlining your gear is extreme important in order to minimize the risk of entanglement or snags on unforeseen objects or lines. The key here is to not have anything protruding from your profile. This includes lobster bags, knives, stringers, gear straps, etc.
I prefer to keep my knife strapped to inside my calf or far enough on the inside of my belt that it is not sticking out and it is not impeding my ability to bend at the waist comfortably. I do not keep a knife on either of my arms due to the possibility that my gets stuck and I am not able to pull the knife out. The next spearfishing gear item to address is lobster bags. I don’t wear them. Period. What I do is attach the lobster bag to a “Diver Down” float which I will carry with me or have the boat nearby. Yes, this adds on additional swimming but it worth it in my opinion. The float will either be attached to the kelp via line, or have a small dive weight on it where I can anchor it close by. This allows me the freedom to dive in holes or around structure without worrying about a large mesh lobster bag getting snagged on something. Again, the goal here is to mitigate risk. The next items to address are fish stringers. In bad visibility I don’t wear them. I do the same thing for the fish that I shoot as I do for the lobster. I will either attach them to the float, provided you are not in “sharky” areas where sharks will take your catch or just swim it back to the boat. Another option here is to simply move the fish down to the end of your shooting line instead. The swimming back and forth to a float or a boat does two things. One, it helps you think before your shoot, and second, it gets you in shape. The last gear tip would be for divers that use open heel fins with straps. This is uncommon, but I’ll throw this in here anyways for some scuba divers or spearfishermen that might wear these fins. I attach the fin straps so that the straps are weaved through the fins with the strap ends ending up on the inside closest to the booties. This prevents line of any kind, especially shooting line, from getting snagged on your fins. I also do the same thing with my mask straps so that nothing can get stuck and knock my mask off or cause it to flood.
Preparing Your Gear
The first topic is floatline vs. reels. I will start by saying that is really depends on the type of environment you are going to be hunt around. If I’m diving in an area where there is a lot of structure or potential hazards like trees or other debris, I prefer to use a reel. In order to help my buddy out, we typically will use an anchor line or “drop line” to dive down to get us to hit the structure on every drop. This also helps your buddy with a reference point if you fail to surface or lose any gear. However, I do prefer to use a floatline in areas where the bottom type is fairly flat or free of potential entanglements. Floatline are great for knowing where your buddy is at all times. As for the types of spearguns I use for spearfishing in these environments, I use shorter spearguns like 90cm or shorter. I think the perfect gun for hunting in holes and cracks would be a midhandle around 44” because of the way you can maneuver it around in tight spots. The way I typically rig these spearguns are with single wrap shooting dyneema line. I like dyneema line because of its’ abrasion resistant qualities. The last suggestions I will mention is to carry a flashlight. With bad visibility it is often darker on the bottom so a light will help with looking in holes and around structure.
Techniques for Hunting
Let’s start at the surface before you have even left the surface. Communication is key. Tell your buddy what you are intending to do and how long you plan on being down. A good example of this would be telling your buddy that you plan to dive down the anchor line, then kick straight out about ten feet. The entire dive should take about 1:30 tops. Another tip is that both divers should keep their spearguns point away from any potential divers resurfacing. The buddy who is spotting keep your gun either straight out or straight up so the diver returning to the surface does not swim up straight into the speargun’s shaft. Likewise, with the diver returning to the surface needs to keep their speargun pointed down towards the bottom so they do not poke their buddy upon surfacing.
Now you are starting your dive down, I recommend slowing your descent almost to a stop before hitting the bottom. This prevents you from hitting the bottom hard and kicking up the segment on the bottom making your visibility go from 3-5’ to zero. Another thing this prevents is that if there are fish directly underneath or around near you, they do not completely get spooked as you land on top of them. The technique when dropping down that I use is to hold my speargun slightly above my head about 6” to 12” in order to prevent me from hit my head on anything that may be on the bottom.
Once you are on the bottom, I position my fins to about a 45-degree angle from the bottom. This helps as you kick you are not stirring up the bottom behind you or around you which could impact further dives in the area. I also do not do large kicks, but more of flicks of my fins bending just my ankles. The key here is to move extremely slow. Remember with visibility being poor, it is easy to run into fish and spook them away before getting a chance to shoot. Another one of my favorite techniques is to silhouette the fish (pictured below). What I mean by this is to dive to the deepest part of the structure, then position myself on the bottom looking up at it. The natural light will provide a brighter backdrop making much easier to see the fish shadows and shapes. I use this technique often when hunting reefs and wrecks. At the end of the dive I usually turn around and swim back the way I came in order to return up the same line that I used to descend. This helps your buddy out so they can predict where you are going to surface.
Another technique to spot each other that I use for hunting white sea seabass is a modified version of the traditional “One Up One Down” buddy system style. When I dive in the kelp beds for white sea bass, my buddy and I will stay about 20 or 30 meters staggered throughout the kelp. We basically leap-frog through the kelp bed, checking on each other the entire way and assisting one another when a fish is shot. We do not sit right on top of each due to the likelihood of either spooking a fish or due to the poor visibility, shooting each other. When diving for these fish, most of the time the diving is relativity shallow, less than 10m. In the event, I notice that my dive partner has not surfaced I can start looking from his last know location. Pushing yourself in conditions of poor visibility should not be attempted. If something goes wrong you will need extra time in order to untangle yourself, a fish or search for a lost piece of equipment maybe even a lost diver. Be conservative.
Whatever technique or hunting style you prefer to use, diving in poor visibility requires good communication, a solid dive plan, and some simple techniques to mitigate risk as much as possible.
I hope these tips will increase your success and keep you safe while diving in the murk!