Thursday, September 11, 2008

Spearfishing Kilwa Tanzania

by: Andrew Johnson and Eric Allard

Friday 29th September, 07 30am I flew out of Lusaka, Zambia for Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. My bags had been packed for 6 weeks already. I think my wife and little boy were happy to see the back of me. I don’t think they could have put up with me walking around in the back garden in my full ocean mimetic wetsuit, holding my breath a single day longer. It was becoming embarrassing for them. Eric and I had been talking about doing a trip for over a year and the day had finally come. We were off for a week of blue water hunting in a true wilderness area of Southern Tanzania.

I work and live in a land locked, ocean less country but fortunately two hours in a 737 and I'm in one of the most exciting and adventure experience diverse countries in Africa. Tanzania on the East coast of Africa has the best of all worlds. From a number of infamous game parks, to a bustling and cultural rich Capital, to a number of larger and smaller white sandy beach islands. It was the warm blue water and white beaches that we were after.

Eric works and lives in a coastal town called Tanga in the north of Tanzania. He has set up a frozen seafood export business with processing factories and depots in various towns and coastal villages along the Tanzanian coast. He purchases fish from small scale local artisan fisherman and practices sustainable ocean harvesting. He speaks fluent Swahili and is clearly held in high regard amongst the local people that he is known by. His line of work allows him to explore remote areas and live out the dreams that many spear fisherman can only imagine.

I arrived in Dar and had a few hours to kill before my 1 hour flight in a Cessna 206 (6 seater including pilot) to Kilwa. Eric was already there as he had the unenvious job of having to tow “Little Debonair” his 15 foot trusty cat down from Tanga the day before. I don’t think he minded having to do this, as he took the opportunity to do a little reci on the Friday afternoon whilst I sat in Dar airport doing my breathing exercises. It hadn’t been a bad two hours in the water. One wahoo of 22kg and a black marlin of 162kg.

Eric with his 162kg Black Marlin.

I’m glad that he waited to tell me what he had shot until after I had landed in Kilwa or I fear that I may have whipped on a rash vest, grabbed fins, goggles, snorkel and gun and jumped from 7000 feet at the first site of blue water. Nice fish buddy!

A superb dinner prepared by our host Massimo (Max) and a couple of beers to celebrate Eric’s Marlin went down well and we were off early to bed that night to dream of sinking deep into the clear blue the following morning.

Saturday 30th, 08 00am. Fruit and porridge for breakfast and I could hardly eat, talk or breathe for that matter. The excitement had reached boiling point and it was time to get into the water. We were suited up and overboard by around 10 00am. We hopped in, in around 180m of water and drifted in as the bottom rose up quite quickly to around 110m where it leveled out a little and then rose up to between 80m and 50m before meeting the reef which sat in about 20m of water. All in all, it would take us about 30min to drift 500m and we would just repeat the same drift over.

Eric and I were diving with very similar setups. Chris Coates (Coatesman’s Spearfishing) had sent up some new additions to my bag of tricks, just to make sure I wasn’t taking a knife to a gun fight. These were “big dog” waters and I wanted to be prepared. I was using a 1.4m Rob Allen (RA) Tuna gun, triple wrapped, fitted with a breakaway system(essential).From the breakaway was a 2m boingie to a 5m ghost leader, 35 m of rope to a 5m boingie to an 11 litre RA inflatable float. Attached to the back of the float was a RA speed pouch packed with an additional 30m of rope. Attached to the end of the breakaway was another 5m boingie to a 35 litre RA inflatable hippo float. All in all I had potentially at full stretch just over 100m of “paraphernalia” between myself and the fish. In hindsight, the set up was perfect and for these waters and I would not change it for my next trip.

Wahoo mayhem ensued…………The first day session consisted of a number of missed opportunities, but also two personal best for Eric and myself. Eric with a 32.7kg and I ended up with a 30.4kg. We shot 116 kg of wahoo over the next few hours. Some of the fish we saw were in small shoals of 4 to 6 but they were also coming onto us in shoals up to as many as 30. All seemed to be over the 12kg size.

My personal best wahoo - 30.4kg

Eric with his personal best wahoo 32.7 kg

Sunday 31st dawned on us after a magical day on the Saturday. We were heading north to three remote islands over 40 NM from Kilwa. Fanjove, Nyuni and Okuza are small palm islands that sit on the continental shelf and are only visited by migrant fisherman. The morning was spent getting supplies together and we left Kilwa at around 10 00am. The trip north was a real adventure and very much worth it although the fish were scarce that afternoon. I got one wahoo of around 13kg and Eric got a nice job fish which was to become our dinner that night. We pitched our tents beneath the shade of some tall palms being wary to stay clear of falling coconuts.

There were a few curious fishermen who gathered around to watch us set up camp. They seemed bemused by our presence but the curiosity soon wore off and Eric, myself and our highly efficient boat assistant Ali watched the sun go down in Paradise. Eric cooked up (with Italian style), chunks of Job fish, with garlic, onion, tomatoes, and sautéed potatoes. Served with a chick pea side salad and washed down with a couple of ice cold beers which we had bought along for the trip. These are the kinds of experiences that should fill our lives.

Nyuni Island - where we set up camp for the night.

Monday 1st, we packed up camp, left the little fruit and veg that we had left over for the fisherman who were very appreciative, and jumped back onto “Debonair.” As we left Nyuni Island schools of pilchards being chased by skip jacks escorted us from the turquoise blue shallows out to the surrounding protective reef and back into the deep blue. We had a couple of quick dives with little success and decided to head back to the Kilwa area. It turned out to be the right call and before long we both had wahoo on the boat each around the 15kg mark.

15kg fish on day 4 - Warm, clean water!

The visibility was around 20 – 25 meters and water was a lot clearer than around the Nyuni area. A couple of drifts later and in about 60meters of water I had another fish on and had been playing it for about 10 minutes when I noticed a large dark shape move onto my fish around the 20meter mark. I breathed up, and dived down. At about ten meters a noticed two large hammerhead sharks circling the wahoo down below. I kept descending and arrived onto my fish. A few shouts and grunts through my snorkel and the sharks disappeared into the blue. I ascended feeling triumphant and on top of the food chain. The feeling was short lived when as I broke the surface and looked back down, I was greeted by at least 30 hammerhead sharks. Fortunately I had read about migrating hammerheads in the Pemba channel off Tanzania and so was aware that to find them in large numbers was possible but very rare. They ranged in size from 2.5m to as little as about 1.5m. They seemed more inquisitive than hungry and did not touch my fish. They circled for about 2 minutes, swimming fast, coming in and out of visibility and then disappeared. I scull dragged my wahoo the remaining 10meters and got back onto the boat to recollect myself.

Eric. . just another 22kg Tanzanian Wahoo

Tuesday 2nd, was a lazy and late start to the day. We went out for an afternoon session and decided to spend a little more time sight seeing in 20 – 30meters of water on the edge of the reef. Shoals of unicorn fish, rainbow runners, and big triggers swam around us. The odd king mackerel patrolling by and Eric got a glimpse of a small Dogtooth Tuna of about 10kg. We dived hard off the drop offs in search of Dogtooth but unfortunately they seemed not to be around. (I will be back soon for a doggie!) Eric got half a shot on about a 30kg Yellow fin tunny which sped past him at about 18m. Unfortunately he lost this one. Back in the blue I managed two more wahoo of around 15kg.

Wednesday 3rd, our last day and unfortunately the weather had turned. We decided to still head out and give it one last go. The morning was slow but was broken up by a swim with humpbacked whales. Two adolescents with big mama. They were moving fast and we were careful not to stress them, so kept our encounter brief, but what an awesome experience to be in the open ocean in blue water and have a 15 -20 meter whale come by you. We do what we do because we all have a sense of adventure and exploration. Only a diver understands the feeling of entering into a seemingly timeless place, the unknown, where nothing is predictable and beneath the waters surface seems not of the world that we come from. Seeing those whales made me think of my 6 month old boy and that he deserves to experience the same moments. We have a responsibility to ensure that this is possible.

Another 20kg wahoo

The second half of the day saw Eric and I get one wahoo each. My final fish of the trip will probably be the memory which gets me through the next few months before the next time I get into water like this. I had my flasher at 15m and I dropped down to just below it and hung for awhile. I saw him come in towards the flasher out of the corner of my eye. He was swimming in quite quickly and as I turned slowly to face him he did a 180 degree turn and headed away at speed. I kept my gun pointed in his direction and turned my body and head away from him. I waited…… He turned around and headed back. I could just make his shape out of the corner of my left eyeball. I waited….. Slowly I turned my head to face him keeping my body facing the other way. He came nearer. My gun was already in position and he turned broadside…….. click……. for the final time on what had been a truly memorable five days of diving. I slowly ascended and smiled as my first buoy got pulled down past me just before breaking the surface.

13.5kg Wahoo

Thanks for the memories Eric and Ali! See you soon.

Andrew Johnson


Foreword by Eric Allard

I have been spear fishing Tanzanian waters for the past 16 years, but nothing had prepared me for the five days of amazing spear fishing with my new spearo mate, Andrew Johnson, off Kilwa in southern Tanzania. Never before had I seen such large schools of wahoo, with one school numbering at least fifty or more fish on my reci day before Andrew’s arrival. Over the ensuing five days I spear fished with Andrew, more and more large schools of wahoo, in beautiful bright blue water, came by us. Coupled with our encounters of bottlenose and spinner dolphins, hammerhead sharks, turtles, and humpback whales, our experience was truly an exceptional one, reminding us of just how blessed we are not only to be able to experience such experiences, but even more so that we live so close to them. I wish onto you all such experiences and naturally, good hunting.
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