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Local freedivers hunt both seafood and serenity.

Randall Pierson

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bryan Mabrey slides off the side of a red, 16-foot Tarpon kayak. He’s a half mile from shore, 24-inch plastic fins strapped to his feet. Armed with his favorite spear gun, he’s hoping an olive kelp bass awaits him below.

“They’re the smartest and tastiest kelp bass,” he says. “Pretty hard to kill.”

He’s been spearfishing in these waters for six years and has found his undersea sprees bring meditation. There is profound quiet, a rhythmic sway to the kelp. Sunlight sifts through a green canopy. It’s an aquatic temple.

“I think clearer down there,” he says. 

Other sensations enhance the relaxation, adds longtime Monterey Bay freediving instructor Dan Silveira.

“Freediving is like slow-motion flying,” he says. “Time slows down.”

But serene as it may be, the bay poses plenty of danger to freedivers who plunge, without scuba gear, to depths of up to 100 feet. It’s a balance of peace and menace, like yoga in a prison yard. The greatest threat is drowning. Self-attention is critical, because oxygen deprivation can be as sneaky as it is lethal, dulling senses, disorienting divers and inducing false calm.

“If you don’t understand signs and symptoms,” Silveira says, “it can be fatal.”

Sharks happen: In 2004 an abalone freediver and friend of Silveira’s was decapitated by an 18-foot white shark in 15 feet of water off Fort Bragg.

Not that it stops Silveira. Rather, it almost empowers him.

“I realized that no matter how many sharks I see, I’m addicted,” Silveira says. “There is no point in being paranoid.”

That’s not just talk. He’s been face-to-face with an 8-foot white off Catalina Island. “When a shark shows itself, you’re safe,” he says. “It’s the one you don’t see that hits like a freight train.”

It’s hard to imagine peace amid such peril, but for some it is precisely the hyper-awareness that brings serenity. “No other thought can enter your mind,” Silveira says. “You’re completely focused on what you are seeing and doing… purely in the moment.” 

The descent to the bottom is straight down, head first, hands close to the body, one clutching a spear gun of African mahogany and stainless steel.

The clock is ticking. The breath Mabrey took 45 seconds ago will only last him another minute.

Ahead a crevice appears stark against a bright background of undersea shrubs and starfish. He positions himself directly over the rocky crack. 

A large ling cod’s fin reveals itself just past the mouth of the cave. Mabrey’s heart beats slowly against the inside of his 7-millimeter wetsuit. He pulls the trigger. The spear enters above the 18 pound fish’s left eye and exits behind its right gill. A “stone shot,” or instant kill.

Free divers need to remain steady despite the excitement. While the best can hold their breath five minutes, explains Adam Lester of Bamboo Reef Enterprises, foolish efforts can drain oxygen and awareness.

“Free diving is the art of being Zen,” he says. “It’s about slowing your heart rate and staying calm. Your movements are deliberate. It can save your life.”

The Monterey Bay’s list of tasty targets is long: blue rock fish, kelp rock fish, olive rock fish, ling cod, vermilion rock fish, copper rock fish, kelp bass, halibut, sand dab, perch, California sheephead, scorpion fish and Pacific barracuda, among others. Still, Mabrey, who is vice president of spearfishing club Monterey Bay Tritons, estimates there are no more than 100 active locals. Since regulators know there are few of them and their techniques are inherently more selective than an undiscerning net, spear carriers are permitted to hunt many species year-round, as long as the spots are not marine protected areas like the coastline between the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Breakwater Cove or Point Lobos.

“Spearfishing is by far the most sustainable way to catch fish,” Lester says.

California Department of Fish and Game marine biologist Matt Michie agrees. “What they do is a drop in the bucket compared to commercial fishing. Spear fishers can be selective, and they don’t target protected fish,” Michie says.

There are other rules besides don’t shoot the rare fish: Don’t load your spear gun on land or in the boat. Avoid crowded spots – most spear guns propel steel-tipped projectiles 30 feet. Don’t dive without a knife, or kelp tangles can turn gnarly fast. One more, adds Silveira: If you drop a dead rock fish, do it with its poisonous spine pointed up and away from your foot.


Learn more at Bamboo Reef, 614 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey, 372-1685, or

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