The art of spearfishing on Guam
Imagine free diving 30 feet to the ocean floor. You remain calm as you hold your breath, waiting for your target to come with shooting range.
Your spear pierces the fish’s body. Swimming to the surface in search of fresh air, you drag along your catch of the day.
Since ancient times, the Chamorro have been one with the ocean, passing on their fishing skills from generation to generation. Spearfishing was one of the original ways of hunting for food on Guam, and the tradition continues today.
“My father taught my brothers and me how to fish using hook and line at a very young age,” said James Borja, 43, president of Marianas Underwater Fishing Federation. “As kids, we spent our weekends and holidays at the beach. The water was our playground and we enjoyed fishing as it was always exciting to catch something and eat our catch.”
At the age of nine, Borja took his fishing to another depth.
“I began spearfishing along with my brother and cousins,” he recalled. “Since there was no spearguns available on Guam back then, we built our own out of wood, stainless steel scrap and copper tubing.”
Even though the improvement of technology has brought forth spearguns that are triggered by compressed gas and the use elastic slingshots to hunt fish, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed for Borja: free diving and a holding his breath as he searches out his ocean prey. After 35 years spearfishing, he can easily hold his breath for more than 2 minutes and dive close to 100 feet.
His biggest catch is 96-pound Napoleon Wrasse which he caught at the depth of 90 feet off Guam. Even though there are bigger fish deeper down, he says that he prefers to dive 5 to 30 feet all day with his buddies.
According to Borja, the majority of spearfishing is done up on the reef from 5 to 60 feet in Guam because the fish congregate along the shallow reef and slope, including the popular targets parrot fish and unicorn fish.
For Borja and his buddies, safety is a major player.
“If you dive 80 to 90 feet while holding your breath and spear a larger fish, it is rather difficult because if the fish struggles, it much harder work and you are facing danger,” he continued. “When you swim up, you need to think about shallow water black out. A minute to a minutes and a half is enough time to make a dive, spear fish and come back to the surface safely.”
It takes lot of practice and many experiences to be a good “angler,” he cautioned, saying it is good to practice snorkeling first so you can get comfortable in the water. According to Borja, you must be comfortable in the water and be able to hold your breath for at least a minute.
“Anywhere off Agat is a good area to practice because it is usually calm,” Borja said, adding that it is highly recommended you always dive with a partner. “North of Two Lovers Point is also good area. During the summer months, the water is usually calm and allows for access to the east side of the island.”
Today, breath-holding spearfishing is recognized as a competitive sport. Various tournaments and competitions are held all over the world, including the Micronesia region.
At the 2014 Micronesia Games in Pohnpei - an international multi-sport event held every four years - Borja and Michael Cassidy took the gold medal in the team competition with total of 99 pounds of fish. In individual event, Guam’s Ray Flores took silver with 49.9 pounds.
“We were very happy to win the Gold Medal during the 2014 Micronesian Games in Pohnpei,” said Borja. “We were defending the Gold Medal from the 2010 games in Palau. Although there are many fish in Pohnpei, the spearfishing was very challenging as the fish were easily spooked and difficult to spear.”
The tradition of spearfishing has been strongly rooted in Guam and you can see it at fish market. Next time when you visit Guam Fisherman’s Cooperative, you may want to check the heads and bodies of the fish.
“There is always a spear-mark on the fish if it is caught by speargun,” said Chris Ogo, a Fisherman’s Co-op representative. “Usually all fish speared are reef fish, which are very popular to eat in Guam. Most popular fish is parrot fish, and it sells out really fast.”
According to Borja, spearfishing has been getting even more popular in the past 10 years. It seems that as long as there is an ocean, the island spirit of Guam will always make people to go catch fish with spears.
“I grew up eating fish and I love fish. I can eat fish every day,” said Borja. “If I want to eat this a particular kind of fish, then I’m gonna go catch it. It’s a way of life for me.”
Tips for spearfishing
Editor’s note: Aquasmith in Saipan offers spearfishing lessons and course upon your request. Visit their site at www.aquasmith.com for more details.
- Don’t go spearfishing by yourself. Always have a dive buddy with you. Stay within sight of your dive buddy.
- Estimate the sea conditions, and make a dive plan with your buddy before you dive.
- Know your limits.
- You should always be correctly weighted with a quick release weight belt.
- Don’t dive without proper flags, rigging and float lines.
- Don’t dive if you have a cold or are congested.
- Ask a local about the location if you’re diving somewhere new.
- Don’t dive drunk or under the influence of any other substances.
- Don’t load your speargun outside the water.
- Don’t point your speargun at anyone - EVER.
- Always check your gear for wear and tear before diving.
- Spit your snorkel out at the surface before you dive. If you black out underwater, your mouth will stay closed and keep water from flooding your lungs - as long as your snorkel isn’t in your mouth.
- Spend twice as long at the surface, as your last dive to insure enough time to recover.
- If you see your dive buddy start to sink, unexpectedly stop or start blowing bubbles, help them to the surface right away.
- If your dive buddy has blacked out, revive them by blowing on their face and tapping their cheeks. Stay calm, so your buddy doesn’t panic and hyperventilate. Perform CPR if necessary.
- It is always a good idea to have a first aid kit on the boat or in your gear back at the shore in case of emergencies.
All forms of spearfishing, including scuba and free-dive, are prohibited off both Naval Base Guam and Andersen Air Force Base, according to military officials. The policy has been made to ensure the protection of military community members.
There are five marine preserves around Guam where spearfishing is not allowed.
Prohibited area: Pati Point Preserve, Tumon Bay Preserve, Piti Bomb Holes Preserve, Sasa Bay Preserve, Achang Reef Flat Preserve
For more information on marine preserves: http://www.marinepreserves.com/files/mpas.pdf
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Fanui Spearfishing Specialtie in Anigua