Don't worry about the speargun!" Terry Maas barks at me. "I'll hand you the gun in the water. Just hurry up and get your wetsuit on!"
We're 25 miles off California's Santa Barbara Island, with the depth gauge reading 914 feet, and Maas's directives have me fumbling and a little unnerved, not least because I'm a semiseasick neophyte and he's easily the most famous spearfisherman on Earth, with four world records to his name, including one for a 398-pound bluefin tuna he shot in the very place where a shark killed his best friend. Maas also pioneered blue-water hunting: jumping off boats in the open ocean, carrying gigantic spearguns and even rifle shells – in case you have to slip one onto a spear tip to blast a shark – and then free-diving into the abyss in pursuit of aquatic big game. He's not the kind of guy who suffers fools.
Already in the water is the third member of our team: the burly and bearded David Laird, a legend in local dive shops. He's summoning me to a kelp paddy – a free-drifting clump of seaweed. "Yellowtail, Dan! Right here! Come on!" calls Laird.
After buckling on a big weight belt, I drop off the boat and find I have to kick my three-foot fins just to keep my nose in the air. From a speargun rack at the back of the boat, Maas selects a thousand-dollar Daryl Wong – a giant crossbow, except it doesn't have a bow and is more like a maritime bazooka, powerful enough to kill a thousand-pound fish or blow a hole in the boat. But first I have to cock it, a ridiculously awkward and difficult task, my arms straining to stretch three heavy rubber tubes from the top of the gunstock to the base of the spear. A hundred feet of tubular plastic cord connect the spear to a surface buoy; once I pull the trigger, in theory, the spear will detach and the fish will fight this so-called float line instead of me. But I've been warned that if I let the line tangle around my leg and then shoot something big, I could easily drown.
I snorkel over to the kelp paddy, where I see Laird's dangling legs and Catalina perch schooling together. Then I spot a genuine gold-and-silver California yellowtail, a.k.a. hamachi, about three feet long and 35 pounds, offering $300 worth of premium sashimi and the lifelong opportunity to say, at key moments, "Well, back when I speared my first yellowtail...."
But a slamming heartbeat doesn't help with complex operations that involve killing and not getting yourself drowned, so I try to breathe slowly.
A wave sloshes over my snorkel and I have to cough and spit out the water and start all over.
"Dan! Dan!" It's Laird.
I lift my head, noticing the boat, small and far away.
"It's over there!" Laird yells, pointing to where I already knew the fish to be. So I nod, dip underwater, and pull the trigger – missing by a country mile – and then watch the yellowtail vanish.
"Back on the boat! Back on the boat!" Maas screams. "The fish is gone!"
Not a moment after I crawl onto the deck, Maas cranks up the throttle and the boat lets out a cloud of diesel smoke and roars onward.
"A lot of blue-water hunting is like this, just run and gun," Maas says. "You got to know when to move."All over the warm-water world, from Fiji to the Florida Keys – everywhere authentic masculinity demands physical mastery of the sea – breath-hold spearfishing ranks with foul-weather sailing and giant-wave surfing among the ultimate encounters between the athletic male and the forces of nature. My father was into it when I was a kid. He'd tell me stories about grabbing his speargun after work at the concrete plant and hunting halibut off California's Balboa Island. I'd always wanted to learn, so I'd called every dive shop in California looking for somebody to teach me. They all mentioned the same two names: the cocksure 67-year-old Maas, a wealthy retired oral surgeon, real estate magnate, and spearfishing's leading expert, author of its definitive reference book, subject of its best documentary film, ''Blue Water Hunters,' and former host of the Outdoor Channel series 'Speargun Hunter'; and Laird, an unassuming 42-year-old who burns every spare second stalking fish, occasionally as a guide, but makes ends meet as a harbor diver, maintaining yachts by dipping underwater to scrub their hulls of algae and the like.
Maas told me to give him a call only after I'd learned the basics from someone else. So I spent three months with Laird, going out again and again near San Francisco, learning the breathing pattern that best fills your lungs before a long dive (four slow, deep inhales) and how to slip downward from the surface without a big splash (bend into the water, pointing one leg in the air and gun hand straight down). He taught me that a speargun is accurate to only about 10 feet, so the trick is to remain limp and calm, never looking a fish in the eye, letting it come to you. He even played mystical fish-whispering tricks like thrumming on the taut bands of a speargun or making clicking sounds in his throat to pique his prey's curiosity.
Most important, Laird prepared me for Maas: He told me Maas was gracious but competitive and cautioned me not to question his authority on his boat. He also counseled me to be careful when asking about Maas's children, given that his youngest son, an accomplished free diver, died in his teens while diving off Hawaii.
When I told Maas I was finally ready, he invited both Laird and me on a three-day trip to the world-class spearfishing waters around the Channel Islands. Maas looms so large in the sport that on the flight down Laird confessed to me that he'd been having performance-anxiety nightmares, dreaming fitfully about blowing easy shots on great fish and running out of air during pitifully short dives.
But he needn't have worried: It's Laird who gets the first fish on this trip, a beautiful 25-pound yellowtail speared at the very next kelp paddy. Maas guns the engine and roars onward once again.
"We're coming right up to this underwater mountain!" Maas shouts. "It's such a small spot I just want to get right on it." Then he screams out the window to Laird, "Go! Go! Drop the anchor!"
"See, this is bait," Maas explains to me, pointing at a dark mass on the LED screen of his computerized fish-finder. "The baitfish are right under us."
Little perch and blacksmith tend to edge out of the relative security of their local kelp forest, heading upstream into the current, in hopes of catching incoming food. The trick for us is to linger just upstream, where the big predator fish, like yellowtail, come cruising.
I am hypnotized from the moment I hit the water. Kelp crabs crawl up and down hundred-foot stalks, and multiple fish species swirl in the dappling light. But then I notice something else: a huge gray form, moving upward, coming toward me – a giant gray fin clearly visible behind the giant head. Wait a minute, that's not a shark, is it?
I look back and see the vague gray fish face growing closer, still huge and still bearing that fin – until it gets close enough that I can see it's just a giant sunfish. Harmless.
Back on deck, I find Laird hauling up yet another yellowtail and looking nervous; he doesn't want to piss off Maas, having caught two fish before Maas, who's been busy ferrying us to all his prize hunting spots.
"Please don't comment on my fish, okay?" Laird tells me. "Don't make a big deal. He's our host."
But then Maas appears, also dragging a yellowtail.
"Oh, thank God," Laird says to me, quietly.
"So whose is bigger?" Maas asks, laughing. "I think yours is!"
"No, no. Yours is bigger, Terry. See, it's wider."
"That's 'cause I was waiting, and I didn't take an easy fucking shot on a hundred goddamn…" Suddenly, Maas turns to me. "See, I'm just getting everything organized for my shot. There's about a thousand fucking yellowtail, and then this guy went across my path!" He gestures at Laird, and I can't tell if he is seriously disgusted or playing around.The death of Maas's son doesn't come up in conversation until our final evening, as we drink beers in a pristine cove, sun setting into the sea. Maas is picking at a supermarket rotisserie chicken (which he always brings just in case a hunt comes up empty) while Laird and I gorge on yellowtail sashimi and grilled yellowtail cheeks. After dinner, I ask Maas how his son drowned. He tells me flat out that he doesn't care to discuss it. But I know from the internet that Loren Maas was 19 and had been living in Hawaii when it happened, in 2001. Diving near a public beach, with a buddy trained in advanced dive-rescue, Loren had gone down 60 feet and then rolled over on his back to enjoy the view. Forty-five seconds had passed when Loren's friend got worried, wondering why Loren wasn't moving. The friend's pulse was racing so fast he didn't think he could handle a dive that deep, so he flagged down a passing boat and called county rescue. By the time they got to Loren, it was too late.
So I ask Maas about what I knew to be the single greatest danger in spearfishing: so-called shallow-water blackout. The human body responds to submersion as if we're still part fish – it's called the mammalian dive reflex – dropping your pulse, shrinking your pancreas, dumping red blood cells into circulation, upping the oxygen in your blood. Skin capillaries compress, forcing blood and oxygen back to your body core and brain, giving you a longer down-time than you'd expect. Experienced breath-divers learn to count on this, and they learn to ignore the body's early-warning signs, like a tightening throat, a spasm in the larynx muscles, and a panicky internal voice demanding that you bolt for the surface. Those warnings come early on, long before you're in trouble, so you'll never get anywhere in this sport if you pay them too much heed.
The problem is that if you get deep enough, they never return. Down around a hundred feet, you begin to feel superhuman, as if you'll never need to breathe again. The mounting water pressure, squeezing your mask against your forehead until it hurts, presses on your chest, too, shrinking your lungs to the size of your fist. The more they shrink, the more filled-up they feel, even when they're not. Coming back up, though, the water pressure suddenly drops and your lungs expand dramatically. There's no new gas to fill that void, and that's when the truly sinister part begins: A vacuum starts to form inside your lungs, sucking oxygen right back out of your blood. They call it shallow-water blackout because it hits most powerfully at around 15 feet. Out of approximately 10,000 active free divers in the United States, some 20 die this way every year.
Maas tells me that he'd blacked out three times by the age of 21, including a time in Florida after he'd shot a big African pompano and was dragging it to the surface. Next thing he knew, he was awakened by a knock on the head. He'd passed out on the way up, but somehow continued rising and eventually bumped into his own boat.
I have that story in mind the next morning as we pursue a new species – the elusive California white seabass. We separate from one another, fanning out in a shallow kelp forest. Shafts of golden light pierce the clear water, and I calm myself by focusing on what I'd been taught – holding my speargun so that it won't clank against my weight belt, sticking close to kelp clumps so I won't get silhouetted against the sky. I even clear my throat only above water, never below, to avoid spooking the fish.
From the surface, snorkeling, I soon witness something else I'd heard Laird and Maas talk about: how all the action in a kelp forest goes down in just a few so-called rooms. Rounding a bend in the greenery, I find myself in a clear, sun-filled cavern, light radiating from the leafy walls. Then I see a fish I know to be good eating – not a white seabass, but a perfectly respectable calico bass, about two feet long, thick and black. The calico has seen me, but it hasn't bolted, so I take a deep breath, slip underwater, stretch out my right arm, sight along the spear shaft, and pull the trigger.
The gun bucks and the fish dives with my line, pulling hard, but I manage to haul it up to the surface without much trouble. There I sandwich the twitching bass between my knees and set my knife tip atop its skull, just behind those eyes – a trick Laird taught me. I wiggle the blade back and forth, driving it into the brain to kill the fish, then head for the boat.
I tell the guys that I know it isn’t a trophy fish, but that I feel thrilled and satisfied.
"Oh, Jesus, Dan," says Laird, laughing kindly. "We stole your childhood! Taking you out here on your first real trip. That's a hell of a great fish! Either one of us, me or Terry, we would've been proud as hell to nail that calico when we were getting started."
Whether that's true or not, my calico did grill up nicely on Maas's hibachi. As we prepare for bed, rolling out sleeping bags on the cabin's little mattresses, I ask Maas about a project he's undertaken, perhaps to channel his grief over his son's death in a positive direction. He's joined a team developing an inflatable black nylon vest with a small tank of compressed air and a miniature dive computer, so you can preprogram it to inflate after a set time underwater or if it hits a particular depth. An unconscious diver, the reasoning goes, will get rocketed back to the surface.
"I was calling it the Freediver's Safety Vest, but that was stupid," Maas tells me. "How can I call it a safety vest in such an unsafe sport? I'd get my ass sued. So we've named it the Freediver's Recovery Vest."
"Do you think there's any risk that people will just use it to push their limits even more?" I ask.
"Absolutely," Maas says. "They will. I will."