Last of the Blue-Water Hunters
Credit: Photograph by Woods Wheatcroft
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."


Related links:

Where to Get Hooked on Spearfishing

The Ryan Hunter-Reay Short List