Spearfishing is a dangerous sport, but with the proper knowledge and techniques, you can drastically minimize the risk. Done correctly, spearfishing in most situations can be done quite safely.
This guide will break down the dangers of spearfishing into four categories: Risk of drowning, gun safety risks, the dangers of marine life, and risk from your surroundings. It will also the cover the ways you can reduce and manage all of these dangers.
Drowning risks in Spearfishing
Drowning is the leading cause of death in spearfishing, but it can be caused by a number of different factors. Here’s how to avoid them all
Shallow water blackout
Shallow water blackout (SWB) is the single greatest risk in spearfishing for both beginners and experienced spearos. SWB is caused by low oxygen in the brain, and it is sometimes also called hypoxic blackout. Essentially, SWB is fainting in the water. A diver experiencing SWB suddenly falls unconscious, usually at the end of the ascent from a deep dive.
To avoid SWB, you should follow all freediving best practices including:
- Use good breathing techniques, and never hyperventilate
- Always take your snorkel out of your mouth when you dive
- Only dive when you are well-rested, hydrated, and physically well
- After each dive, spend at least three times the duration of that dive resting at the surface
- During your ascent, slow down for the final 7 meters (23 ft) before the surface
- After surfacing, don’t exhale all your air; take a few quick breaths to resupply your body with oxygen, then slowly start taking deeper breaths
The above will help you reduce the risk of SWB, but you cannot eliminate it. SWB can strike at any time to divers of any experience level, and it usually hits with no warning. The way to eliminate the most of the danger is to:
- Never dive alone, especially when doing deeper dives
- Use a one up, one down system with your buddy
- The spearo at the top should watch his buddy as he’s surfacing and use hand signals and eye contact to check that he or she is ok
- After the diver surfaces and breathes up, check once more that they are ok
- If the diver blacks out and starts to sink, the buddy should recover that diver and bring him or her to the surface with one hand placed under the jaw to ensure their mouth stays closed
- hold a blacked-out diver at the surface with their mouth and nose out of the water and remove their mask
- They should come to quickly but don’t keep diving after a SWB. Call it a day
- Consider taking a CPR course in case they don’t recover quickly, or have water in their lungs
Other drowning risks
It’s obviously important to be a good swimmer and in good physical shape for spearfishing. You should be able to swim a long-distance or tread water to stay afloat even if you somehow lose your mask and fins. The biggest drowning risks occur from:
- Strong currents which can pull a diver faster than the diver can swim. Know the area you’re diving and don’t go out if conditions are bad.
- Entanglements happen. The seafloor is covered in old nets and fishing lines that can easily entangle you. The worst thing you can do is panic. Calmly use your knife to cut away the line. Try to see any potential entanglements and steer clear of them.
- Entanglement in your own line is a real danger. Your reel line or float line can easily wrap around your leg while you’re fighting a fish. A big fish can then pull you under. Have your buddy help manage the slack when you fight in a fish. If you are ever pulled under, immediately use your knife to cut your line. Saving your life is more important than saving your gun.
- Two is one, one is none. Carry two cutting tools. In any entanglement situation, you’ll be fighting panic while pulling out your knife. If you drop it or it too gets tangled up, don’t let that be your only chance. Carry a second knife or a pair of shears as a backup.
Safely handling your speargun
speargun accidents are the easiest to avoid, and there is honestly no excuse for them. If you handle your gun properly, you will never have any accidents or close calls. Follow these speargun-handling best practices and you’ll always stay safe:
- Never point your gun at other divers. It doesn’t matter that the safety is on; safeties fail and guns misfire. Always keep your gun pointed well away from other people.
- A speargun out of water should never be loaded. Don’t load your gun until you are in the water. Unload it before you take it out of the water, even it it’s just for a minute. If you have to swim through strong surf to get to your spot, keep it unloaded while you’re fighting the waves.
Risks from marine life
This is probably what most people assume is the biggest risk, and it’s true that there are a lot of creatures in the ocean (and in fresh water) that can kill you. However, marine animals are actually a much lower risk to spearos than the other dangers in this guide. Still, they need to be accounted for. Here are the biggest risks:
- Jellyfish – there are a lot of types of jellyfish and they range from harmless to deadly, with a lot of painful levels in between. The most important thing is to know the risks in the area you’re diving, and wear the appropriate protection (wetsuit, booties, gloves, hood etc.). Keep an eye on your buddy at all times. Most jellyfish stings are not lethal themselves but can cause drownings if nobody can assist the victim.
- Stonefish – Stonefish are the most venomous fish in the sea. The positive is that they are completely docile; you will only get stung if you step on one or land on it. The negative is that they have incredible camouflage and are quite hard to see. Anytime you are landing on the bottom, give a good scan to make sure there are no stonefish there. Wearing a wetsuit might stop the spines from penetrating, but it’s no guarantee. Scorpionfish are usually slightly less deadly, but also quite camouflaged and pose a similar risk.
- Fish attacks – There are some fish species that may attack you. barracuda are aggressive and are known to attack at shiny objects. Trigger fish are highly territorial at certain times and are known to bite. This may be painful and require some first aid, but as long as you don’t panic and safely return to the surface, you will walk any fish attacks with nothing more than small scars and a good story.
- Hiding predators – There are more dangers lurking in holes and caves. Do not reach into holes or under ledges that you can’t visually inspect. Reaching in blindly gives you a good chance of getting a handful of painful sea urchin spines, but there are risks from creatures like the highly venomous blue-ringed octopus as well. Moray eels are also known to bite down and not let go, and a large one could be impossible to pull out of its hole. Honestly, this is a very unlikely situation, but it is one of the reasons to carry a knife and a backup.
The risk of a shark attacks while spearfishing
When your friends ask you about spearfishing, sharks almost always come up. People have such a deeply-ingrained fear of sharks, but the truth is that the risk is pretty low. With that said, spearing a fish puts blood in the water and a panicking fish sends out electrical impulses that sharks pick up on even over long distances. These two things do often attract sharks.
For the most part, sharks see you and want nothing to do with you. You are not their normal prey and the risk in attacking you is a risk they’d rather avoid. In their excitement they may come in pretty close, and you will want to have your gun to prod them away. If there are sharks around and one guy is fighting a fish with no gun in hand, the dive buddy should be right there with him defending against sharks if any come in close.
This might sound nuts, and it kind of is. You do see it pretty often with a lot of spearos on YouTube, especially Australians. You can see it in this clip from the awesome Youngbloods YouTube channel, and there are plenty more videos of these encounters if you want to see more.
Honestly, the risk is low but not nothing. Most people probably aren’t ballsy enough to literally be fighting off sharks to protect their catch. If you see sharks hanging around where you’re spearfishing, it’s probably best to move spots.
Lastly, in any areas where there may be sharks, it’s best to get your fish out of the water as soon as possible, and bleed them out on the boat or shore.
Risks from your environment
Most of the biggest dangers of spearfishing besides shallow water blackout come from your environment, especially when you are around structure like oil rigs, bridges, piers, shipwrecks, and caves and swim-throughs. Basically, unless you’re pretty experienced and very comfortable in the water, you shouldn’t be spearfishing these areas.
These types of structures have a lot of additional risks. For one thing they are magnets for fishing line and nets and have very high entanglement risk. In any tight spaces, one panicked fin kick can reduce visibility to nothing in an instant. Finally, the risk of a head injury while surfacing, especially around oil rigs, is one of the most deadly in all of spearfishing.
Don’t try diving these areas until you are a comfortable diver, and even then it’s best if you can find more experienced spearo to show you the ropes.
Yes, spearfishing is dangerous, but it is absolutely worth it
Everyone has to decide for themselves if spearfishing is an acceptable risk. That said, the risk is mostly manageable and when done properly, spearfishing is actually pretty safe in most environments. Start slowly, try to go out with more experienced spearos, and know the specific risks of the local area you’re in. The risk can be greatly reduced, but never eliminated. For most of us, that’s part of the fun 😉