Coral encounters and ‘spine’ surgery

Fishing the Coral Sea was a long held dream of mine, which became a reality when I joined Darren Shields from Wettie and 11 others on a spearfishing trip there in August.

We flew into Cairns and spent 10 hours steaming overnight to reach our various spots, with Ribbon Reef being the furthest point.

With five full days in the water, there was plenty to see and the hours flew by. It was a far cry from what I’m used to in Marlborough, with 9-10 degree temps and a whopping three metres viz being the norm. Here was “luxury lad, sheer luxury”; 23 degrees and 30 metres viz! It certainly was a treat to be there.

The Norcat 11 slept 16 and towed two 6m dories, which they would use to zip us around the reefs and tip us over the side in pairs.

I had expected to see sharks and was not disappointed; the first gliding in for a look within 10 minutes. They weren’t too aggressive, but they did need to be watched— caution being the key. I only lost one fish to a shark but enjoyed the daily experience of encountering them.

Other challenges soon presented themselves; everything was bigger and more wary than what we encounter here in New Zealand and more difficult to shoot in the clear water, with my spear falling short a lot. Spending time target practicing on a fixed object would have been a good idea but I eventually worked it out.

If you didn’t dive almost directly on top of the fish, it would soon just fin off with no chance of a shot.

Once secured, the fish were a lot larger than what they appeared swimming around on the bottom. The coral trout in the pic was a classic example of that.

After the first couple of days, I started getting a little bit of vertigo, which wasn’t pleasant, so I spent the next day swimming amongst the coral in the shallows. Surprisingly, this was the highlight of my trip. The amazing fish life and colours were really something else and it’s as vivid as the pictures you see. Even in the shallows, there was still plenty of target species and sharks. The fish would range from a large school of 2030kg Māori wrasse barrelling around, to the tiny bright coloured fish darting in and out of the coral.

I managed to shoot seven different species, including a one spot snapper, which unfortunately slipped out of my hand and embedded a spine very deep in my hand. Let’s just say it took two surgical operations to remove it. But that did not take away from the trip at all!

The fish were filleted and frozen and we all got a poly bin to bring home. They tasted amazing and it was great to get the chance to try something new.

It most definitely was a trip of a lifetime for me.

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