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Pursuits: Big-Fish Story

On Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit, blue-water hunters go eye-to-eye with giants of the deep...

On Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit, blue-water hunters go eye-to-eye with giants of the deep.

When the wake-up call rang at 6 am, my eyes were wide open and my nerves on edge. In an hour, I would meet a catamaran that would take me 16 miles out to sea, where I would dive into open ocean and try to spear a gigantic fish. 

The sport—called blue-water hunting—is practiced around the world, but I was giving it a go in the clear sparkling sea off of Mexico’s lush Riviera Nayarit. Here, tuna, wahoo, and marlin can tip the scales at nearly 1,000 pounds. If you go hunting and are lucky, you will see one. If you are luckier, you will land one with a spear. During my visit here last year, a group of Brazilian guys (“office bellies,” my guide called them) shot a 686-pound blue marlin. The general manager of the St. Regis Punta Mita, where the Brazilians and I were staying, showed me a picture of the fish on his iPhone. It was as tall, and nearly as wide, as the Brazilian who caught it.

On that trip, I hunted in shallower waters just swimming distance from shore. My “speargun” was loaded with thick rubber bands and the reef was swimming with easy targets. I floated over it with a snorkel mask on and easily popped off fish the size of two of my outstretched hands. I came home with dinner that the St. Regis’s chefs prepared as a personal feast of sashimi, ceviche, fish tacos, and fillet.

But today was blue-water hunting. I could come home with dinner for 400.

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This time, there would be no easy targets: Giant pelagic fish swim up from the depths for the chum line that blue-water hunters release, more curious than scared. Hunters holding their breath 40 feet underwater cannot see the bottom, the surface, or any other reference point. When a fish comes up to take a good look, hunters are advised—in order to gauge the fish’s size—to compare the eye to the body. The smaller the eye appears, the larger the fish actually is.

Hunters ideally wait for a clean shot behind the gills, though fish this size rarely die with one shot; their adrenaline sets in and they take off swimming for their lives. So the hunter throws the gun to the people on the boat and everyone springs into action: The fish takes off, trailing a line connected to a buoy. The boat chases the buoy until it slows down, and then the hunter gets back in the water and takes a second shot. Spearfishing world records accept a second spear as long as it is loaded and fired by the hunter.

As I walked out of my room and down the beach to meet my guide, the ocean looked especially lurid by the predawn light of the moon. Sebastian Melani, the founder of Spearmex (formerly called Punta Mita Expeditions) and a world-record-holding blue-water hunter himself, was waiting. He offered his hand as I swung my bare feet over the side of the 30-foot catamaran Spearo 2. I spied the Riffe spearguns huddled together at the stern, leaning up against twin Suzuki 175 hp four-stroke outboards.

“The low pressure today makes for excellent conditions,” Melani said. “It brings the big tuna up to the surface.”

We pulled away from the sandy beach just as the sun was meeting the horizon, a postcard silhouette of palm trees and mountain ridges. Tropical Storm Simon, off the coast, was expected to be the last one of the season. The El Niño year had brought warmer waters and a parade of storms, so Melani had asked his spearfishing clients to stay away throughout September. After Simon, the satellite map was clear of weather systems down to Panama.

“I have 2,500 fans on Facebook, waiting,” said Melani, who charges $1,500 for an eight-hour day of blue-water hunting for up to four people, gear included. “As soon as I post a picture of the first big catch, the season will officially be started.” Melani’s clients across the globe would start organizing immediately. To have a world-class, all-inclusive spearfishing operation launching from a five-star resort makes it extremely convenient and popular. “After that picture is posted, I will have 150 to 200 bookings almost instantly.”

Today, October 4, could be the first day of a season that runs through March—if we spear a big one and I do not turn as blue as the water in panic.

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Trying to catch dinner with a sharpened stick is certainly nothing new; there are references to spearfishing that date back to ancient Egypt. In the 1920s, swimmers off of Italy and France started using goggles to better see and spear fish underwater. Modern scuba diving started in the 1930s thanks to spearfishing, and during the 1960s there was a campaign to make spearfishing an Olympic sport.

Spearfishing fell out of popularity after not receiving the Olympic nod, and the sport has yet to organize like scuba diving has with its PADI certification and worldwide teaching standards. Instead, spearfishing remains something hunters mostly learn from their fathers or from a friend with a boat. On the website spearboard.com, hunters organize informally to discuss everything from gear to charter trips. When Melani launched his Discover Spearfishing course in 2010, he did not know of another program like it.

Rules and regulations about spearfishing vary greatly across the globe. It is usually considered unfair and is often illegal to wear scuba gear while hunting, so blue-water hunters double as expert free divers. Novices can usually learn to reach 30 feet with less than a day’s training; experts, like Melani, dive to 100 feet or more and can easily stay underwater for 2.5 minutes. The office belly last year was no more than 25 feet down when he shot that marlin.

Melani learned to spearfish in Patagonia where he grew up. He studied marine biology in college and was hired in 2000 as a scuba instructor for the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita. He moved to Mexico to chase big fish and has since met clients with similar ambitions. Sitting next to me on the catamaran is 42-year-old Alejandro Andrés, a champion free diver and founder of the first free-diving academy in Argentina. Andrés joined Punta Mita Expeditions in 2014 to help Melani launch Mexico’s first free-diving and spearfishing school. His personal free-immersion free-diving record is 270 feet.

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Less than an hour later we reached La Corbeteña, a rocky seamount that attracts abundant marine life. Unique among blue-water hunting grounds, Corbeteña does not generally draw sharks. In more than 10 years, Melani has seen only a few hammerheads. Record catches for Punta Mita Expeditions clients in 2013 included a 318-pound yellowfin tuna, an 800-pound blue marlin, and a 620-pound black marlin.

Melani and Andrés used fishing poles to quickly catch two days’ worth of bonito for chum. Wearing fins, a snorkel mask, and an ocean-camouflage rash guard, I jumped into the open ocean after Andrés, while Melani and another client, a blond boat captain from San Diego, swam to the other side of the boat. Melani started a chum line, standard practice for blue-water hunters.

Before we began our first drift, Andrés taught me the graceful free-diver kick. He made it look easy, almost flying down through the water like a bird, while I splashed around at the surface, struggling against my own buoyancy. The next time he went under, I noted his launch—then rocked my body forward and perpendicular to the surface. My center of gravity shifted and suddenly I cut like a knife through the water and headed straight down. Far beneath the surface, everything seemed to melt away and the panic I anticipated alone in the open ocean did not take hold. Instead, a sense of peace, even bliss, washed over me. Oxygen deprivation? Perhaps. But I had entered an entirely new realm.

Through the endless blue, I glimpsed the silver flashes of a school of sizable wahoo—and Melani and the San Diegan down with them at fish-eye level, spearguns loaded. There was a snap as the San Diegan’s gun fired. No hit.

A sea turtle glided by, then a big yellowfin tuna, and more long silvery wahoo coming up from the depths. There were more shots taken, but none of us caught the big one that afternoon, though you could not tell from the sunny mood on the boat ride back to shore. A day spent in transcendent, clear water is hardly disappointing. 

Back home, I began scanning Punta Mita Expeditions’ Facebook page. On October 16, there it was: “A fun few days of #diving with Fabio from San Pablo,” read the caption. And there was the shot: Melani and Fabio each hold a wahoo nearly as tall as he is.

Next year, that shot is mine.

Spearmex, +52.329.291.6716, spearmex.com; St. Regis Punta Mita, +52.329.291.5800, stregis.com/puntamita

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​Water World

Blue-water hunting usually involves an uncomfortable overnight on rustic liveaboards or in beach tents. But a few choice spots around the world, such as the St. Regis Punta Mita, provide access to the big fish—and extremely plush accommodations. 


Kona Coast, Hawaii 

On the Big Island, guests at the Four Seasons Resort Hualālai at Historic Ka’ūpūlehu (808.325.8000, fourseasons.com/hualalai) meet Rob White, owner of Blue Water Hunter (808.331.2237, bluewaterhunter.com), at Honokohau Harbor, a 10-minute drive from the resort. Blue-water charters, priced from $800 for up to four people, operate year-round from 7:30 am to 1:30 pm. White runs a 20-foot Twin Vee, powered by twin 90 hp Yamaha four-stroke motors, to blue water as close as 15 minutes offshore, where mahimahi is the most commonly pursued catch, though ahi, ono, uku, and shark are also local. “The chance that we will see a shark is very high,” says White, who is something of a shark whisperer in his own right. “If you shoot a fish and a shark arrives on the scene, it is my job to swim down and bump the shark.” White assures us that only one or two fish are lost annually to sharks—and no humans.


Paje Beach, Zanzibar, Tanzania 

In 2014, an 11-villa paradise opened on the famed kitesurfing beach Paje in Zanzibar. If a private pool is not enough, when tides permit, Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa (+255.776.263.451, whitesandvillas.com) allows guests to launch a blue-water hunting excursion directly from the resort. The outfitter Extreme Blue Water Spearfishing (+255.787.1.38642, extremebluewaterspearfishing.com) operates a dive center 15 minutes by car from the resort. From August to mid-December and from late February through March are the best times to hunt in the Indian Ocean’s warm, clear waters. Equipment can be rented from the local Dunga Dive Store and delivered to the resort. The outfitter’s co-owners Eric Allard and Nigel Spencer began spearfishing together at age 8 on the coast of Kenya, where they grew up. Allard says clients should expect sharks but likely will not see them. “An encounter with a shark is always a privilege,” he says. “Shark presence indicates a healthy ecosystem and, in turn, other big fish.” Full-day blue-water charters are priced from $300, including equipment, for up to four people.


Bay of Islands, New Zealand

On New Zealand’s North Island, the 22-suite Lodge at Kauri Cliffs (+64.9.407.0010, kauricliffs.com) overlooks the picturesque Bay of Islands—home to world-record-breaking blue-water hunting catches including a 650-pound bluefin tuna and a 650-pound striped marlin. Spearfishing Charters’ (+64.21.632.080, spearfishingcharters.co.nz) principal, Sebastian Kramer, coordinates charters throughout the year by request with launches near Kauri Cliffs. For $120 for up to five people, Kramer provides a guide and a 20-foot hardtop Senator, powered by a Yamaha 150 four-stroke engine, for the day. Hunters can arrange to rent or buy equipment in advance and wear thick wetsuits in pursuit of snapper and yellowtail kingfish. “Big kingfish up to 90 pounds get landed every now and then,” says Kramer. “They are more common in the summer months between November and March.” Orcas, sunfish, and an occasional mako shark show up among the pelagic species. Closer to shore, hunters can dive for local snack foods: abalone, sea urchin, and green-lipped muscles. 

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A Marlin For the Mantel 

The most common trophies in blue-water hunting are dinner and a photograph of a hunter—sunburned and grinning—holding a catch nearly as big as she is. But when Sebastian Melani’s clients want something more, he recommends Gray Taxidermy in Pompano Beach, Fla. (954.785.6456, graytaxidermy.com). The 50-year-old company draws on its library of more than 10,000 fish molds to match the length and weight of a catch. Gray requests the fish’s type, length, and weight, and a photo to reference during the paint job—though the bill, teeth, and fins of the catch can be incorporated into the trophy.  

In taxidermy, fish are the most difficult animals to preserve. The skins of bass and other warmwater fish are commonly used, but saltwater fish are almost always re-created using artificial materials. At Gray’s, the fish mold is coated with several layers of fiberglass. Real or replica bills, teeth, and fins are attached, a hand-painted glass eye is placed, and an in-house master painter makes the fish mount come to life. For a 100-pound tuna measuring around 60 inches, the cost starts at about $1,000. For a 100-pound wahoo measuring around 78 inches, pricing starts at about $1,100.


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