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Free Spearits : Free-Diving Spear Fishermen Boldly Go After Big Game in a World Where the Hunter Often Becomes the Hunted

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Harry Ingram said he will never forget the malevolent stare the great white shark gave him in the moments before the attack.

“I’m looking around and I see the shark come up . . . and I’m looking at that right eye, that big black eye, getting closer,” Ingram said the other night, during a meeting of the Long Beach Neptunes, a club of spear fishermen.

“And I hollered, ‘Shark!’ and then, ‘White shark!’ And the reason I hollered white shark was because I wanted the guys to know what killed me if they didn’t find me.”

That was in 1984, and Ingram considers himself fortunate to be able to relive that fateful day in the cool, unusually murky water surrounding Guadalupe Island off Baja California.

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He and fellow Neptunes Tom Blandford and Vance Carriere, and another diver, John Anderson, had their hearts set on hunting the giant bluefin tuna known to frequent the area.

Having arrived late in the afternoon, they hurried into their wet suits, grabbed their spear guns, slipped into the water and went their separate ways.

Blandford was the first to locate the tuna, 100- to 150-pound beasts that “materialized” in the blue haze in the distance. He swam close enough to shoot one, but it sped off and snapped the line attached to his gun.

Another school appeared, this time swimming right by Blandford. He took aim at one of the bigger fish and shot, scoring a direct hit behind the gills. The fish raced off, towing Blandford, who was holding onto the line, and then diving down and out of sight.

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Suddenly, it stopped pulling. Blandford followed the line to the spear and found nothing but “a mass of blood and particles of flesh suspended in a ball.”

When he surfaced, Ingram yelled, “Shark!”

A massive great white, which apparently had just eaten Blandford’s tuna, was still hungry. After sizing up Ingram, it charged.

“This all happened in a period of a few seconds,” Ingram said. “I knew divers who had white sharks swim around them but not attack and I thought, ‘Well, this thing’s not going to attack me,’ and about that time he turned and-- boom! He was on me, from 30 feet away. It was that fast.”

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Ingram had been aiming at the shark, and when it attacked he pulled the trigger. His spear hit the shark, but didn’t slow it. The shark plowed into the tip of the gun, driving its butt into Ingram’s shoulder, launching him out of the water. He rolled over the shark’s back and found himself in the middle of a violent whirlpool created by the thrashing shark.

“The gun knocked me out of the way,” Ingram said. “I was waist high out of the water, and Tom and a couple of guys on the boat said I was eclipsed by the dorsal fin. It was a big white shark.”

Blandford swam to Ingram’s aid. Carriere and Anderson had left the water and were on the boat. They launched a smaller, inflatable boat and paddled to the two divers and helped them aboard.

Ingram suffered only a bruised shoulder. He still dives, but says he will never go back to Guadalupe Island.

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As a Neptune, Ingram belongs to what fellow diver Terry Maas calls “far and away the preeminent group of free-diving spear fishermen in the world,” free-divers being those who use no breathing apparatus.

Maas, 51, has 37 years’ experience spearfishing in the world’s oceans and holds two world records: a 398-pound bluefin tuna and a 255-pound yellowfin--both speared in shark-notorious waters off Mexico.

Maas has drawn on his experiences, and those of others, to publish a book, “Bluewater Hunting and Freediving,” that describes the beautiful but dangerous world in which he and his fellow divers hunt.

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In the book, available through dive shops and Maas’ Ventura company, Bluewater Freedivers, Maas devotes a chapter to sharks and the experiences divers have had with them.

Maas is one of them. He was hunting yellowfin at the Revillagigedo Islands off southern Mexico several years ago when he had a premonition that he was being followed.

He turned and saw a 14-foot tiger shark swimming just behind the tips of his fins. He flinched, pulling his legs in, and his sudden movement sent the shark scurrying for cover.

“That was a fright,” Maas said. “But my biggest scare was when [fellow diver] Rene Rojas shot this yellowtail in Chile, and we fought off about five white tip sharks that went into a frenzy over the speared fish. They were just nipping at our heels. They were only about 100 pounds, but they kept nipping at us. It’s like I say in the book, it’s worse than a wolf pack attacking you because wolves come on you at a level. These come on you from the top and below, side to side. We were back to back in a defensive posture and wound up making it back to the boat.”

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One of Maas’ best friends wasn’t able to share his experience.

Al Schneppershoff, one of the most revered blue-water divers in the 1960s and early ‘70s, was also hunting giant tuna at Guadalupe when a great white appeared.

Like Ingram, Schneppershoff yelled, “Shark!”

Unlike Ingram, Schneppershoff wasn’t able to make it out of the water alive, on a sunny September day in 1973.

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Attending the Neptunes’ meeting last week was Schneppershoff’s son, Al Jr., who was only 9 and watching from the bow when the attack occurred.

“I was in the front waiting for him to come up,” Schneppershoff, now 31, said. “He finally came up and yelled, ‘Shark!’ He then let his weight belt off, took his mask off, and I ran to the back of the boat and told them something was wrong with my dad.

“So they drove the boat to him, and as they were pulling him up he yelled, ‘Tourniquet!’ I don’t think he realized . . . how severe the bite was.

“They pulled him onto the boat and I ran into the cabin. A few minutes later his best friend, Bob Henry, came in and told me it was over. I think, basically, that’s all he said, ‘It’s over.’ ”

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Al Schneppershoff Jr. still dives whenever he gets the chance, though he, like Ingram, has no desire to return to Guadalupe Island.

“I haven’t seen a great white yet,” he said. “But I’ve seen plenty of 10-foot sharks.”

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Sharks or no sharks, there is a growing number of free-divers discovering a wavering world offshore, where creatures big and small literally come out of the blue.

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Serious divers say they get a euphoric feeling diving unencumbered by air tanks and regulators, through amber forests of kelp or in azure seas that seem to have no bottom.

“It’s like being in space,” said Barry Wagner of San Diego.

As for the danger involved--not knowing whether it will be a school of tuna, a wahoo, a giant manta ray, a whale shark or even a great white that materializes in the haze--that is what makes the hunt so thrilling.

“When you survive over 50 years in this sport, you’ve got to love it,” said Dewey Hennessy, a longtime member of the Neptunes. “Every time you get in the water, you become the humblest guy on earth, and you do believe in God and Christ, right away. A lot of the times, you’ll be saying the Lord’s prayer when you’re diving in over 100 feet of water.”

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Said Skip Hellen, who last year shot a world-record 80-pound white sea bass off Palos Verdes: “It’s blue opium, an addiction. It is the ultimate adventure. When you go out there and jump in that open water, the basic laws that are structured here in our society don’t apply anymore.

“I mean, a big eater can come by and snap you in half and that’s it. Nobody goes to trial. . . . Maybe people cry, but, I mean, you’ve just thrown yourself back into the basic laws of nature. You have basically put yourself back in the food chain.”

Perhaps, but given the experience of some of today’s divers, and considering that today’s high-powered spear guns--with lines attached to floats to enable divers to track fleeing fish--are capable of subduing game fish of practically any size, blue-water hunters are only a notch below the great white.

Maas, like many divers, does not shoot merely any fish that happens by but primarily goes after possible world records. And the oral surgeon from Ventura is one of the best.

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He is able to hold his breath for 3 1/2 minutes and, on a typical trip, spends about 40 minutes of every hour underwater, diving for 1 1/2 minutes, then surfacing for 30 or 40 seconds between dives.

In his book, Maas explains that he has always been fascinated with hunting giant tuna--the yellowfin at the Revillagigedos and the bluefin at Guadalupe.

In the few years after Schneppershoff’s death, however, there was little interest in returning to Guadalupe. Maas said that in the months after the attack, regardless of where he was diving, he spent an “inordinate amount of time looking behind myself.”

Nine years passed before the lure of giant tuna became too much for him. He and Jim Mabry organized the first trip to Guadalupe since the attack on Schneppershoff. Fourteen people went.

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Maas was the only successful diver, though, shooting a 175-pound bluefin that eclipsed a 20-year-old record of 52 pounds.

Two days later, he shot another from 15 feet out. The massive fish streaked downward, taking the line and floats underwater. The floats brought the fish to the surface but it took off again, circling Maas for several seconds before rolling over and sinking. Maas eventually dived down and lassoed the tuna by the tail.

When it was lugged to the surface, nobody could believe the size of the fish, including Maas.

“I just couldn’t believe how big it was,” he said. “And then I couldn’t believe I got it.”

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He had, though, and when news spread of a 398-pound bluefin being speared, according to Maas, “It galvanized the free-diving community’s interest in blue-water fishing.”

And in fishing at Guadalupe Island.

Two years later, Ingram made the trip, and found himself face to face with a hungry great white.


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