Saturday, February 27, 2016

Spearfishing Ascension Island - Ascending Expectations

Original article written for the Ultimate Spearfishing Magazine. - Words & Pictures by Chris Coates
Ascension Spearing Information
MJK Spearfishing Ascension Island
Spearfishing Ascension Island. If there’s one thing I have learned from all the spearfishing trips I’ve been on, it’s to prepare for the best, but to lower your expectations. This way, you’re physically and mentally ready, with all the gear to get the job done well… while not expecting to shoot a world record in the first hour. High expectations are a killer on trips, especially when things don’t go according to plan. There’s nothing worse than missing out on enjoying and amazing holiday by getting bummed out because the trip was not exactly what you had hoped for.

Where am I going with this you might ask? Well, it was just past 7:30am and MJK and I had just landed on the tarmac at Ascension Island, and were waiting for Colin Chester to pick us up. Up until now we’d had months, weeks and now hours of talking about what we hoped to achieve on the trip. Knowing full well not to have unrealistic expectations, MJK turned to me and said, “So what’s the goal then?”

Trying my hardest not play it too safe, but at the same time have some sort of definite objective, I offered up, “a 100kg Tuna by the third day would be good.”

I honestly thought this would be a stretch but after a moment of contemplation we agreed that a 100kg fish by the third day would be a good, and possibly achievable, goal. If not by the third day, surely by the end of the trip we’d have a fish of that size. 

Colin arrived and we ran through the pleasantries while piling our gear onto the van. We jumped in, and Colin piped up, “You boys ready?” In retrospect I don’t think we quite understood what he meant. Not “are you ready to go?” but rather, “are you ready to dive?”

Totally oblivious to his plan, we trundled down the road to the Obsidian Hotel  in George Town. We’d barely checked in, when Colin turned to us with a big cheesy smile and said, “So, I’ll pick you up in about an hour then. Is that enough time to get your gear together?”
Obsidian Hotel  chalet accommodation Ascension Island
Obsidian Hotel the only hotel on the island.
Rather dumbstruck, I looked at MJK for approval before replying, “Uhh… sure, I think so…”

Colin smiled, gave us a thumbs up and chirped, “You boys better be ready, there are some good fish out there.”

We quickly headed off to our rooms to unpack the gear and set everything up. We hadn’t thought we’d be diving right away, let alone on the day we arrived. So out came the guns, cameras, suits and spears… all of which needed to be reassembled after the long trip to the island.

Surprisingly, it only took us about 30 minutes to get all our gear together and out of the my hotel room door. This was our first opportunity to really take in what would be our home for the next two weeks. The room opened out onto black volcanic gravel. Across the pathway was an old boat that had been repurposed as a flowerbed,but with no flowers. There were some plants but they looked seriously thirsty. The place was fairly sparse with only the occasional tree here and there. In the distance behind the hotel rose a red volcanic mound, with not a single sign of life other than the old WW2 canon buttresses about halfway up. We had been told that arriving at Ascension was like landing on Mars, but you really have to see it to believe it.
Obsidian self catering accommodation Ascension Island
My chalet in George Town with flowerless flower bed.
Before the hour was up an old Toyota bakkie rattled to a halt in front of us. Colin’s son Blaine jumped out telling us that the boat was ready and waiting. We loaded our gear and headed off between the buildings towards the sea. 

Arriving at the pier, the first thing you notice is how clean the water is. It is the most awesome blue you have ever seen and there are just loads of fish everywhere. Blaine walked up to the railing, said, “Check this,” and threw a piece of old fish carcass into the water. The water erupted in a feeding frenzy with Black Triggerfish all trying to get a piece of the action. It was not unlike what you would imagine a scene in a low budget Piranha movie to look like. 
george town ascension
George Town pier on Ascension
We left the Triggers to their business, and carried our gear down the stairs to a small landing on the side of the pier. There was a whole armada of boats moored out front, ranging from little dinghies and battered old fishing boats to a classy Marlin complete with outriggers and shiny stainless steel finishes.

“Which one is our boat?”, I piped up, as there was no boat even near the landing. Blaine, pulling his shirt off, pointed to a light grey and white inflatable rib in the distance, “We will use this one today, but then from tomorrow we have a different boat for you.” 
Mooring boats on Ascension Island
The mooring at Monkey Rock
Blaine dived in and swam the 100 metres out to the boat and brought it along the quayside. To cut a long story short, Blaine stopped the boat about 1.5km from the pier and said, “This should be good.” 

I peered around at the sounder to check out the structure. All I could see was a sounder reading of 68m. I looked across at the plotter and the nearest marked point must have been 200m away. 

My first thought was, “Does this lighty even know what’s cutting?” Not wanting to sound like a know it all or like a complete idiot, I asked, “So this is a good spot?”

Blaine, now up to his elbows in fish blood from stuffing sardines in the burley net, answered, “This whole area is good.” 

I must admit that at this point my confidence level was pretty low. I figured we would try this drift, get our gear wet and wash out all the cobwebs, and if we did not see a fish it would not be a big deal.

As we were about to jump in I could not help myself and had to ask Blaine how the drift was going to work. With a smirk he shrugged his shoulders half pointing out to sea saying that it should go out to sea, but that we would only know after the first drift. Not at all confidence boosting… I mean, we did not just travel all this way to do random drifts in the middle of nowhere.

MJK beat me getting into the water and by the time I reached him he had almost finished loading up his gun. It was fairly overcast and although the water looked really clean it did not have that ‘blue’ look I had seen in the pictures. I dropped the flasher and started to mush up a few sardines to get the burley trail going.
To the side I could see MJK dropping down to stretch his lungs. I dropped down to join him, check my weighting and flush out the haze from the past few days of travelling.

We both hit the surface, MJK checking out his gun while I headed back to the flasher and burley bag. I reached for some sards and broke them up in a cloud around me. When the cloud cleared, there was a Wahoo swimming below the flasher. I am not sure if it was because it was so surreal or if I was half asleep after not catching a wink during the flight out (despite having dropped a few sleeping tabs), but I just watched the fish swim past with out even moving a muscle.

When I came to, I turned to MJK, who was obviously feeling a whole lot sharper than I was. His arm was pointing in the direction that the fish had gone and he was nodding his head, making sure that I had seen it. He dropped down and hung mid water for a while. I thought, “What are the chances this fish comes back in again?” Sure enough the stupid fish turned around and swam right in front of MJK. Thwack! Aand the spear went in right behind the head. The Wahoo sped off, but gave up after only a few metres.

It wasn’t a big fish, but it’s always good to get the first fish on the boat and test that all the gear is working well. So the drift could not have been too bad if we saw and shot a Wahoo not long after jumping in. Blaine took us back to the area where we’d started, and I took some land marks so I could start getting an idea of what the drift was doing and where we were diving.

Back in the water I filmed MJK loading up and we started the burley process all over again. By now the cobwebs were gone and after the Wahoo my confidence levels were a lot better. We alternated diving down to the bottom of the flasher, which was at about 15 metres. Just some nice and easy diving to get the body working. Next thing, I saw MJK pointing into the blue and he started to head for the surface. As he came closer and he opened his arms out with a big gesture. His eyes were like saucers.

It does not matter what language you speak or where you are from, this means only one thing: BIG FISH! A massive Yellowfin Tuna had swam past out in the distance. Now, normally if the fish does not come in on the flasher your chance is lost and you have to wait for the next fish. We were happy we had at least seen a good fish and with the goal of getting one by day three, this was a good sign.

Then, I spotted a white line moving way down below. I couldn’t make out if it was a fish or even what part of the fish it was, but it was snaking along and had to be something. We both turned and looked at each other… something was there! I continued throwing out burley, this time with a couple whole sards, in the hope that whatever ‘it’ was would come back. 

Then there it was right below the flasher, a bulbous torpedo with a gunmetal blue-grey back, and massive long yellow sickles with long white tips. I remember the Cape Town boys explaining to me that when a Yellowfin gets real big its sickles get super long and start going white at the tips. The massive fish glided through, slowly picking out the chunks from bottom of the burley trail. Piece by piece the trail grew shorter and shorter and the fish was almost at the bottom of the flasher.

MJK and I were locked in the dilemma of what to do… when to dive and shoot the fish? I had seen how the Yellowfin in the Cape get very comfortable and come right up to the surface, so we decided to hold our nerve and wait for the fish to come in close. MJK turned to me as the fish took a whole sard right at the flasher level and gave me a thumbs up, the GO signal. I started my final breathe up and I was about to dive when the thumbs up was followed by a full flat hand. Ok what now?

What’s the problem? MJK pointed at another Tuna that had joined in feeding on the burley trail. Now there were two massive Tuna swimming around, but which was bigger? Each massive fish took turns to glide through and take some burley. And every time, the fish in front of us looked incredible, and had to be the one. Then the next fish would come in making it impossible to decide. For a good few minutes there was lots of pointing, gesturing and waving of hands, canceling the decision. 

The problem was that the two fish never came past side-by-side, so it was hard to pick which was bigger. Eventually MJK made the call to dive and I followed him down the burley line as he picked out a chunk that was most likely to be taken by the Tuna that was in range. I could see the two Tuna in the distance. One broke away and came right in for the burley. MJK set up his strike like a chameleon stalking a wary insect, his gun calmly and slowly extending as the Tuna came in range. Then thwack! The spear shot out and the Tuna fell like a WW2 bomber being shot out the sky.
Spearfishing Ascension Island Yellowfin Tuna
MJK and his first Ascension Island Giant Tuna
Now the game was on! The new 9mm blue water bungee from Rob Allen, which we were testing for the first time, went taught as the first 35l Remora float went tail up on the surface. This is the position the float would stay for the next hour as MJK battled the beast bit by bit back to the surface. Eventually, we reached the soft bungee, but with the bungee stretched all the way out plus the double wrap from the gun, the massive fish was still 25 metres away. Worried that the soft bungee might shear if we shortened it and tied it off in the clip, MJK decided that he would dive down with MAMBA roller gun and put in the final coupe de grace.

I follow him down, but I realised as I passed about halfway that I was bushed. Chasing after MJK being pulled around the ocean by a big fat Tuna had taken its toll. I decide to tap off and capture the action from above.  MJK powered down and finished the job. I could see he was labouring as he swam past me on his way to the surface. 

Now you would think that once a fish was dead, that it would be easy to bring to the surface, right? Well, as we were about to find out, Yellowfin are just solid dead weight! Eventually we got the fish up and tied the dynema shooting line off on the float so we could get some pics and landing shots. MJK went down and tried to swim the incredibly big fish up and his calf muscle cramped up. He aborted the dive and hit the surface, in obvious pain but laughing. 

We eventually took all the photos and decided to call it a day. Back on the boat there was a bit of back and forth estimating the Tuna’s weight, so we were all keen to see what the scales said. We were greeted back at the pier by Colin, who took one look at the fish and called it over 100kg. Now, knowing that our goal was to get a 100kg fish by the third day, he looked at his watch and said with a big smile, “And it only took you 4 hours… not 3 days! What do you think about that boys?” Truth be told, we did not know what to think. It was crazy. Beyond what we had ever hoped or imagined. 

Now Steve Ellis, who was also there guiding some guys from South Africa, saw us coming in and came strolling along the pier to see what we had got. This was Steve’s third trip to the island and he had been instrumental in helping me put the trip together with Colin, so you can imagine his joy to see us with a great fish.

It was all hands on deck man-handling the giant fish up the 20 metres of steps to the top of the pier and to the fish cleaning station. We hoisted the fish up and the scale read out 118kg, which was followed by much cheering and back slapping.

This was the first of 14 dive days and the first of many 100kg plus Yellowfin.  If you can imagine that standing next to a Tuna of over 100kg is a surreal feeling, then I have no idea how to explain the days that followed.

Ascension is probably one of the most remote places in the world, and fairly challenging to get to. By that I mean it’s not just down the road. You need to fly via the UK and hop on the RAF plane that flies weekly to the island. You also need security clearance, as it is essentially a military base. It does seem like a mission but it’s not like ‘Africa’ and first word logic makes the organising fairly painless.
Steve Ellis, Myself, Dennis Vreet & MJK up on Green Mountain
But now that the cat’s out the bag as to what a Tuna hot spot ‘The Rock’ is, it was no surprise that besides ourselves and Steve’s South African group, more guys would be there. Cameron Kirkconnell and Perrin James arrived in the second week with two groups of guys, including Eric Allard and Nigel Spencer from Tanzania, and Hamad Al Fouzan and his friends from Kuwait. It was like a mini ‘who’s who’ of spearfishing, and although there was no formal competition, everyone was trying to beat the 147kg beast shot by Paul Shannon, who was part of Steve’s crew.
Ascension Island Yellowfin Spearfishing Record
Paul Shannon's 147kg Ascension Island Yellowfin Record with Steve Ellis
With the bar now raised, 100kg fish weren’t going to cut it anymore and the decision was to take only bigger fish. The problem was how to tell the difference between a 110kg and a 140kg fish? With so many divers, MJK and I decided stick with the small cat called ‘Swamp Dog’ and Blaine as our guide. This turned out to be a really good move as Blaine had us on the fish every single day without fail.

Big Eye Tuna Record MJK 94kg Ascension Island
MJK 94kg Big Eye Tuna
There were so many fish, and so many opportunities, but we just could not break that elusive 140kg mark. We did get a massive 94,3kg Big Eye Tuna, which at the time doubled the world record… only to get broken again a week or so later by Paulo Afonso in the Azores with a massive 110kg fish. We had also decided to only take one fish a day and by halfway through the trip MJK stopped shooting altogether. We just spent the last few days watching 100kg fish swim past. 
ascension yellowfin tuna spearfishing trips and charters
MJK and another 100+ Yellowfin
This meant for the first time that we were able to put away the guns and video cameras and just take photos, something I very seldom get a chance to do. We had some great encounters with Whale Sharks and even a massive Black Marlin that came in to have a look at a Tuna we had speared. We did not see as many Wahoo as we had hoped, but did not spend much time on the spot where Wahoo are normally seen. We were focused on the Tuna.
 Ascension Island Whale Shark swims and tours
Whale Shark having fun with MJK.
ascension island best free swimming tuna photography
No gun just having fun swimming with Giant Yellowfin Tuna
Eventually, the days counted down and our time in the water was almost up. We had a couple of good size Tuna coming in and out of the burley trail but nothing in the 140kg range. This was possibly going to be our last opportunity and MJK handed over the MAMBA roller gun I had put together for him and said, “Best you take one before it’s too late.” 
Coatesmans Spearfishing Charters
Me taking a selfie while pretending to shoot a tuna.
So I handed him the camera and switched into hunting mode. You have to understand that by now I had practiced this shot in my head a hundred times during the last two weeks, so when the fish came in I knew exactly where I wanted to be and exactly how I wanted to place the shot.
Spearfishing Yellowfin Tuna Chris Coates
My PB Yellowfin last day last dive at Ascension
The MAMBA roller gun did not fail and switched off the 98kg tuna. The spear went right through the fish and the double barb got stuck in the thick cheek plate on the other side. Put it this way: that fish was going nowhere. What an epic way to end possibly the most insane two weeks of spearfishing I have ever experienced. 
More  Giant Free Swimming Tuna
Our time on the island had come to an end. It seemed so short and somehow all the days blurred into one another. We sat in the hotel on the last night swapping fish stories with all the guys and it was difficult to discern on which day we shot which fish. I guess this is a sign of a truly crazy awesome trip, and a sign that maybe Ascension is that one place where you can have great expectations that don’t let you down.
ascension island spearfishing dreams
Every Spear Fisherman's dream is to have 100kg+ Tuna like this swimming around them.

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