Extreme Sport | From Desk Till Dawn

Spear fishing in Lombok

Taking one very deep breath, Tarquin Cooper plunges to the bottom of Indonesian waters to spear his supper – or at least try to.

October 21 2011
Tarquin Cooper

Spear fishing is the ultimate in self-sustainable eating. The prey is wild, the hazards are high, the field as equal as they come; and the rewards – particularly when grilled over a beachside barbecue – make it one of the purest forms of hunting. That, at any rate, is what Tim Watson, itinerant Lombok resident and avid spear fisherman, tells me.

“I love the adrenaline,” he says. “It’s not like you’re hunting wild boar from behind the safety of a 12-gauge. You have to hold your breath, and hunt by stealth and intelligence.”

Spear fishing involves plunging on a single breath of air to a depth of up to 20m (sometimes more), stalking your prey and firing a hand-held harpoon at a moving target before it realises you’re a predator – and before you run out of breath. The sport can be hugely dangerous; distracted by the chase, spear fishermen can push their limits, stay down too long and black out. And that’s the experienced ones. But it’s precisely this risk – the sporting challenge in the alien environment – that gives spear fishing its appeal. And the gear too, which is seriously cool. As for location, you can find sea bass to shoot at Dorset’s Durdle Door, but if you want bigger fish to, eventually, fry, you need to head to South-East Asia.

FRIDAY 1830

The flight to Singapore leaves bang on time. On board I weigh the viewing merits of Bridesmaids against the Vietnam War classic The Deer Hunter. The latter wins out: its famous one-liner – “Just one shot” – is prescient for my trip.

SATURDAY 1400

I land at Singapore Changi and instantly understand how people can be inspired to wax lyrical about an airport. I grab a coffee and wait for the 15.45 connecting flight to Lombok in Indonesia. Situated just east of Bali, the island is favoured by Asia insiders; it is blessed with beautiful, unspoilt beaches but, unlike its neighbour, it is not teeming with tourists or crammed with hotels.

SATURDAY 1930

I’m not easily blown away by hotels; but entering Tugu Lombok, I am quietly enchanted. My room is a beautiful villa reached by its own water garden. At its centre is the bed, quite possibly the largest I’ve ever seen. Such a pity to be alone, I reflect. At the back lies an outdoor shower and hot tub, its surface scattered with red hibiscus petals. Out the front is a plunge pool, a lawn and the beach. I’m spoilt for choice: where to cast my exhausted body? But first things first: off with the air-con. I want to feel the balmy warmth of my tropical idyll.

SATURDAY 2000

The front desk delivers a white envelope. I open it to find a mobile phone inside with a written instruction to turn it on and dial a number. The name beside it is Tim – it’s Watson, my ground agent, local guide and fixer. I dial the number.

“You’re getting picked up at 7.30am and driven to Teluk Nara. From there a speedboat will take you to Trawangan on the Gili islands. See you tomorrow,” he says, before adding: “And destroy the SIM as soon as we’ve finished.” Saluting the Jason Bourne reference, I crash out on the giant bed.

SUNDAY 0800

From the hotel it’s a 15-minute ride to the jetty and another 20 by speedboat to Gili Trawangan, Lombok’s reigning beach and party central, growing at the rate of a goldrush town. I’m here for a first lesson in freediving with a local school.

Under the tutelage of instructor Kate Middleton (yes, really), I learn how to lower my heart rate, which is vital for preserving oxygen and prolonging a dive, by “breathing-up”. We practise duck-dives, equalising the pressure in the ears, and cover “shallow-water blackouts”. These most commonly occur during the last few metres of an ascent, when the body runs out of oxygen; they can be fatal if you dive alone. “The body’s response is pretty cool,” says Middleton. “It’s called the ‘laryngospasm’ – the throat will literally close off.” It blocks you from swallowing water; provided a buddy’s there to get you to the surface, you’ll breathe normally when your body senses it’s back on dry land. “Usually they only last a few seconds,” Middleton adds. “But I’ve seen someone stop breathing for over a minute. That was quite scary.”

SUNDAY 1200

Tim Watson joins me for a surprisingly good crab-and-pepper panini at a café. He explains that the best place to dive is off the south coast, home to a wild and rugged coastline undamaged from dynamite fishing. “It’s where you find the pelagics and the bigger fish – Spanish mackerel and wahoo,” says Watson. “Last week I caught an 8kg dogtooth tuna. Locals will dive 40m and get 60kg tuna. They’re crazy, though.” Unfortunately, there’s a huge swell down south. And with an overcast sky and a downpour of rain, conditions are far from ideal in the north. Spear fishing is weather-dependent, and today the gods are not favouring us.

Undeterred, we charter a local boat to see what we can find. On the journey out to a reef Watson talks me through the gun, a beautiful piece made locally from teak wood. It’s remarkably simple. A harpoon slides into place on the top, and is cocked by pulling two thick rubber bands back like a catapult, which the trigger releases. “You want to aim behind the head and in front of the gills,” Watson instructs. “And if you’re lucky enough to spot a dogtooth, avoid eye contact. My friend swears that if you eyeball a tuna, it knows you’re hunting it.”

SUNDAY 1400

We slip over the side like frogmen on a mission and allow the current to take us over the reef. The hunt is on.

One of the first things we spot is a sea turtle. I don’t need to be reminded that we won’t be hunting them today – or any day. After a few minutes of slow and steady breathing, I take my first dive down. It doesn’t go to plan. With the excitement of the chase, my heart rate is all over the place, the gun is cumbersome and my duck-dive awkward.

I barely make it 5m down before I have to shoot back to the surface. I watch in awe as Watson, by contrast, sinks effortlessly as ballast, landing to hold a rock on the sea bed. There he waits, his spear gun ready. But there’s nothing – just skittish, nondescript reef fish.

“I won’t shoot at just anything,” he tells me back on the surface. “A lot of spear fishermen are quite snobbish about their fish. I’ll only fire at something that tastes nice.”

I’m not sure I can say the same. With the eagerness of the uninitiated, I’m desperate to bag something – anything.

We take turns diving. Gradually, my technique improves and my heart rate lowers, and I stay down for just long enough to spot something silvery swimming towards me. I feel the first real urge to breathe; my instinct is to bolt for the surface, but I know from Kate’s instructions that I still have time, so I ignore it. Just a bit longer; just a bit closer. The first contractions begin in my stomach – a signal that my oxygen supply is now half-empty and rapidly dwindling. Buoyant, I have to hold fast onto the rock to stop myself floating upwards. Just a few more seconds. I take aim; just one shot, I say to myself. And miss.

As I gather my breath on the surface, I muse that this is real sport, the kind the big-game hunter of yesteryear would recognise, where the odds are stacked fantastically in favour of the prey. I acknowledge that I may well go home empty-handed, and shift my hopes onto Watson. He hasn’t given up the chase. The sun dips under the clouds, casting the sea in a beautiful late-afternoon light. Could this be an omen? Suddenly Watson spots two trevally in his periphery, dives down and, coming at them from behind, takes aim and fires. Result! Tonight we won’t go hungry.

SUNDAY 1630

With my connecting flight to Singapore leaving in three hours, I’m pushing my luck, but it would be wrong not to stay for the best part. Back at Trawangan, Watson immediately slaps his quarry onto a grill. There’s no marinade – no need. The taste, like a swordfish steak, is clean and exquisite. We eat hungrily, scooping up sticky rice like primal predators. Together with an ice-cold beer, it hits the spot.

SUNDAY 1700

Next mission: to make it to the airport (via speedboat and car) with 40 minutes to spare before the 19.25 to Singapore. The 23.30 to Heathrow then takes me home. On the flight I contemplate my relative failure, but take comfort in Watson’s axiom that spear fishing’s intrinsic appeal lies in the fact that instant proficiency isn’t possible. “You have to serve your apprenticeship,” he told me.

MONDAY 0600

Sleep comes easily and I arrive back into Heathrow at 06.00 surprisingly refreshed. As I make my way to the office, I vow to go back to Lombok. I may not have speared a fish; but I am definitely hooked.