Oh dear, we've warned the postman to expect a few extra letters after this one, but Brendan O'Brien wanted to impale a few innocent myths. What, he asks, is wrong with spearfishing anyway?
I glanced over at my buddy, who made a "go-ahead" gesture. I moved closer and waited patiently for the large kelp bass to get into the right position. A few seconds later and I took the shot.
The flash fired, scaring the fish away. Often there are no second chances, but I knew instinctively that it would make a great photograph.
Minutes later we found a giant Californian halibut camouflaged against the sandy bottom. I stayed back to allow my buddy the freedom to take his shot.
Stealthily he hovered and allowed himself to sink slowly towards the fish. My heart was pumping; if he left it any longer it would be too late.
He squeezed the trigger, and a spear impaled the halibut just behind its head. Fighting for life it thrashed around, pulling on the speargun's line.
As my buddy began to be hauled along by it, I saw him reach for his knife. A few well-chosen stabs to the head and the struggle was over.
What would be your feelings if you were to witness such a sight? Shock? Abhorrence? Disgust?
I had never witnessed a fish being speared before, but my only thoughts were of fresh grilled halibut. I had just seen the world's most ecological fishing method in action.
In southern California, spear-fishing is very much alive. Its exponents always ask me: "Where are all the spearfishers in the UK?"
Most have long since hung up their spearguns to gather rust and dust. But why has the sport died here while in America and elsewhere divers reap the benefits?
To start with, you might find it difficult, if not impossible, to obtain a speargun. I recently tried to buy one from some of the major dive shops in this country. Here are a few of the responses I received: "They're illegal, offensive weapons or something... They give the diver an unfair advantage... Scuba divers at allowed to use them... They're not exactly illegal but the Fisheries Department will harass you... Divers have banned them because it's unsportsmanlike... What's wrong with you, we want to conserve fish, not kill them!"
My sentiments exactly. I too waconserve fish stocks, and plan to help that cause by taking a serious look at the advantages of this sport.
Let's consider how the fish you eat end up on your plate. Huge commercial vessels trawl the ocean for certain fish that they can sell for a profit. Within the EC, fishing boats have quotas to catch only a certain amount of each species every year.
Everything else must go back. Often referred to as a "by-catch", this policy results in millions of dead fish being thrown overboard every year.
What about the bottom-dwellers? Vast, rake-like trawl nets scoop flatfish, shellfish and everything else that gets in the way off the ocean bed. It is estimated that the entire floor of the Irish Sea is trawled on average 2.5 times a year!
The by-catch is dumped on the seabed that has just been destroyed so that we can enjoy our plaice and scampi. Environmentally friendly?
Sea-anglers would have us believe their sport is kinder to the ocean's resources. True, but theirs is an unknown quarry. Will it be big enough to eat? Is it edible? Is it a female about to lay eggs?
They don't know until it has been dragged up through several pressure changes and pulled out into a hostile environment to have a hook pulled out of its mouth. When the angler discovers that it is not what he wants on the grill that evening, it is thrown back in the water. Who knows if it will survive this ordeal?
Responsible blue-water hunters in search of fresh fish for dinner take only what they need. They require a knowledge of fish behaviour to carry out a successful stalk. If it is too small, inedible or spawning, they leave it alone.
Spearfishers need to be fit and to have excellent underwater skills. They may follow the rules of an organisation such as the International Underwater Spearfishers Association. There may also be legislation. In California, for example, the catching of any sea creatures is strictly regulated by the Department of Fish and Game. They need a licence, and to know which fish are out of season and the size limits, and those that cannot be caught.
So what would prevent me using a speargun on a dive? The BSAC Diver's Code of Conduct's first rule of conservation is: "Never use a speargun with an aqualung."
But why? There has to be a reason that is a more persuasive than it being unsportsmanlike or unfair to fish. Can there be anything more unfair than commercial fishing?
I asked the Department of Fisheries and Agriculture for its viewpoint. It objects only to catching fish by this method for commercial gain. Otherwise it places the sport in the same category as sea fishing.
Is a speargun illegal? Certain knives and other sharply pointed instruments are unlawful to possess without good reason. The spirit of this legislation is to prevent their misuse as weapons. There is no specific legislation preventing the purchase and ownership of a speargun.
That said, it is a potentially lethal weapon, and requires a great deal of care in its use; most come with safety catches to prevent misfires. They should not be in irresponsible hands.
To start off in this sport the diver could opt for a polespear. This is "thrown" rather than fired by mechanical means, and has a limited range of about a metre.
Spearfishers to whom I spoke in California say the biggest thrill and challenge comes from practising the sport while free-diving. Some say that using scuba gear is only a means to an end: it is not a sport, just a means of catching food.
So, will I ever use a speargun? I don't know. To venture into the water without a camera in hand would seem strange now. At the same time, I do enjoy a good fish dinner, and knowing that only one marine creature has died in the process is a comforting thought.