Diving & Spearfishing in the Gulf

3 tales of diving:

On the day of the annual Doha sailing club barbecue, i decided to head off into the sea to go spearfishing. It would be good to catch something fresh for everyone to eat that night. The only problem was that there were no fish of any size in Doha harbour due to the traffic of boats, whose engines would scare any large creatures away.

So it was that I took a fair bit of ribbing from the Qataris, skilled fishermen in their own right, for going diving with a gun in the relative shallows of the bay. The knife strapped, Rambo-style, to my leg didn’t help, even if the ex-pats at the beach thought I looked pretty cool.

Really, I was going out simply to have a look around a territory I knew like the back of my hand. The Gulf Hotel had a large marina filled with millionaire’s speedboats and was consequently vast. The rocky quay that they had built to house these craft stretched a long way out into the ocean and constituted the only real haven for sealife in the region. All the excellant reefs were located some distance out of the harbour; to the north, south and a couple of secret locations miles from land.

The golden rule is to always take along a speargun, just in case something worth shooting crosses your path. However, this does make you look daft as you head down the beach appearing to know what you were doing. So it was that i entered the water to the cheers, encouragement and general laughter of my friends, the arabs. It didn’t help that it was the day of the annual barbecue either, as plenty of western families were at the beach wondering what I was up to.

Feeling more than a little foolish I swam off towards the edge of the quay, which marked the edge of a deep channel that allowed all the boats with a large draught into the marina. On a day such as this my intentions were mostly to look for wildlife, in all it’s many forms, purely out of interest. As a secondary motivation you can usually find something of interest that would fall under the category of, junk‘, lying on the seafloor. At home we had anchors, dead coral, knives, a compass, even an old wooden wheel from an arabic dhow decorating the living room. Only as a third form of entertainment would hunting with a gun come into play and this was the only reason I brought one along.

The boulders they used to build the quay rapidly became home to all manner of sealife who used the gaps in the rocks for shelter or breeding, but as the water was only twenty feet deep nothing of any size would venture into the harbour for lack of shelter, prey and out of fear caused by noise from the many engines.

On about my fifth dive down to the bottom I found something a little strange. Two large rocks with a six inch space separating them and a third stone on the other side that had a slightly different colouration and was about eight inches high. Swimming closer, it looked to be speckled with green, brown and khaki, with a texture that appeared to be scales. Instinctively, I recognised the markings of an Arabian grouper, but it was so large I couldn’t believe it was real.

As a kid, my brother and I had missed so many fish and hit rock with our spears that we’d ruin the tips. Dad would kill us for being so dumb and forcing him to go shopping for spares that were hard to come by in Qatar. Ever since, we took great care not to hit rock or worse, let the spear go down a hole so that the retracting barb got caught and we’d have to unscrew the spearhead to leave it in the hole.

Reluctant to blast my gun at what could well be just a boulder, I continued to watch and even swam closer, utterly confused as to what I should do. Just then the Hamour took a breath and flushed the water through it’s gills. The resultant movement took him forward and then backward, almost imperceptibly, by few centimeters. If I hadn’t have been a few feet away I wouldn’t even have noticed.

Running out of oxygen by now and with my mind made up, I levelled my gun, took the safety catch off, pulled the trigger and began to swim for the surface some way up above me. Looking down during the initial ascent, my eyes widened and my mind blew as I witnessed a true beast of a grouper rise up out of the rocks wriggling furiously. He’d been shot near the tail and, as a consequence, was far larger than I’d been expecting. On top of which, he was nowhere near being incapacitated and had all the strength in the world to fight and drag me down into the depths.

I couldn’t believe it. It was a form of submerged waterskiing. Every three feet I made up toward the surface, he dragged me back down two feet. I’d pull in the rope, kicking wildly, then let it go and shoot for the surface. The jerk that stopped me and yanked me downwards stunned me. Beginning to panic, I repeated the process again and again until the surface was just a few feet above me.

Believing in a purer form of free-diving, I tried never to use fins and always swam barefoot. This, however, was an occasion designed for them and I was having real issues with getting to the surface for a breath of air. I knew that if I let go of the gun I’d lose it as he’d swim off with it in tow.

Things got spooky as I began to see stars dancing across my eyes, rapidly increasing in number and letting me know that a blackout was soon to follow. Combined with the bizarre phenomenon just below the surface (where light reflects, so that, instead of seeing blue sky, you witness a silvery, quiksilver, undulating limit to the water) I thought I was hallucinating.

The final pull downwards forced me to let go of the gun as I had no choice but to breathe. The rocks were not too far away and once there I collapsed exhausted. It took a few minutes for my breathing to return to normal and during that time I ran through the implications of what had just happened: I’d lost my gun to a fish in Doha harbour. Not only was Dad going to raise hell, but everyone at the sailing club was likely to fall about laughing when i gave them the, you should have seen the one that got away story, the Arabs were going to think twice about taking me out to hunt on their huge speedboats. The whole thing was a disaster.

Until it dawned on me that it was unlikely the grouper was going to dash off across or out of the harbour as there is nothing but sand on the bottom, stretching for miles, offering scant protection from predators. In all likelihood the hamour had swum up the quay and ducked into another hole. Because spearguns float, the poor beast had a billboard sign dragging behind him advertising his precise location.

With hope restored, i began to search, but as I got two thirds of the way along the quay doubts began to creep into my mind. Perhaps he did make off out of the harbour. Just then, away in the distance and partially visible through the silty water, I made out a dark grainy line pointing vertically up. It was the gun straining for sea level with a line running down and into a hole.

I felt sorry for him as he’d put up a valiant fight and won. He beat me and escaped, only to be defeated by something he had no comprehension of. My only consolation was that it was better to finish him off than leave him to pull a gun around until he died. I duckdived, cleared, got to the bottom and pulled the grouper out of the hole. There was no strength left in him so it was easy to get him out of the sea and club him to death with two hard whacks with a rock.

Swimming back to the sailing club from the quay meant that no-one could see what I had caught. No doubt on their third beer by now, I could imagine the old salt clubhouse banter as I reached the shore. After taking the mask and knife off, I pushed the spear through and out the other side of this huge fish and unscrewed the speartip. Only then did I notice what this monster had done to my spear. During our fight he had struggled so hard, spinning and diving, that he’d bent the shaft of the spear by thirty degrees. I was stunned by that and felt twice as bad about killing him. But groupers are delicious and this one will feed the entire membership of the club.

Throwing my equipment on the beach I used two hands to pick the Hamour up by it’s gills and began the trek up the beach. Instantly, the Arabs first, the clubhouse emptied as everyone came out to look at what I’d caught. The old salts could not believe it and even the Arabs were in awe. The fish weighed in at twentysix pounds before being gutted, bagged and readied for that night’s party.

When I saw Harry the Hamour on the banquet table that night I felt a mixture of pride and sorrow. Proud that I’d caught him but also because he went out in style. You should have seen him there, cooked, decorated and looking regal. It was fitting. But also sad that he had won the day, only to lose by default. It didn’t seem fair.

But then standing on land with a fishing rod and line is one step further removed from the ocean, so I can live with it.

And Dad forgave me for the bent spear after I told him the story and he’d seen the fish. At first a menacing frown did begin to creep across his face when I showed the gun to him, but he heard me out, couldn’t believe I’d let go of the gun and ended by laughing that all the Arabs were speechless.

Mr I.

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