Freediving for Mahimahi

Renee Taylor shares her experience freediving for mahimahi in New Zealand...

It was a hard summer, we all felt it. Here in the Coromandel, families and businesses have really suffered, and I know we are only one of many regions that have been copping it. Years of COVID setbacks followed by an absolute dud of a summer, and then Cyclone Gabrielle… All our thoughts are with the families affected by this devastation. It’s been hard to know how to progress, with feelings of guilt for being able to start moving forward, knowing so many others are still in such dire situations. But we do need to keep on keeping on, and hopefully some stories of silver linings might help bring a sense of happiness and connection back to our hurting communities across the motu.

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Amongst all of the uncertainty and chaos, there have been some moments of joy. And there’s one that I’m particularly excited to share… my first time playing with mahimahi! I say ‘playing’ because I can’t claim ‘first speared mahimahi’ yet – you’ll soon come to understand why.

Finally, a weather window that aligned with our work schedules! We’d been hearing stories of mahimahi frequenting our warm Coromandel waters recently, a fish species that both Julz and I had never even seen on a dive (let. alone speared). They’ve been a dream fish of mine since I first started spearfishing.

In addition to the recent tales of magical mahimahi, we had heard whispers of an elusive drifting mussel float… perhaps having been ripped away as a result of Cyclone Gabby. I guess after a significant weather event like that, you’d expect that an extra bunch of debris would enter the Moana. The normal floating suspect would usually be of branch or log variety, however, with the ongoing impact of humans, fishing and marine gear is also an unfortunate reality. Mahimahi and other pelagic species often congregate around floating objects and so it seemed that this loose float was now unintentionally acting as a FAD (Fish Aggregating Device). Now, according to my google search, mahimahi are a pretty sustainable fish to target as they are fast growing (up to seven centimetres a week!) and short-lived (reaching sexual maturity at around six months, and only living to about two years old!).

Understanding that finding a single floaty vessel in the middle of the big old blue would be like finding a needle in a haystack, we journeyed out with high hopes but lowish expectations. Oh, how wrong we were. The ocean was alive. It was electric with life! And the conditions were just dreamy. Tamanuitera (personification of the sun) was blazing, and Tawhirimatea (personification of the weather) was chill as, allowing for glassy calm seas.

And now my job was on. Spotting duty. I took this job very seriously, mainly because I’m not the most experienced boatie so I couldn’t offer much in the way of boatwomanship – so, spotting? That job I could do! And within minutes, I had identified a distant log! Nailed it. Not gunna lie, I was pretty chuffed about seeing this big old stick. But unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. It was void of life. Although it was big, perhaps it wasn’t so old after all. Maybe a few more weeks and that baby would have been teaming. I was pretty gutted as it appeared to be the perfect home for mahimahi, but hei aha (never mind), off we continued.

Next, we came across a lonely humpback whale who was on a mean mission. As much as everything inside my indigenous bones wanted to me channel my inner Keisha Castle Hughes and whale ride that baleen beauty, I knew this was not tika (not right). So observing from the surface would have to do. Turning the engine off, we enjoyed watching it blow and fin off into the distance. I wondered where he was going.

With our paikea pal all clear, we were off again. Next, we stumbled upon a massive pod of dolphins. Regardless of them being a relatively common sight here, it is still always so exciting to witness these playful porpoises. Again, we killed the motor and just watched from a distance. Luckily their curiosity led them straight for us, and they were huuuuge, doing all sorts of jumping displays at the sparkling surface. We got our own private dolphin kanikani (dance party). As epic as this display was, apparently, where there are dolphins, often there aren’t so many fish… so once they passed we proceeded on our mission.

But wait, what’s that? A shark? Spotting a fin from the surface, we slowly approached, and then its signature flappy-floppy fin action gave this molamola away. Molamola, sunfish, or Ratahuihui. This little dude seemed not to have a care in the world and appeared to be cruising around enjoying the day just as much as we were. A couple more flappy-flaps at the surface and then off he dove into the darkness. Surely next on the list were mahimahi? We were ticking off species like it was a Nat Geo episode!

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The water was the bluest I’ve ever seen. No land in sight. But also no floaties in sight… After scanning the horizon for what seemed like eons, we became a little disheartened. Julz jumped on the blower to his Papi for a quick yarn while I started to do what I do best: snacking. Then, all of a sudden, he spotted something in the distance. Pointing out towards it, we both squinted our eyes, and suddenly out flew a mahimahi! After some excited vocals of the blasphemous variety, we headed towards our bounty.

We did it! We found the elusive float! It was hella tropical out there. We could have easily been in Tonga for all we knew. In true rookie Ren style, I was super keen to quickly get in and try spear one, worried they would disappear. Thankfully I was in the company of someone a tad more seasoned than I, who opted to quietly slip in just to document, observe their behaviour, and assess what we were dealing with first. This was probably the best part. There they were! A small school of about six stunning mahimahi. We spent ages just existing in the watery wilderness, witnessing the school without the addition of spearing just yet. Again, in true rookie Ren fashion, I was diving down to try to get a better look at them and started to get too close to the mahimahi comfort zone, so Julz had to calmly bring me back and remind me to stay back between the float and the boat so as not to scare our future feast off. There was a school of ocean blue-eyes who had made the encrusted float line their home. Apparently, these fish are amazing to eat, so we knew we would pick one of two off at the end to sample for dinner. And Julz was right, as long as I kept a low profile between boat and buoy the school of mahimahi would pretty consistently come in to view circling from a safe distance.

“They” reckon that the hardest part about spearing mahimahi is finding them. So now for the easy part, right? But I guess “they” have never met rookie Ren. Professional frother, full-time kooker. Proudly average at spearfishing.

Now that we had decided it was time and I had my speargun in hand, I dove straight at the distant school, which was not my finest decision. Extending my gun, I knew I was probably out of range… and of course, it was a clear miss. Thankfully the fish weren’t too fazed by my rookie Ren actions. My ego, on the other hand, could have done with some nurturing. They just kept staying juuuust out of range. Julz figured he’d pick off one of the ocean blue-eyes to secure our dinner while we waited.

Without realising it, he’d done what we needed from the start. The mahimahi instantly became interested and didn’t hesitate to come straight in to try to steal our ika. “Go go shoot one!” he shouted to me while he kept the fish secured at the end of his spear so the mahimahi stayed nice and close. And this is where the grand finale of Renee’s kook slams unfolds…

Down I dove! Albeit a bit frantic. The fish were right there. Like, right in front of me and my gun, and I clear-missed again. All filmed on the go pro. I could try and blame my sticky trigger, but a good craftsman doesn’t blame their tools, right? So yeah, I guess it’s just classic me! Trying to encourage me to take a second shot, I got far too embarrassed, so opted to change roles. After switching guns, Julz took a dive, aimed, and fired like it ain’t no thang. Gotemmmmm! Success!

Although I didn’t get the glory shot I had wished for, I still had the most unreal experience and learned so much! Being able to experience the underwater world with these fish was more than I could have ever asked for. Combined with all the wildlife we encountered on our way out, it made for such a memorable day. And you best believe I took photos with our bounty. Until next summer!

June 2023 - Renee Taylor
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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