Spearfishing 80 Feet Deep On One Breath

 Story by master free diver & amazing family man, John Dornellas. 

Story by master free diver & amazing family man, John Dornellas. 

Dogtooth Tuna.  If those two words don’t get your heart pumping there are only two logical explanations: you’re dead, or you’ve never gone to hunt these incredible demons of the deep before.  Since we began diving, we’ve read articles and seen pictures and videos of these beautiful fish. We’ve heard of their ferocious power and felt intimidated at the thought of hunting them. Their ability to destroy even the toughest gear and push divers to their limits made them into a mythical beast that we had hoped for years to one day tame. Our chance to do so came when we all met up in Fiji this year.

 "A shark came out of nowhere, I immediately let go of the line so the doggie could run hard again and shake the shark loose, which it did. Then I was holding the fish of a lifetime. It was mine. Prayers answered. I threw my head back and screamed as loudly as I could. The wind died, the sun came out with a rainbow, and my pregnant wife was right there, watching the whole scene and hearing my victory yells"- John Dornellas

"A shark came out of nowhere, I immediately let go of the line so the doggie could run hard again and shake the shark loose, which it did. Then I was holding the fish of a lifetime. It was mine. Prayers answered. I threw my head back and screamed as loudly as I could. The wind died, the sun came out with a rainbow, and my pregnant wife was right there, watching the whole scene and hearing my victory yells"- John Dornellas

 

When Brenna and I tied the knot last May, I promised her that our honeymoon would cover half the world and last for six months. Luckily, being an F.I.I. instructor allowed me to do so, working as we went. When I knew Fiji was in our plans, I made sure to tell Mike Jutt about the trip so he could come out, meet up with us and hunt some doggies. My two trips to Fiji prior to this one had proved unfruitful in the dogtooth department, the sharks getting the better of me every time.

I helped out with Fiji Surf Co. as in times before. We were welcomed with an epic feast, where Brenna was officially brought into the Fiji Surf Co. family. Ian Muller (owner of Fiji Surf) even unknowingly predicted that we had a baby on the way. (He was right).

The next several weeks were mostly spent bringing in fish for the local boys, taking photos and running surf trips. When it was time for Mike to come into town, Brenna and I headed south to stay with Jaga and Heather Crossingham, owners of Freedive Fiji. Saying goodbye to the wives on shore, Jaga, Mike, Marne Balubar, our captain Ratu and I went to sea for a few days.

To say our trip with Jaga was epic would be an understatement. Jaga is an incredible diver and hunter and was more than willing to share his knowledge on how to land dogtooth. Even though we only had three days with Jaga, we left exhausted, successful and thrilled to have hunted with one of the best. We all took a few days break after diving with Freedive Fiji, meeting a week later at Fiji Beachouse to try out some other spots. I’ll let Mike Jutt tell his side of the story.

 

“Marnie Balubar, an Omer team diver and I arrived late at night in Fiji but we were out early the next morning with Freedive Fiji. We met up with Jaga Crossingham and John, loaded the boat and began our trek to an outer island known to have some beasts. The reef structure, ledges and water clarity were unbelievable! Fusiliers, the common baitfish in the area, were schooling up above the deep ledge drop-offs. There was an abundance of fish, but the sharks were persistent and made using chum more problematic than helpful. Instead we resorted to making deep drops and hanging above the ledge. We would stay there utilizing various sounds and visual attraction techniques to bring the doggies near, waiting for our paths to cross with our prey.

By the second drift without a fish in the boat, we were talking trash on each other, debating who would get the first one. John called it saying, “Marne is gonna get the first big one. He’s been sitting over there all quiet and focused!”

Shortly after John had his premonition, I saw a scene unfold that I’ve seen many times before. Marne jumped off the boat and was immediately into the fish. As soon as the bubbles around him cleared he yelled, “two doggies right here!” I quickly slipped in after him and watched as Marne took his first shot from his brand new 130cm prototype gun from Omer. I watched him smash a nice fish in the back of the head and could tell the slip tip was lodged in the fish’s skull, so now the fight was on. After a few minutes of the fish thrashing about, Marne was able to get his hands on his first dogtooth tuna! We took a few pictures, shared some high fives we were back in the boat resetting for another drift. 

                  On the next drift we continued making drops between 85 to 115 feet through the fusiliers above the ledge, looking for those telltale white dots on the tail end of these brutes. A few more drifts completed and the sun getting low, John and I had both landed some small doggies, but no monsters yet. As the sun started to slip below the horizon we were back into the Freedive Fiji boat, with Day 1 as a success. We had all gotten the monkey off our backs with dogtooth and were ready to hold out for the big ones now! A perfect sunset ride to shore and dogtooth sashimi that evening made us sleep like babies.

                  Not long after jumping in on day two the action was on. Spotting a familiarly productive spot from the day before I breathed up and took a long, slow drop towards the ledge, sinking through the fusiliers and past 90 feet. After waiting for a few moments three nice sized doggies in the 85 to 100 pound class cruised just off the deep part of the ledge. I was able to sink and angle myself above them, picking the closest fish that offered me a good shot. I squeezed the trigger on my Pathos Laser 140 and watched the shaft smash the fish right in the head. For a moment everything stood still, including the fish. Then it began to shake its head, barfed up some baitfish, and took off straight down. Game on! I swam for the surface as my first float began to sink. I grabbed at my bungee and started hoisting the tuna up, but to my dismay I could feel my prize being destroyed even before the fish and a dozen sharks came into view. I continued to pull, trying to reclaim some of the fish, but they left me nothing but the head, a story and a trashed shaft! 

                   After a great time with Freedive Fiji shooting our first doggies as well as landing a few walu (Spanish Mackerel) and various reef fish, Marne and I headed north to Fiji Beachouse while John and Brenna stayed with Jaga and Heather in Pacific Harbour. We took a few days off from the rigorous days of 100ft drops over ledges in current to relax and enjoy the beauty of being on this incredible island.

The locals working at the Beachouse are by far some of the friendliest, happiest people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Staying there gave us just enough time to reset and get ready to go back on the hunt again for dogtooth.

John arrived at the Beachouse where he had a boat chartered for us and two days scheduled for hitting some promising spots. We arrived at the spot with glassy conditions and perfect current. It only took about half a drift until John came up from a deep drop and said “I just saw a absolute monster down there, and its got a big scar by its tail!” I quickly dove, bottoming out my tag line and saw four large doggies cruising by. We had found what we were looking for.

On the next drift, shortly after he deployed his flashers, I saw John level off and fire his Riffe Blue Water Elite. It was deep and I couldn’t make out his target, but what I did see was his first 3 atmosphere float go screaming down, followed shortly by his second float tangled with his flashers. They disappeared so quickly into the abyss that they were gone before he reached the surface! John came up with a huge grin:

 

“I shot that monster with the scar! Dude that was so insane, he was at about ninety feet and was absolutely huge! I was swimming up and saw my first float going down, thought to myself ‘Well at least I have anoth-OH!…nevermind there it goes’ HAHAHA that was so gnarly!”

 

After an hour searching for his floats, John and I heard cheering from the boat! They had spotted the floats about a quarter mile offshore so they quickly grabbed John to hopefully retrieve his prize, but there was nothing left on the shaft but a small chunk of fish. The flasher “chicken” float was crushed beyond recognition from getting pulled to the depths. The whole event was a sober reminder of how powerful dogtooth tuna are.

After a few hours loading the cooler with reef fish for the local guys and with “golden hour” fast approaching we had a decision to make. Do we head to another area that we hadn’t checked out yet or do we go back to where we initially saw those big fish in the morning? I reverted back to the old saying “you don’t leave fish to find fish!”  

After a few drops with nothing sighted I was beginning to question our spot selection. While I was getting lost in my thoughts, I saw a white spot moving below me. I took a quick gulp of air and power kicked down to about 50 feet and let myself sink. The fish was swimming away at a moderate pace in descent. I banged my knife on the handle of my gun, turning the fish. It “side eyed” me, similar to what uku do while you are in pursuit. I angled away, hoping the fish would follow. After a long few seconds I glanced over my shoulder and saw that the fish had changed direction, picked up speed and was now almost directly beneath me. I kicked to close the gap, squeezed the trigger on my Pathos laser 140 and took the shot that I had been visualizing all week. The fish began twitching and rolled onto its’ side. I screamed out some words that I cannot print in this article, which isn’t the smartest thing to do 80 feet! I could hear John’s yelling and screaming happy congratulations all the way to the surface. After tons of high fives and hooting and with the fish in hand, the reality of landing a beautiful fish like this still hadn’t set in! John grabbed his camera and took the beautiful images that are in these pages”

 

It was awesome showing Marne and Mike around Fiji for their visit, especially since they both left victorious and stoked on having landed doggies on their first attempt. I was thankful for the fish I had landed, but I wanted a rematch on a big doggie and I talked Brenna’s ear off about it. I couldn’t get the monster out of my head that had held down my floats for over an hour. Speaking with Jaga, I was struck with some unassuming advice he gave me. I learned simply, “It’s whatever man. Just go suss it out mate”. Basically, he told me “hakuna matata” (No worries) for you Lion King fans. Goodness that advice helped.

As our stay in Fiji neared its’ end and with one week remaining, I was called upon to set up a windsurfing school for Fiji Surf Co. and train instructors. I was luckily able to budget in one day to try for a big doggie one last time.

Brenna and I took a bus south to Beachouse where I had a boat waiting for us. We headed out to sea with firm head wind and overcast conditions, which made for a rough ride in our lightweight aluminum boat. With Brenna being pregnant, I was about to turn the boat around. She assured me she was okay so we continued into the fray, arriving at our destination as the rain clouds closed in.

I quickly landed a nice walu, but time seemed to drag on with no doggies spotted. Brenna was feeling queasy on the boat, the current didn’t feel right, the rain was pouring overhead and my diving partner accidentally shot a spear through my carbon fin. It was right then, after some firm words of caution, that I smiled to myself and reapplied “It’s whatever man. Just go suss it out mate”.

I dove with my buddy’s reel gun to shoot something small, bring some commotion to the ledge and hopefully spot a doggie. I was at eighty feet and could see them in my mind’s eye before I turned and saw them with my eyes. There they were. Swimming right at me. And all I had was a 100cm reel gun. I dropped a flasher as I ascended to keep the tuna in the area. I gave my buddy back his gun and grabbed my Riffe Bluewater Elite, took an extra few breaths to calm my heart rate and dove. My dive took me deep, and directly on top of the dogtooth I wanted. I sighted on the largest one and fired a debilitating shot that entered through the back and lodged into the pharynx of the fish. Hitting the surface and knowing the fight wasn’t over, I hoisted the fish into sight just as a shark came out of nowhere and unsuccessfully tried clamping on. The fish was too fat for the sharks’ mouth to get hold. I immediately let go of the line so the doggie could run hard again and shake the shark loose, which it did. I pulled with everything I had, turning the fish’s nose upward. The air bladder inflated as the fish made its’ way up, causing her to breach the surface right into my hands. I gripped the gill hinge and plunged my knife into her brain, finishing the chaos in one blow. I was holding the fish of a lifetime. It was mine. Prayers answered. I threw my head back and screamed as loudly as I could. Years of lost fish and a sure belief that I was cursed to never land a big doggie were all gone in an instant like the dispersing rain clouds overhead. The wind died, the sun came out with a rainbow, and my pregnant wife was right there, leaning on the rail of the boat nearby watching the whole scene and hearing my victory yells. It was the best possible way to land that fish. The ride to shore was one of pure gratitude and peace, a feeling that returns whenever I remind myself, “It’s whatever man. Just go suss it out mate”.

 

 

Thank you to our friends at Fiji Surf Co., Freedive Fiji, Fiji Beachouse and to the powers at be who made this trip possible.

 

 

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