Here they come, rising through water so blue it might be Montana sky. They are still deep, but already it's obvious: These fish are enormous. They come up slowly, curious and in no particular hurry, swelling in size, gumdrops becoming half dollars, half dollars becoming balloons, balloons becoming tuna, solid and blue. There are two of them, each looking as big in circumference as a Volkswagen Beetle.
Please, please let them come closer. Suspended 30 feet below the surface of the water, free diver Terry Maas can see the fish drifting upward. Tuna are hypersensitive. Maas swears they can sense an accelerated heartbeat. They can also swim 55 miles an hour, whipping through the water like madcap footballs. Maas has a good idea of their speed and their strength, having once speared a 180-pound tuna that dragged him through the water for nearly a mile. Raise the spear gun slowly. Disconnect emotion. The strategy isn't much different from that used by a love-struck student in a high school hallway: You ignore the object of your desire—and hope she finds you irresistible. God, these fish are huge. Fifteen feet. That's how close the tuna must be, close enough for Maas to see their eyes, rolling slowly, taking him in. The shot can't be good, it must be perfect. Tuna flesh is soft. A spear buried in the wrong spot is easily torn loose. Moving the spear gun toward the tuna is out of the question. They'll spook and disappear. They must swim in front of the gun. The bigger one does. Now.
Maas is not an excitable fellow. A friend ribs him for being "more serious than a heart attack." His wife, Beth, calls him "the most competent person I know." Maas, an oral surgeon, can fix almost anything, from a Ford pickup's engine to a crushed human jaw. His voice is soft, but it's the voice of one who is accustomed to being in charge. At the moment Maas is no longer talking to a visitor in a luncheonette a block from his office in Ventura, Calif. He is 350 miles away, bobbing in the water off Guadalupe Island, a lonely rock in the Pacific off Baja California, being charged by an enormous wounded tuna. His hands carefully pantomime the action—the speared fish bolting for the bottom, then, just as suddenly, surfacing and streaking right at Maas. There is no record of anyone's ever having been attacked by a tuna, but as Maas, a logical sort, points out, "No one had ever shot one that big, either." As the fish barreled toward him, Maas was certain he was about to become a deep-sea-fishing footnote.
"I thought, Well this is it," he says, smiling. "The second I thought that, the fish turned on its side and started to sink."
May 2, 1993
Bringing the tuna to the surface was no easy matter. That north Pacific bluefin weighed 398 pounds, the largest tuna ever taken by a spear fisherman. Ten years later the record still stands, mainly because most divers never see a tuna, much less spear one.
"They're an offshore animal, so you've got to be offshore to find them," Maas says. "Not a lot of people do what we do."
Maas, 48, is a member of an obscure but rabid fringe of divers whose consuming passion is to take a motorboat out into the middle of the ocean and drop overboard with nothing more than their wet suits, spear guns, snorkels, masks, weight belts and the air in their lungs. Maas reckons there are fewer than 200 serious blue-water hunters in the world. Floating 30 miles out at sea in 2,000 feet of water isn't everybody's idea of recreation. The choicest spots are usually remote, and getting to them is often difficult and expensive. Once there, the amenities are few. Maas's 26-foot boat—a spare, functional vessel named the Blue Fin—has twin 160-horsepower diesel engines, sophisticated satellite navigation equipment and automatic pilot, but it doesn't have a head. Also, there's the matter of plunging into a world where, in a blink, you change a credit-card-carrying member of society into a floating tidbit in the food chain. Diving in blue water has its advantages, though. "It's never crowded," says Maas.
Maas discovered free diving through scuba, a sport he fell in love with at 14. Each Saturday morning in Saratoga, Calif., 55 miles north of Monterey, Maas would run from his house to the local dive shop, gear in hand. He would loiter at the shop until someone offered to take him diving. Then one day at a spearfishing contest in Monterey, Maas saw men leaving the beach on paddleboards with only a spear gun, mask, snorkel, weight belt and fins tucked under their knees. The vision struck him like an icy wave. "That someone could go down, hold their breath and actually capture a fish, I thought that was remarkable," says Maas, who was instantly consumed by one thought—he wanted to do it. Except to free an anchor now and then, Maas hasn't used an air tank since he was 15.
As a blue-water diver Maas takes risks, but in most instances they are the risks of a chess master, as calculated and controlled as he can make them. The Blue Fin, which Maas designed himself, contains two of every essential—anchors, engines, navigation systems—and a complete emergency medical kit. There is no question, then, that safety is a concern to him, but sometimes the pull of the hunt is too strong. Maas and his fellow blue-water hunters make a big point of the importance of always diving with a buddy, but as soon as they hit the water, they promptly swim off in different directions.
Speaking to members of a local scuba club one evening, Maas is cornered on this point. He shrugs sheepishly. Out in the audience Beth leans over and whispers, "They'd swim in pairs, but they're always afraid the other one's going to find the fish."
That is the goal, and the fact that Maas does so with regularity has made him a legend among blue-water hunters. Yes, he can hold his breath for three minutes. Yes, he can descend to a depth of 100 feet. More than anything, though, he is eerily at home in the ocean. Underwater, the lanky Maas is the picture of grace, moving through the water with the same unconscious effort the rest of us give to strolling a supermarket aisle. Fellow divers swear Maas has a supernatural affinity for the hunt, particularly when it comes to tuna, the most prized of game fish. Few divers have bagged a tuna. Mass has speared more than 30, 20 of them weighing more than 100 pounds.
"He's the consummate blue-water hunter," says his friend Harry Ingram, one of the many divers who have been skunked by Maas. "I think he knows something about that fish that nobody else knows."
Physically, Maas is not a daunting specimen. He's lean and fit, but like anyone approaching 50, he's a bit soft around the edges; diving aside, his exercise routine consists of swims when he has time and a half hour of calisthenics each morning. Mentally, Maas is an oceanic data base. He can recite the conditions that made for a successful hunt—tides, currents, bait-fish activity—20 years ago. On the topic of tuna he becomes a 14-year-old stripped of inhibition; his descriptions of the fish are replete with run-on sentences, breathless ardor and much hyperbole.
"God, they're like apparitions," says Maas, his hands jumping about as he uses them to bring his descriptions to life. "Out of this crystal-blue sea you start seeing these enormous fish whip past you. They just come by—voom! voom! Voom!—these huge, wide footballs, flicking in and out, left to right, everywhere, like shooting stars, all going somewhere in one hell of a hurry."
Maas is privy to such rare glimpses of big fish because he logs more water time than just about anyone else in the sport. On weekends between April and October, when waters off the Southern California coast warm up and the tuna head north from the waters off South America, Maas is out on the Blue Fin. While fellow divers occasionally repair to their boat, he will spend eight hours bobbing down and up like a snorkeled cork.
All this water time has cost Maas. He has been cut by a boat's propeller. In cold water a circulatory condition turns his fingers numb and chalky yellow. He has suffered shallow-water blackout several times, passing out underwater after staying down too long and ascending too quickly. He admits he has pushed the limit more times than that.
"The big fish always seem to come by just when you're running out of air," says Maas, making a feeble attempt to explain his rash behavior. "You've got to decide whether you're going to shoot or drown."
The risks are real. Maas has lost several friends to shallow-water blackout. Hunters have also become the hunted. Guadalupe Island, where Maas speared his record bluefin, is also renowned for the great white shark. Twenty years ago Maas's friend and fellow blue-water diver Al Schneppershoff was killed by a great white off Guadalupe; the attack was witnessed by horrified friends and Schneppershoff's nine-year-old son. In 1984, hunting bluefin on the surface of the same waters, Ingram looked down and saw an enormous white shark charging up from below. Ingram's recollections are understandably fuzzy, but somehow he got his spear gun to his shoulder. The shark rammed the gun, the butt jammed into Ingram's shoulder, and the impact pushed him eight feet back and out of the water. He came down on the shark's back and rolled into the water. The shark swam off. Ingram's fellow divers did their best to downplay the incident. They flooded him with shark T-shirts. One friend presented him with a white-shark tie. Still the experience has somewhat dampened Ingram's enthusiasm for blue-water hunting. "That shark still swims in my mind sometimes," he says quietly.
Maas has never seen a great white, but he is never without a reminder of the potential danger. Tucked into the sleeve of his wet suit is a rifle shell filled with gunpowder. He has never used it, but the theory goes like this: Approached by an aggressive shark, you attach the shell to the end of your spear gun and shoot it at the shark; on impact, the shell explodes, and the injured fish swims off. This assumes you see a shark before it sees you. Once, diving off another Mexican island, Maas glanced over his shoulder to see a 15-foot tiger shark floating just behind his fin tips. Known for his cool in tight spots, Maas did what came naturally. "I jumped right out of my skin," he says. Fortunately his convulsion caused the same reaction in the shark, and it swam off.
Despite the past attacks off Guadalupe, Maas returns to the island as often as he can. This raises an obvious question, and during his presentation to the local dive club, someone voices it: Why? Maas is succinct. Tuna are the ultimate prize, and Guadalupe is teeming with them.
"It's high stakes," he says, interrupting his slide show to address two dozen sunburned faces. "Big tuna, big sharks. We take every precaution."
He moves crisply on, clicking through the slides in his carousel, explaining each picture quickly, concisely. A slide's image floods the screen. Several divers are standing at the edge of a boat, their spear guns in hand, preparing to plunge into the water. Maas stops, already helpless and far away. His voice leaves last, drifting dreamily through the dark room.
"God," he says, speaking to no one. "Look at that water. Isn't that great?"
Ken McAlpine is a free-lance writer who lives in Ventura, Calif.