Fishing Tail. Spearfisherman survives tussling a black marlin and a shiver of sharks.

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Only a handful of shore divers have ever shot a black marlin and even fewer have managed to bring it to the beach.

Spearfishing is like bow hunting in the ocean. You have to stalk the fish with supreme stealth, get as close as possible and get a clear shot without being noticed. Once the fish has been fatally wounded, you have to fend off sharks as you swim your catch back to the beach.

Landing a powerful black marlin on a spear requires planning and experience. You need to know the anatomy of the fish and where to place a fatal shot or you could be dragged down into the depths of the ocean, should you become entangled during the fight.

With a razor-sharp bill and capable of reaching speeds of up to 110 km/h in short bursts, these monstrous bony fish can be very dangerous – as many fishermen have learned the hard way, finding themselves pinned to their boats or disembowelled.

This is the riveting account of how an intrepid spearfishing pro’s training as airline captain saved him and his dive buddy from going to Davy Jones’s locker.

An experienced waterman, Captain AJ Liebenberg (39) says his greatest fear is getting stuck, attached to a line while spear fishing, and drowning.

AJ grew up in the ocean, learning to dive for crayfish at 12 years old and spearfishing since his twenties. He is not a trophy hunter but catches to cook and the thought of shooting that marlin never crossed his mind…

Gliding down into the deep to go spearfishing
Gliding down into the deep

Armed with ultra-long fins, good lungs and spear guns, AJ and his dive buddy, Ray* swam out to familiar 15-18 metre deep reefs off Umdloti, north of Durban, where they dropped their flashers (a flasher is a small buoy with a string of shiny lours attached to attract fish). With lots of particles suspended in the water, the visibility was about ten metres (average clarity).

“About 45 minutes into the dive, I spotted a huge black figure swimming towards my flasher. I couldn’t make out what it was and thought it could be a manta ray or a great white shark because of its size. As the fish turned, I realised it was a ginormous black marlin, probably weighing 150 to 200 kg “said AJ

As the marlin slowly glided down, eyeballing the shiny flasher, Ray dove to have a look.

“I didn’t think he would shoot, but then I saw him pulling in right next to the marlin and stretching out his gun… I tried to stop him, but to no avail.”

Ray’s spear penetrated the fish above the eye, but too far back to inflict fatal injury.

“It was like shooting a toothpick through a rhino’s horn.”

For a moment the fish appeared to be stoned; the perfect opportunity for AJ to finish the job.

“As an airline pilot, I am trained to make quick assessments and rapid life-saving decisions and I came to the conclusion that it would be safest to keep my spear to possibly save our lives later when the sharks start circling.”

Captain AJ Liebenberg finning close to a black tip reef shark with Go-Pro in hand
Captain AJ Liebenberg finning close to a black tip reef shark with Go-Pro in hand

With Ray’s spear firmly lodged in its head, the giant black marlin promptly took off like a powerful diesel engine, with Ray in tow. To prevent stripping his gear and letting the buoy fight the fish, Ray had tied his Dyneema rope to the end of his spear gun (Dyneema fibre is 15 times stronger than steel at the same weight). As a result, he was too close the fish to manipulate the direction it swam in.

AJ was convinced his friend wasn’t going to survive the fight, so he grabbed onto Ray’s line and pulled himself closer to try to help.

The marlin shifted gears and gained speed as it opened its mouth and gills to take deep breaths while swimming further and further out to sea.

“By now we were well past the shark nets in deep, black waters. I often kayak fish that deep and it’s scary how many Zambezi and tiger sharks are out there.”

With Ray not giving up, AJ realised they had three options: 1.) he crawls under the fish and hopes for a fatal shot; 2.) they cut the line and swim back to the beach; 3.) keep fighting and fall prey to sharks.

With his heart beating outside of his chest and adrenalin charging through his veins, AJ took the best breath he could and started crawling along the line, thumbs facing towards his body to prevent the line from wrapping around the thumbs.

About halfway through, while managing the rope and his spear gun, AJ accidentally took the line the wrong way around and it knotted behind the knuckle of his thumb.

Burning through his oxygen reserve, AJ was now desperate to get back to the surface, but between Ray – unaware of the drama unfolding below him – pulling harder at the surface and the marlin steadliy gaining speed, there was no escape. He frantintically reached for his knife, but it was stuck, and he couldn’t get it out.

“At this stage I was praying my finger would come off, just to survive.”

Rapidly running out of oxygen, AJ could taste death in his mouth. He could feel the swishes of the black marlin’s huge tail barely three metres in front of him and wondered when Ray was going to realise his buddy was locked in.

“With seconds of consciousness left, I pulled as hard as I could and miraculously, my hand came out of the glove, releasing me back to the surface.”

Captain AJ Liebenberg freediving with black tip reef sharks
Captain AJ Liebenberg freediving with black tip reef sharks

Fending off shivers sharks

Back in the fight, AJ grabbed back onto Ray’s line and began tying up his flasher which was still attracting fish like a flame does moths.

“This is when I noticed the first shark. Now about 35 metres apart, I went to tie up my own flasher which is when I noticed the second shark. I crawled back to Ray and scared off a huge Zambezi shark as I got close.”

AJ said the sharks were going for them because they always go for the easiest prey and the two of them were smaller than the black marlin.

“As I looked down, my blood ran cold as I saw a tiger shark eyeing us. Tiger sharks are higher up the food chain than Zambesis.

It’s been about 25 minutes since Ray fired the shot and there were Zambezi sharks everywhere.”

Out of options, AJ punched Ray to get his attention and yelled: “we are going to be eaten; cut the line!”

But Ray had lost his knife and while busy fighting off ravenous sharks, AJ managed to retrieve his knife and handed it to Ray who cut the line behind his very expensive Rob Allen spear gun.

Now with only one speargun, two buoys and a shiver of sharks trailing from all sides, AJ and Ray began the long swim back to shore. The last shark kept going at them hard up to about 12 metres depth.

When they reached dry land, AJ wanted to kiss the sandy beach. As he gathered his thoughts he came to understand that Ray had had a very different experience to him. That said, deserting Ray to save his own life was never an option as dive buddies live by a code of always having each other’s backs.

(*Name changed)

If you’re not sure you have the right gear to keep your catch of the day fresh, have a look at SnoMaster’s range of 12V camping fridges as well as a portable solar panel kit for those off-grid fishing expeditions.

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