What is spearfishing

Spearfishing is an ancient practice that dates back to the early civilizations of the world. It is a fishing technique that involves hunting fish with a spear or a harpoon. This form of fishing has been practiced for thousands of years, with evidence of spearfishing being found in cave paintings and historical records.

In ancient times, spearfishing was a crucial way of obtaining food for communities that lived near bodies of water. Spears and harpoons were fashioned out of wood, bone, or stone, and were used to catch fish, shellfish, and other aquatic animals. In many cultures, spearfishing was also a way to showcase bravery and skill.

Over time, spearfishing has evolved into a recreational sport enjoyed by people around the world. Spear fishers today use modern equipment like spearguns, wetsuits, and fins to hunt fish and explore the underwater world. The sport has also become more regulated to protect the environment and ensure the safety of divers.

Today, spearfishing is practiced in many parts of the world, with competitions and tournaments held regularly. The sport has also grown in popularity with the rise of underwater photography and videography, allowing spearfishermen to capture and share their underwater experiences.

Despite its modernization, spearfishing remains an activity that requires skill, patience, and respect for the ocean and its inhabitants. It is a thrilling way to connect with nature and uniquely experience the underwater world.

Evidence of spearfishing in ancient time

Since ancient history, early civilizations have been familiar with spearing fish from the sea, rivers, and lakes using sharpened sticks. Spearfishing with barbed poles (harpoons) was widespread in the Paleolithic, and evidence of this is found for example in drawings found in Cosquer Cave in Southern France dating over 16,000 years ago.

The Greek historian Polybius (ca 203 BC–120 BC), in his Histories, describes hunting for swordfish by using a harpoon with a barbed and detachable head. The Greek author Oppian of Corycus wrote a major treatise on sea fishing, the Halieulica or Halieutika, composed between 177 and 180 BC. Oppian describes various means of fishing including the use of spears and tridents.

Early hunters in India include the Mincopie people, aboriginal inhabitants of India's Andaman and Nicobar islands, who have used harpoons with long cords for fishing since early times.

Reference to the use of spears for fishing is also found in the Bible.

Development of spears and spearguns

From the simple hand spears (pointed sticks, sticks with barbed metal points and tridents) used in ancient times, spearfishing equipment developed in more efficient and powerful solutions, such as pole spears, sling-spearguns, and pneumatic spearguns.

The pole spear or Hawaiian sling is the simplest of the lot. In some countries, Hawaii and some of North America, it is the only equipment that can be used to catch fish as no mechanically driven solution is allowed. The pole spear is made of a tube with an elastic loop at one end. The shaft, which is tipped by one of a variety of spearheads, is drawn through the tube and pulled back, stretching the loop. When released, the shaft is propelled forward.

In the mid-1930s, Alec Kramarenko patented an underwater speargun in which the spear was propelled by a compressed spring. A much more efficient solution goes back to 1947, with the first sling speargun invented by Georges Beuchat, the visionary pioneer of underwater sports fishing, who designed the celebrated Tarzan, by developing the first elastic band propulsion system. This was a more advanced and efficient solution compared to pole spears. On sling spearguns, a shaft is locked in a release mechanism inserted in a handle similar to the one of a gun. Bands of different types, rubbers, and diameters are then positioned on a muzzle mounted at the end of a barrel connected on the other side to the handle. The rubber bands are then pulled and locked to the shaft. Once the trigger on the handle releases the shaft this is propelled forward with great power. 

In recent years, sling spearguns have further developed with solutions such as Roller, double Roller, and Inverter systems, which add to a greater performance of the shot and higher complexity of the system and loading phase.

Invented in the mid-1950s, the pneumatic speargun works with compressed air pumped in a tank in the barrel by a dedicated air pump. Such a solution has had immediate success but was left aside after the first enthusiasm due to its greater complexity, cost, and maintenance. Today the technical development of pneumatic spearguns and the introduction of the “Vuoto” technology, which improves performance, have brought back pneumatic spearguns to the attention of many spearfisherman, even though internationally sling spearguns are still more widely diffused.

Competitive Spearfishing

Championed by spearfishing enthusiasts Ralph Davis, Jacques Yves Cousteau, Bill Schroeder, Fred Beitz, and Ernesto Zaragosa, it almost became an Olympic sport. While you may recognize Jacques Cousteau from his famous underwater documentaries, Ralph Davis led the charge to take spearfishing to the Olympic Games. After twenty years of work creating rules, and divisions, completing the official paperwork for the bid,  spearfishing was beaten out by synchronized swimming in 1968.

Still, spearfishing competitions are organized all over the world. CMAS is responsible for defining the rules and contributing to the organization of international competitions such as the World and the Euro African Spearfishing Competitions. The first editions of spearfishing competitions started in the following years: 

1947 - First spearfishing competition of any kind was in the United States
1949 - First national competition ever organized by Italy
1954 - First European Championship: Italy, Sestri Levante
1957 - First World championship: Yugoslavia, Mali Losinj

Anybody who fishes with a speargun is passionate about it and most people tend to think they have reached a good standard after their first significant catch. Some people tend to think they are better than others and a number of those will not hesitate to openly brag about it. 

It seems that some people can’t rest until they have proof of who is best and that’s how it must have all started. Spearfishing, like most human activities, began creating its champions through actual competitions across the seven seas of the globe. As early as the start of the fifties, national and international spearfishing competition events had started to take place, in a frenzy of the pioneers of the sport to clash with one another, but also to get together, exchange information about their passion and develop their primitive equipment and fish approaching techniques. In a world emerging from a devastating war, any international sports activity seemed to bring healing to the still-open wounds of mankind and was therefore encouraged by governments. 

Although it never became a sport for many, it was worshiped by the people around it, on a scale unprecedented for a mere fishing sport. Maybe it was the necessity of combining the qualities of highly demanding bodily exercise with precision judgment and live target shooting in a hypoxic state. Maybe it was the intriguing element of a possible uplift created by pure chance in the magical world of the sea. Or, finally, maybe defeat was not so bitter in spearfishing, given that one would be practicing his favorite hobby during the contest anyway. Whatever it was, it provided fascination, which made competitive spearfishing incomparable for its participants and the fans. 

The superpowers in the early years (1957. – 1963.) were Italy, France, the USA, Spain, and Brazil.  Catalani, Corman, Lenz, Hermany, and Gomis were the first world champions. 

During the eighties and nineties, the sport flourished, and especially in Europe international events were taking place in several countries frequently within each calendar year. The legendary clashes of the giants Jose Amengual, Jean Baptiste Esclapes, Bernard Salvatori, and Renzo Mazzari overwhelmed thousands of astonished spectators and readers of diving magazines around the world.

Most of the world championships of this period took place in the Mediterranean with big groupers deciding the outcome. It was the golden era of the sport, the times of plenty!

No one, who has read about spearfishing in those days, is ignorant of the name “Jose Amengual”, the lame-legged legend from Maiorca, who dominated the competitions from 1973. until 1985., winning three world titles for Spain (1973., 1981., and 1985.).

Many say, that if it weren’t for the gap in the row of the world championships (from 1975. to 1981.), Amengual would have been the greatest of all time. And no one who saw it will ever forget the photo of Renzo Mazzari lifting 50 kilos of seabreams in Istanbul in 1987., to gracefully beat J.B. Esclapez and win his first world title, or the one of Mazzari with the groupers that brought down B. Salvatori in Maiorca in 1992. to grant Renzo his third.

Today, the enthusiasm amongst the athletes and fans remains vigorous. The generation that has matured during the golden age of the sport would certainly love to leave its mark on it. But in the meanwhile state funding in all sports has been reduced in most countries and especially the smaller sports under state supervision have found themselves struggling to survive. Organizing international spearfishing events with boats is exceptionally expensive and despite the sponsor contributions, the national federations are struggling to maintain the organizational quality level of the past when hosting a championship.

Another downside of the present times for the sport is the environmental conscience the civilized world has gradually grown. Green organizations have constantly criticized the institution of competitive spearfishing in many different fora and countries and the criticism almost led to the abolishing of the discipline within the CMAS in 1999, when a resolution to that end was passed in the general assembly of the world confederation. The CMAS quickly realized it would only be denying its identity by renouncing its first sports discipline and annulled its initial decision keeping it under its wings.

Nevertheless, despite the insertions of many restrictions in the rules, the environmental pressure on spearfishing is evident today in many different ways. 

The one country that has refused to play games of hide and seek about the sport, has always been Spain. Having produced the first-ever competitive spearfishing legend in the face of Jose Amengual, the Spaniards built up a remarkable tradition that rests on solid foundations. Many say that it is those foundations that hold the whole spearfishing discipline firmly together on an international scale. For many years, FEDAS has cultivated and maintained many clubs, and regional federations and has organized many national and international events in their waters. Undoubtedly, Spain still invests heavily in the sport and is not afraid to show it. It always remained true to the originally laid principles and never backed down. It has constantly opposed any restrictive change in the rules and has always been there when no other country would take up the organization of an important event. It has come as no surprise, that since 1994, Spain has dominated the international scene of the sport.

Pedro Carbonell is the last of the giants of international competition spearfishing, having equaled the achievements of his uncle J. Amengual and of the Italian R. Mazzari with 3 world titles. 

After the world championship in Mali Losinj (2010.) he declared his retirement from international competition. At the age of 42 and with the restrictions in the rules having undermined his competing skills, he finally gave up the quest for the fourth world title. Santi Lopez Cid, Xavi Blanco, and Oscar Cervantes are his worthy successors today in the Spanish national team. Of course, other numerous athletes with honors and medals have kept the country at the top level of the international scene.

After a long period of moderate presence and results, Italy seems to be bouncing back as a true superpower of the sport once again. Giacomo De Mola may be the main figure of this excellent comeback, but he is backed by a very determined federation with tremendous tradition and exceptional athletes and coaches who have collectively contributed to this uprise.

Alongside Italy,  Chile, Croatia, and Portugal, are giving Spain a good reason not to take things for granted anymore. Patricio Saez (in 2006.), Daniel Gospic (in 2010.), and Jody Lot (in 2012. and 2018.) all won world titles for their countries and they were all surrounded by super teams that gained big wins in all international competitions. France seems to be able to join the fight again after a long absence of 21 years. No one doubts they have maintained their high level as the sport’s third superpower during the years of absence.

As for the underdogs, the loosening of the grip of Italy and the absence of France have allowed new countries to claim some international success. Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Tunisia, and Algeria managed to push through to the international podium and win medals in the World and Euroafrican championships of the latest era. We should be looking at new scenery at the top levels of the sport. It might well be that the varnish of the old days is gone, but an inner layer of polish has appeared underneath: The championships may not be spectacular anymore, but they sure interest more countries. And more countries mean more athletes and fans!

So, what is competitive spearfishing really about today? Will it find the means to finance itself and withstand environmental criticism at the same time? What can it still present in a new world, where the information travels anywhere in an eye blink? How does competition spearfishing impact any regular guy anywhere in the world? Those are some of the questions that come to mind and excite the interest and expectations of the people who follow the sport closely. There are no actual answers to those kinds of questions as they only provide ground for thought. In the end, no matter what the opinions are, or who the best fisherman in the world may be, a spearfisherman should always be eager to daily challenge himself to a duel. There is no doubt that to get good at anything, one has to compete, even if it is only against oneself. One can’t always be the best. But one can sure try to be better than yesterday… 

Tribute to spearos

Mali Losinj, a city on the Croatian island of Losinj has a monument to a spearfisherman in the center of the city. But also, Cabo Frio in Brazil has a monument dedicated to a spearfisherman.

Spearfishing references and special thank you to : Branko Suljic private archive, Valentina Prokic, Roman Basanic, George Vasiliou, Giacomo de Mola, Lidija Vukic, Danijel Pizentic, Daniel Roettgermann, Barret Harvey, Elcin Guner and Dimitris Pathiakis Mitato Films (for the 40 Ft. Man video), Giannis Sideris (cleaning sea). And companies Beuchat, Omer, Scorpena, Mares.