The Zen of Apnea, the Ennui of Chub

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, July 1995

The Zen of Apnea, the Ennui of Chub

Breathlessly beside myself at the world spearfishing championships
By Tim Cahill

"Two," the announcer said in Spanish, "four, six, eight, ten..." In front of him, under the bright spotlights of an outdoor amphitheater, men were pulling fish out of a numbered plasticized burlap sack and transferring them, two at a time, to several plastic crates of the type used to transport milk cartons.

The crates were later loaded onto what looked like a refrigerated truck. Above, there were 5,000 people sitting on the hard stone steps of the stadium. Five thousand people, watching men count fish, by twos, in Spanish. "Diez y seis, diez y ocho..."

The ceremony had been going on for four hours. I felt as if I were drowning, sinking into wavering subaqueous darkness and looking up toward a surface that was receding from me at some velocity. It was an unrelenting struggle to stay awake during this, the most public, most visible part of a prestigious international sporting event. I felt as if I had been condemned to some fifth-century Zen monastery and sentenced to a month of "wall gazing," that mind-numbing spiritual exercise designed to help novices learn the essential truth that only consciousness is real, not its objects.

The unreal objects in question were fish. Mostly the fish looked like Bermuda chub, hundreds of them. All these fat, drab fish had been taken on this, the first day of competition in the 19th (the promoters favored the Roman numeral XIX) Mundial de Caza Submarina, the world spearfishing championships. Representatives of 24 nations were present, here in Ilo, Peru, which is on the Pacific Ocean in the southern part of the country. The United States, Japan, Spain, Italy, France, Brazil, Argentina, Tahiti, and Australia were involved in the competition, along with some countries I don't necessarily associate with spearfishing: Croatia, Russia, Slovenia, Namibia, and Turkey.

"Forty-five fish," the announcer said, "for the team from Denmark." This wasn't a whole hell of a lot of fish. The audience applauded lightly. It would be hours before I learned whether the American team had similarly disgraced itself. Hours. I felt as if I had been flung into the fishy abyss, dark waters closing in around me, and enlightenment was not forthcoming.

To get to Ilo, it was necessary to rent a car in Tacna, the nearest town with an airport, and drive a hundred miles across a wind-savaged plateau on the northern edge of the Atacama Desert, the driest land on earth, parts of which have enjoyed less than one inch of rain in the past century. My road ran straight over arid plains and low, rolling hills covered in sand the color of sun-dried leather and cement. Dust devils whirled in the distance, and occasionally one seemed to spring up out of nowhere to batter the car with the booming thud of a bass drum.

Just before the first of what would be three military checkpoints in a hundred miles, I stopped to pick up a man wearing an expensive leather coat and carrying a clipboard. He looked intelligent and respectable. I figured I could practice my rusty Spanish on him.

The man, in fact, was a police officer, inexplicably hitchhiking back and forth between checkpoints, and I was allowed to work on my inflections and conjugations during a fairly mild interrogation at 60 miles per hour.

What was my business in Peru?

"I go now to campeonato. You know?"

Happily, in Peru, they don't arrest you for speaking Spanish like Tarzan.

"The president," the policeman said, "will be in Ilo tomorrow, to open the campeonato."

So, I asked, there is no longer any trouble with the Sendero Luminoso?

The guerrillas of the Shining Path, a Maoist cadre based in the southern mountains of Peru, had managed, in their time, to kill some 27,000 people and cause $22 billion worth of damage. In September 1992, their leader, Abimael Guzman, was captured. Since then, most of the other leaders have been captured as well.

"Absolutely no problems," the policeman said.

Not here, anyway, I thought. If what was left of the Shining Path wanted to disrupt the world spearfishing championships, they'd have to come down out of their mountain camps, march across an empty desert, and make their way past at least three major military bases complete with tanks, helicopters, and fighter planes. Taking out a column of guerrillas in this desert would be like shooting fish in a barrel.

The spearfishing competition, it seemed, was partially an effort to demonstrate Peru's military progress to the rest of the world. A secure Peru could hold itself out to various financial markets as a swell investment opportunity.

I asked the policeman if things were better in Peru these days.

"There is more money," he said, "but the same people still get rich."

The road to Ilo rose over low mountains and then made a precipitous drop to the coast. Wind-driven sand piled up like heavy gray snowdrifts, and a crew of 12 men worked with shovels and wheelbarrows to clear the highway. The men's clothes were sandblasted, and they wore bandannas over their mouths. What could be seen of their faces was the color of the sand, and the sky, and the sea. They were gray men, shoveling sand in a sandstorm, every day of the week, every day of their working lives.

The city of Ilo was hunkered down along a desolate coastline where heavy seas pounded against pinnacles of rock set at various distances from the shore. The sea stacks were a darker gray than the sea itself, and even on the road, 500 feet above the shore, I could see great waves exploding against rock. Ilo itself looked bleak: thousands of small, square, cement buildings huddled together before the pitiless immensity of the Pacific.

One of the outlying neighborhoods was called the City of Flowers, and it sat on a flat bench some distance from the downtown area. There were no flowers, no gardens, no lawns. There was no color anywhere, not in this area where blowing sand would peel paint back to bare concrete in a matter of months. The only paint I saw was that stenciled onto every fifth building, a fading announcement advising passersby that there was "cement for sale."

The people from the City of Flowers, from the barrio of Kennedy, from everywhere, were all downtown. There was some kind of parade rolling down the main street, with marching bands and floats and men on horseback who waved at the cheering crowds that lined the street. A group of little girls wearing great tinfoil wings, painted gold, marched by, and because they looked more angelic than anything that ever came out of the Italian Renaissance, I imagined they were meant to be angels.

The angels marched under large banners that stretched across the street. The banners, in Spanish, read, WELCOME TO THE XIX WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP SPEARFISHING CONTEST and NEIGHBOR, REMEMBER: THE TOURIST IS YOUR FRIEND and IF YOU LIVE IN ILO, WORK FOR ILO, LOVE ILO and I LOVE ILO. Love was represented by a red heart. Soldiers in full combat gear, carrying automatic weapons, manned the parade barricades.

In what looked like the town's largest hotel, the lobby was packed with international travelers speaking Greek and Italian and Danish and Portuguese. Were there any rooms available? I asked. The desk clerk said it was to laugh. The hotel had been booked for months. One of the French speakers, a man named Phillippe Lavarelo, stepped up. He worked in the French embassy in Lima, and the French were a big presence in the hotel. There was even a video team poised to document what looked like a good chance for a French victory. With Phillippe's help, the clerk was able to find me a windowless basement room.

Phillippe said that the French team had already been in Ilo for five weeks, scouting the waters. Since it was difficult to bring boats into Peru, he, Phillippe, had used his consular connections to secure two quick Zodiacs for scouting purposes. Most of the rest of the teams had to make do with the slow, clunky wooden scout boats supplied by the city of Ilo. A brass band marched by outside; somewhere down on the waterfront a huge crowd cheered some announcement.

And tomorrow, the president of Peru would arrive to open the ceremonies.

The American team didn't believe it.

"A reporter," Jon Bergren said. He was the captain of the team.

No one covers us," Bill Ernst said.

The other team members, Rene Rojas, John Plikus, and Pepin Fernandez agreed.

Spearfishing is big in Europe. There is even a glossy French magazine about breath-hold events. It is called Apnea, a Greek word meaning a transient suspension of respiration. For the Europeans, a win at the championships meant a fawning spread in Apnea; it meant big money in equipment endorsements. The top European divers, men like Italy's Renzo Mazzari, were international celebrities, on a par with ski racers and cyclists. The Spanish team, it was rumored, had spent $100,000 on preparations for the event. There was a lot of national pride and prestige involved.

The American team, by contrast, had precisely nothing in the way of sponsorship. Its members paid their own expenses, had no hope of lucrative commercial endorsements and no one at the American embassy working overtime on their behalf. The last thing they expected was coverage in the media.

It was a disparate group of athletes, hastily pulled together just two months before the competition. Jon Bergren had some real estate investments in Connecticut and was working overtime to survive in a bad market. Bill Ernst was a fireman in Los Angeles. Pepin Fernandez, of Miami, originally from Cuba, was possessed of an exuberant personality--you could envision him wearing one of those fluorescent ruffle-sleeved mambo shirts--and is the only world-class diver I ever met whose business card identifies him as a "world-class diver." Rene Rojas, originally from Chile, now living in California, was a quiet, self-effacing man who collected sea urchins for the Japanese market. It was a one-man operation, and Rene said that when his topside tank gave out, the air down below got thin, and that was his signal to surface. I got the impression that if Rene wasn't a good breath-hold diver, he'd be pretty much defunct.

The teammates, who had all the reason in the world to act like Shriners at a convention, were for the most part self-contained, thoughtful men. Nobody was drinking alcohol, looking for nooky, or spoiling for a fight. They displayed none of the dumbass loutishness that characterizes the downside fringe of hunting. Thirty-two-year-old John Plikus, a mechanical engineer from Connecticut, was the youngest of them. Spearfishing, it seemed, was one of those sports, like mountaineering, that rewards experience and judgment over youth and strength.

I asked whether the American team had a chance to win.

Only, it seemed, if they got lucky. The Chileans and Peruvians knew these waters and were in their home arena. The big European teams had been scouting for more than a month. They had fish-finding sonar equipment and global positioning system devices to pinpoint underwater pinnacles where fish congregate. The Americans had been in Ilo for one week, and they scouted the waters the old-fashioned way, which is to say they spent a lot of time swimming around with their eyes open. Since world-class divers tend to be fairly evenly matched, scouting makes all the difference in these competitions. You have to know where the fish are going to be.

The American team, as a whole, seemed secure, even contemplative. They were chock-full of self knowledge--or so I imagined--and appeared to have actually found a measure of enlightenment in the fishy abyss. These guys might have been a delegation of friars, except they hadn't even begun to master the squirming basic human urge to kick ass in international competition. There was something admirable and contemplative about them, something--how to put this?--almost Zenlike.

I found a press office and asked a few of the bright young people--college students majoring in communications, I imagined--where all the speared fish would go. They were, I was told, to be given away to "mothers' clubs," groups of mothers banded together to feed their families, and to commodores populares, inexpensive, subsidized restaurants serving poor neighborhoods.

Was it possible to see the fish being distributed?

This was treated as an odd request. The campeonatowas about parades and ceremonies and international fellowship. It was about Peru's place in the community of nations. Why would I want to watch the government give away food to poor people?

I explained--tactfully, I thought--that in my country, the government might be so interested in the competition that the fish would be allowed to rot. Either that or some clever hustler--the mayor's nephew, for instance, might make a lot of money on a couple truckloads of free fish.

One of the women said she'd see what she could do. I could come back later.

The next day there was another parade. The military band and the angels and the men on horseback, along with teams from 24 nations, all marched down to the central plaza, where President Alberto Fujimori spoke. The place was packed. Even the rooftops were thronged. Fujimori never mentioned the Shining Path, but he said that the fact that such an event as this could be held in Peru proved beyond doubt that the country had finally been pacified. The underlying message, as I thought it might be, was that Peru would be a great place for foreigners to invest money.

Later I met the Americans in their hotel, where they were working on their equipment. The spearguns looked to be about three to four feet long and were powered by two lengths of stretched surgical tubing.

Each team consisted of five men: three divers, an alternate, and a captain, whose job it was to plot team strategy. I had brought along my own gear and asked if I could dive with the American team during the competition. It wasn't even remotely possible. The rules were very strict. Someone diving as an observer, for instance, might have a speargun stashed underwater and would be able to pass fish to a competing diver.

"Do people do that sort of thing?" I asked.

"Oh yes," Jon Bergren said.

International spearfishing, it turns out, is a cutthroat sort of sport. Jon told me a story about a diver who spent the month before a major competition feeding fish in a large underwater cave. On the day of the event, he took up a position at the mouth of the cave, and about an hour into the hunt, all the fish in the area began migrating to the spot where they had been fed for the last month. The diver cleaned them out. Nowadays, judges watched for that sort of thing.

In any case, it was unlikely that I could keep up with any of the divers. The fact that I had once been a pretty fair freestyle sprinter, good enough to compete on the national level, didn't cut much ice.

"You could recruit an Olympic champion," Jon said, "and it would take him at least two years to start winning competitions just on the local level."

Sure, short bursts of speed were important, but the event is six hours long. A diver wants to control his metabolic processes; he wants to keep his heart beating at a slow rate--40, 50 times a minute. I thought: Great holy Buddha on the mountaintop, it is a Zen kind of deal.

And there were dangers not immediately obvious. If you breathhold-dive enough, the body seems to get it. Oxygen rich blood is not pumped to the extremities. Good divers reach a place where the body no longer screams at them to breathe. This poses a danger. In 1986, during a competition in Florida, a diver named Phil Wisnewski died while trying to pull a fish he'd speared out of a cave in 80 feet of water.

Then there was the phenomenon called shallow-water blackout. Before going down, divers do what's called "packing" air. They take three half-breaths, exhale three times, then take a full breath, piping in the last air through pursed lips until the lungs actually hurt. The arms are held out to the sides, so the rib cage has space to expand. A full stomach takes up room that the lungs can use, so no diver eats before a competition. Some don't even eat the night before.

At 60 feet, the pain in the lungs disappears. Divers are usually down for about one minute. When they rise to the surface, they sometimes black out at about 30 feet. In grade school we used to play "knockout" with the same gas laws--the physics of pressure on empty lungs. Out on the playground at St. Mary's, I might exhale, and then someone else--maybe Armand Bruni, who was a strong kid--would squeeze my chest in a bear hug. Ten or 20 seconds later I'd wake up on the ground, looking up into a sea of inquisitive faces. Knockout!

In shallow-water blackouts, upward momentum and the buoyancy of their wetsuits commonly carry spearfishermen to the surface, where they pop awake, likely wondering, "Is that what death feels like?"

Which is an experience not generally offered in everyday adult life. Knowing one's own limitations is a form of wisdom. Playing around at the edge of those limitations when the penalty for exceeding them is catastrophic, if not fatal, is a form of active meditation. Forget about wall gazing: shallow-water blackout is a flat-out real-world demonstration of the Zen dictum that only consciousness is reality. And these athletes, these spearfishermen--they were the monks of apnea.

So nah, I couldn't dive with the American team. I didn't have the skill, the maturity, the spirituality. Besides, it was illegal.

Another day, another parade: bass drums and trumpets, bedraggled floats, and a dispirited band of angels trudging along in their crumpled and seriously parade-worn wings. The diving would begin at nine.

The way the competitons worked was simple: Each diver had a list of perhaps five sites that he thought would be productive. It might take an hour to fish out the first place. He then went on to the next site on his list. The problem was that someone from another country might have already worked that area. There was no way to know.

Every diver was assigned a boat. To level the playing field, all the boats were the same size and powered by the same engine. Each captain was required to pick one of his three divers and stay with him and his boat.

The sky had cleared a bit, but there was a stiff wind driving heavy surf into the pinnacles just offshore. I could see one competitor working the surfside promontory of a nearby islet. His boat bobbed in the waves. His black swim fins rose above the surface of the sea, and then sank. Rose and sank.

It was a dangerous place to be. The diver was timing his descents with the waves that were exploding off the rocks to his back. He dove a few seconds before a ten-foot wall of water rolled over him, and then wedged himself into a crevice in the rock as the underwater surge battered him. As the wave receded, the surge pulled him--and all the nearby fish--back out into the ocean. And that was when he'd do his hunting.

In spearfishing, fish are taken from one foot to ten feet away. The favored kill shot is behind the gills, in the center of the body. Once hit, the fish makes a few arabesques and then tires quickly. The sport isn't so much about marksmanship or muscle as it is about knowing where your prey will be. In all international competitions there are strict regulations that have to be followed, and the general thinking is that spearfishermen have no more effect on the "resource" than hook-and-line sportsmen do. Repetitive competitions in the same area could damage a fishery, but even in Peru, with a small army of the best underwater hunters in the world working six hours a day for two days, there would be no long-term deleterious effect. It was a one-time event.

Bill Ernst was working a kelp bed some miles from shore in one of the three large competition areas assigned for the day. The kelp was strange: It didn't reach to the surface. You had to swim down through a thick carpet of leaves at 30 feet, and then move rapidly, pulling yourself hand over hand through the stalks. Catch a fish, and you had to drag it up through the tangling canopy. There were about 20 species of fish it was legal to spear, and they weren't a whole hell of a lot different than fish Bill had seen in the United States. It was tougher to avoid undersize fish: Peru had a weight limit of one pound, rather than the length limit the American divers are used to.

Visibility was poor--two to 30 feet. Bill told me later that he didn't see another diver all day. Sometimes, in these competitions, two divers will come upon the same school of fish. There are two ways to handle the situation. You either power into the center of the school, scatter the fish, and hope you are faster and more skillful than the other guy, or you separate and work the fringes of the school, both of you taking a lot of fish, the better diver taking the most.

These Peruvian fish weren't particularly wary. They hadn't been hunted much. It's a lot different in places that see a lot of spearfishing pressure, like Hawaii. There, you dive down into a school of fish, and when you get to the center, they've all moved uniformly out of range. Everywhere you look, on all sides, there are fish calmly feeding 25 feet away. Move, and the fishless hole moves with you. From the surface, it looks like theater in the round and you're Hamlet.

Late that afternoon, people gathered at the amphitheater, which was located on the beach and accommodated about 3,000 people. The proud citizens of Ilo, along with small groups of international visitors, sat on stone benches as men with wheelbarrows rolled bags of fish from the docks to the beach. The bags were numbered and placed on woven mats on the sand beneath the flags of the various countries.

The competition ended at three. Most of us in the audience found seats at about four. It wasn't until six or so that all the fish were assembled and officials began counting them. People sat patiently watching. No one left. In fact, you couldn't leave the amphitheater without losing your place. The upper deck was ringed with another 2,000 people who couldn't find seats. There was polite applause for everyone: Turkey, Nambia--hey, lotta nice fish, you guys!

I reflected on the Latin American temperament. The folks sitting on these rock benches were the very same people who drove 250 miles per hour through town in pickup trucks and new Japanese cars and taxis and buses. It was apparently considered courteous to honk loudly and often. People who didn't lean on the horn at least once a block simply weren't paying attention. The city was, after all, full of annoying, and sometimes slow-moving, pedestrians. You'd see well-dressed businessmen driving late-model cars, bearing down on some ancient woman hobbling painfully across the street, and they'd blast her with the horn.

"Yo, I'm driving here, Grandma."

And yet these same people could sit patiently, breathlessly, watching men count fish for eight hours.

The Americans did OK the first day: 112 fish. We finished 11th out of 24 countries, way ahead of Belgium (47), Japan (37), Russia (30), and Argentina (20). Spain was the leader, with 225 fish, and France was right behind, with 224.

Back at my hotel, the French embassy official was livid. France, it seems, had been disqualified. "Our captain," Phillippe Lavarelo explained, "just got into another boat. He wasn't even diving, and they disqualified the whole team. This whole thing is political. They don't like us." He was writing a letter of protest.

The French, it seemed, had asked permission to use one of their Zodiacs, in addition to their team boats, to accommodate their video crew. The French captain had allegedly sneaked into the Zodiac and had checked various dive areas so as to advise his team about which sites were being fished. When Peruvian officials stopped the Zodiac, the captain was found hiding under a tarp. Or so rumor had it; the press office would neither confirm nor deny the allegation.

A Chilean diver I talked to later was all for the disqualification. It was, he said, the only way to teach the French a lesson.

It would also, I noted, move Chile up from fourth to third place. There was that, the Chilean agreed. But damn it, the French were always doing questionable stuff. A few weeks ago, the Chilean said, he had been scouting an underwater pinnacle when the French team came by in a Zodiac and kept circling above him.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because they're French," he said.

"You mean, you think they're arrogant."

Yes, that was what he meant. Exactly.

Actually, I'd spent some time with the French divers the day before. They had been uniformly pleasant, and in fact, I owed my basement living accommodations, such as they were, to Phillippe of the French embassy. It occurred to me that calling the French arrogant is a little like saying Romans speak Italian. French people have the most euphonious language on earth, their scholars commit the most esoteric theoretics, their food is superb. They are culturally superior and can pronounce the word ennui in a way that lets the rest of us know how much they suffer in our presence. Arrogance is a French cultural trait, as delicious, in its way, as any bouillabaisse.

The next morning, early, the hotel lobby was in chaos. The French contingent was leaving Ilo in protest and en masse. Hey, au revoir, guys. I transferred from my basement hovel to a top-floor oceanfront room that had previously contained culturally superior Frenchmen.

"There is a man you could talk to," the bright young people at the press center told me, "but he is very busy right now."

"What's he doing?"

"He is giving away the fish."

"But you said I could watch him do it."

"Of course." Indeed, I could talk to the fish man--later. He could tell me precisely how he'd given away yesterday's catch.

"Can I watch now?" I was becoming frustrated.

"Come back in an hour, please."

It occurred to me that I was being sandbagged. There might be a story here: Fish Rot While Poor Go Hungry. Something like that.

I had lunch in a downtown restaurant and read the Tacna paper. The campeonato was front-page news. In the distance, I could hear the dismal thump of the day's first parade moving my way. A familiar-looking truck passed by outside. It was, in fact, the refrigerated truck I'd seen last night at the fish-counting ceremony.

I threw a few bills on the table and sprinted out to my car. The truck hadn't made it very far on the narrow street, and I managed to get within a car or two of his bumper. When the driver cleared the downtown area he cranked it up to 250 miles per hour, and we went screaming through the outskirts of town, blasting our horns at children and puppies and people in wheelchairs.

Here I was, chasing a refrigerated truck through a remote town in southern Peru and convinced, in my own mind, that I was the Woodward and Bernstein of fish. The truck stopped at the farmer's market on the main road into town. Two men got out, rolled up the back gate, and started giving away fish to shabbily dressed shoppers.

I stood there watching for some time, chatting with folks, and from what I was able to piece together, the Peruvians had been extremely clever in their fish distribution scheme. The city government was to give away the first day's catch, and the state would be in charge of the second and last day's. Since there was some tension between the two entities, each would struggle to distribute the fish in a way that would enhance its standing among the poor.

It was a maddening development. What kind of story was this, anyway? I couldn't dive with the competitors or even go out in a boat to watch them. This left a six-hour hole in each day, an eternity of wall gazing, followed by eight excruciating hours of public fish counting. I had plenty of time to poke around in the cracks and crevices of the competition, but everywhere I looked there was a dismal lack of scandal. The contest was ecologically sound and would have no lasting impact on the fishery in the area. The Peruvians were, well, they were parade-crazed, yes, but they were also extremely efficient and prepared. And the sons of bitches were giving away food to hungry people.

Spain won the campeonato. Chile was second; Italy, third; and Peru, fourth. The United States finished tenth, not bad, considering that the team had been able to put in only a scant week of scouting. José Vina of Spain speared the most fish, 166, and was the individual winner. Frane Zanki of Croatia caught the biggest fish: a Bermuda chub weighing 19.294 pounds.

Bill Ernst found me in the hotel bar late that night. I asked if he had any complaints.

None at all. The event had gone very smoothly.

Was it the best-run competition ever?

Bill said yes, he supposed it was.

I finished my beer. "Otra vez," I said to the barman. Another time.

Bill and I chatted about the contest for a while, and then he said he had to turn in. There was to be a big good-bye ceremony the next day. He expected a lot of speeches. International goodwill. That sort of thing.

"And a parade," I muttered darkly.

"Yeah," Bill agreed. "I think they're going to have a parade."

"Otra vez," I said.

It occurred to me that this event was something like softball: more fun to play than to watch. I told myself I'd like to do a lot more spearfishing in the future. Get good at it. The languid physicality of the sport appealed to me. There was something in the Zen of apnea I liked, something akin to meditation. It's probably a good thing to know your limitations, to be able to control your autonomous systems, to flirt with nirvana through asphyxiation. An unconsecrated spearfisherman like myself could stop gazing at the walls and instead listen for the sound of one hand clapping in the immense wonder of the world's oceans. Dinner, after a few hours of spiritual questing, might be Bermuda chub, sautéed in lemon butter. I liked the idea of enlightenment on a plate.

The next world championship, Bill reminded me, would be held in two years.

"I'll hold my breath," I said.

Tim Cahill is Outside's editor-at-large.

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