Ready, Aim, Sushi

If a shark doesn't kill you, shallow-water blackout or a giant propeller might. But the spearfishermen free­diving the oil rigs off Louisiana's coast don't let that get in the way of the hunt for fresh tuna.

Kirkconnell spears a bull mahi mahi     Photo: D.J. Struntz

Tiger Shark

Craig Clasen battles an aggressive 12-foot tiger shark

Tiger Shark

Clasen hunts in sargassum weed

Tiger Shark

Kirkconnell with a 20-pound red snapper

View the photo gallery

FROM THE SURFACE, the oil platform Medusa appears an unlikely fishing hole. The rig, a tight weave of steel girders supporting cranes, a helipad, and the roughnecks who run it, rests atop a narrow support pillar like a giant industrial lollipop. Thirty-six miles south of the Mississippi River's mouth, off the coast of Louisiana, in more than 2,200 feet of water, Medusa extracts up to 40,000 barrels of crude oil and 110 million cubic feet of natural gas every day. In one of nature's ironic twists, this floating monolith doubles as a thriving, vertical coral reef, which is precisely the reason that Craig Clasen and Cameron Kirkconnell motored a crew out there one sunny day last June.

As two of the world's best spearfishermen, Clasen and Kirkconnell, both 32, are famous in diving circles for spearing fish the size of offensive linemen. But unlike many of their peers who hunt using scuba gear, Clasen and Kirkconnell are freedivers. In one of the purest, most physically challenging forms of hunting, the men dive to 100 feet on a single breath for two minutes or more, a discipline Kirkconnell describes as "calculated insanity."

 

After hours of yo-yoing through the water column at Medusa, the men had a large cooler stocked with an Audubon guide of game fish: wahoo, tuna, dorado. They planned on eating well that night. Everything was going according to plan, until suddenly it wasn't.

As the crew prepared to leave, a third man, filmmaker Ryan McInnis, became distracted filming a playful pair of squid at the surface, 150 feet from the boat. When he turned around, the 33-year-old McInnis saw a 12-foot tiger shark, drawn by a perfume of bloody chum. The shark charged. Armed with only his video camera, McInnis knew he had to do something, so he pressed RECORD. The shark veered away just a foot from him and began to circle. McInnis yelled for the boat.

With a tangle of lines hanging off the stern, Kirkconnell couldn't immediately speed over to McInnis. Clasen (nickname: "Ragin' Cajun"), still in the water and with just seconds to act, swam toward his friend, speargun in hand.

By the time Clasen reached McInnis, the shark had tightened its circle, and the men couldn't reach the boat and fend off the predator simultaneously. Clasen has spent much of his life swimming harmoniously with sharks, but this one had a different feel. "Every bone in my body was telling me that this shark was up there to feed," says Clasen.

Tigers are swimming garbage disposals they've been known to swallow sea turtles and old tires whole. When the shark made a move toward the men, Clasen shot it through the gills.

It was a devastating blow but not lethal, and the hunter's code that governs Clasen compelled him to finish the job. But evolution designed these animals masterfully big body, small brain and Clasen couldn't "stone" the shark, despite shooting it several more times. Every time he approached the fish underwater, it would snap violently to life, until finally he took a deep breath of air, swam down to 40 feet, slid under its belly, and wrestled the shark to the surface by its pectoral fins. "I had to bear-hug it to keep it from biting my head off," Clasen recalls. Kirkconnell threw him a rope, which he lassoed around the shark's tail. They dragged it behind the boat until it drowned.

A somber mood fell over the men. "I want to be very clear," Clasen said remorsefully. "That was not a proud kill for me, but I didn't have a choice. She was just being a shark."The men eat what they kill, so they cut a fillet off the tiger and ate it sashimi style. It tasted like oatmeal with rubber bands in it. "It was terrible," Clasen recalls.

After hearing about the story from photographer D.J. Struntz, who was in the water when it happened, I gave Clasen a call. "A lot of people don't understand what we do," he said. "They're going to think I've lost my mind. But this is not Disneyland. You come on down here. We'll show you."

THERE'S HARDLY a more egalitarian sport than freediving: Trudge into the water, put on a dive mask, take a big breath, and kick toward the bottom. Yet rarely is it that simple, and in recent years the sport has developed a nasty habit of killing its stars.

In 2002, 28-year-old Frenchwoman Audrey Mestre died while attempting a "no limits" free­diving world record in the Dominican Republic. A weighted sled pulled her to 561 feet, but the balloon meant to shoot her to the surface never fully inflated, and she drowned. In 2007, former world champion Loïc Leferme, also from France, died during a no-limits dive to the same depth. While the world's best freediving spearfishermen don't use sleds or balloons or go anywhere near those depths, they nevertheless account for most of the sport's fatalities.

Shallow-water blackout is the main culprit. As the lungs compress under pressure at depth, they push oxygen into the blood and tissues. When a diver ascends, however, expanding lungs suck oxygen out of the bloodstream and tissues, increasing the chances of extreme oxygen deficiency and blackout. Intermediate divers are often skilled enough to dive deep and stay down for extended periods, but they can lack the lung capacity to complete the round-trip. They are the ones most likely to black out during ascent and drown. But even experts can get into trouble. In 2004, champion Hawaiian spearfisherman Gene Higa drowned off Oahu, likely as a result of shallow-water blackout.

On the oil platforms, blackout is but one of myriad dangers. The structures Clasen and Kirkconnell prefer sit in hundreds, if not thousands, of feet of water, where strong currents can yank a diver toward Belize. Sharks are an omnipresent threat, as is falling debris from the platforms hundreds of feet above.

The quarry itself can also kill. A line connects the spear to the gun's barrel, and even a 30-pound fish, when shot, can tie a diver in Boy Scout knots around a pylon in seconds. Then, of course, there's the structural engineering to consider. Thrusters power some platforms, and a diver who swims too close runs the risk of becoming ground beef in a giant propeller. In 2007, 41-year-old former Navy SEAL James Martin drowned after shooting a big fish, which slammed him against the rig and knocked him unconscious.

People have been "diving the rigs" for decades it's legal, and the roughnecks and divers have forged a peaceful coexistence. Clasen, a fifth-generation New Orleans resident, began when he was 16. At six foot two, he's built like a tank and speaks with an aw-shucks southern drawl that belies the fact that he's been successful at nearly everything he's done.

At Isidore Newman School, Clasen was an all-state linebacker, and his senior year he became co-captain, taking over for a quarterback by the name of Peyton Manning. After graduating from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, at Kings Point, New York (where he met Kirkconnell), he fulfilled his military service by piloting supply ships to Kuwait in the early days of the Iraq war. Today he lives in a slick French Quarter bachelor pad and, like his father and grandfather before him, is a Mississippi River pilot, one of the most coveted jobs on the water.

Kirkconnell, six-three, brash, and outspoken, with thick, unkempt brown hair, holds five spearfishing world records, including a 201-pound dogtooth tuna a ferocious, rocket-fast deep-water fish widely considered the sport's most difficult quarry he shot in Indonesia. He's licensed to captain just about anything that floats, and recently he's been working on bulk carriers as a first mate, spending months at a time crossing oceans. During downtime at sea, he stays in shape by running a ship's 14 stories while holding his breath.

I'm a longtime surfer and dive master, but I held no illusions of keeping up with these guys. I hoped just to stay within sight. To that end, two weeks before meeting Clasen and Kirkconnell, I took a four-day course in Monterey, California, with Performance Freediving. Instructor Kirk Krack established the importance of proper training early on, when he asked the class, "What other sports do you know, besides spearfishing, that [annually] will have 40 to 50 fatalities in such a small group, except competitive Russian roulette?"

By the end of the first day, Krack and his wife, seven-time freediving world-record holder Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, had taught me to extend my feeble 90-second breath hold to three and a half minutes, facedown in a pool. On the last day, I dove to 82 feet in Monterey Bay. The trick, as Krack had explained, was mental. Every time I passed the two-minute mark in the pool, my diaphragm spasmed in an effort to stimulate breathing. It felt like a mix between severe hiccups and someone trying to rip out my trachea, but this was simply a natural reaction to the buildup of carbon dioxide, not a dearth of oxygen. Even as my body began to twitch after three minutes, I still had enough oxygen to continue, as long as I could disregard the physical discomfort. Still, Krack warned, it's not a sensation to ignore for too long.

ACCESSIBLE ONLY BY BOAT, Pilottown, Louisiana, has been used by river pilots for more than a century as a base to meet ships heading up or down the Mississippi. The rodents come beagle-size, and the mosquitoes, as locals say, are big enough to stand on two legs and stare a turkey in the eye. "It ain't the Four Seasons," says Clasen.

But since it's fewer than two miles from the mouth of the Mississippi, it's the best place to start a trip to the rigs, which is why Clasen still keeps the island's last privately owned cabin. Thirty-year-old Brian Head has joined Clasen, Kirkconnell, and me on this humid August evening, and under the harsh glare of exposed lightbulbs, they are making a "flasher," a cluster of reflective objects meant to attract fish.

We leave at six in the morning. Clasen stops in at Pilottown's HQ to check the status of Hurricane Gustav, which has already hammered Haiti. "The hurricane is heading right towards us," he says while we load the boat. His tone carries more exasperation than fear, as if he were speaking about an obnoxious uncle that occasionally visits. "We'll dive hard today and tomorrow," he says.

The 3,800-plus production platforms that pincushion the Gulf of Mexico face a constant threat from hurricanes. In 2005, the most damaging season in the Gulf oil fields, Katrina and Rita destroyed 108 structures and caused more than 7.1 million gallons of oil to spill across southeast Louisiana. Still, Clasen, like many Gulf residents, accepts this dance of disaster as routine.

When we stop at our first platform, 20 or so miles offshore, I ask Clasen if he knows its name.

"Yup," he replies tersely, ending that line of questioning. These platforms stand hundreds of feet above the water, are visible from miles away, and are owned by the likes of Shell and Exxon, but still Clasen treats them as closely guarded secrets. "I don't let my friends take GPS's on the boat," he says.

After catching a few bonito (a blue, leopard-spotted relative of the tuna) for chum with a rod and reel, we continue deeper into the Gulf. Anything that floats plastic buckets, driftwood, trash can create a thriving if temporary ecosystem. We pass a few small patches of sargassum, open-ocean seaweed that can form giant floral rafts. Kirkconnell and Head clamor into the water carrying a camera and speargun, respectively, swim right up to a dorado as if asking for directions, and bury a shaft behind its gills.Dorados are brilliant in coloring if not intellect; because of their rich sunshine hue, they were named after the Spanish word for "golden" and are known for a Technicolor display of green, blue, and yellow as they expire. It's morbidly stunning, in a smoggy Los Angeles sunset kind of way. They're even better known as damn good eating, and as Head hauls the first catch of the day into the boat, Kirkconnell says, "Well, we have dinner."

Thanks to the heavy flow of nutrients flushed into the Gulf by the Mississippi, Louisiana waters are at the epicenter of what's called the Fertile Crescent, an area of consistent and exceptional productivity. Second only to Alaska, Louisiana brings in about 12 percent of the country's annual catch and $271 million a year in revenue. Certain species, like the near-shore red snapper, suffer from overfishing, in part because they are victims of bycatch, caught in shrimp nets. As the dorado, a healthy fish stock, sits on ice in the boat, Kirkconnell is quick to point out that spearfishing is the most sustainable form of fishing, because every animal is taken with intent, eliminating bycatch.

As we approach a cluster of rigs, an explosion of mist appears above the water.

"Is that a sperm whale?" asks Kirkconnell, squinting his tight almond-sliver eyes. He instantly recognizes the giant by the shape of its spout and grabs his mask and camera, preparing to film the world's largest toothy whale. "I hope that's not a sperm whale."

"Why, what do sperm whales eat?" asks Head.

"You mean besides giant squid?" I reply, recalling that these leviathans inspired the monster Moby-Dick. The whale exhaled again, spout hanging heavily in the air like my question.

"Yup, that's a sperm whale," says Kirkconnell as he rolls into the water.

THE WHALE DISAPPEARS before Kirkconnell gets close, but it's clear that this area draws very large animals. After 30 minutes of drift diving, Clasen swims to the boat and says quietly, "We're going to need more chum."

Kirkconnell, a flurry of energy, launches out of the water, over the gunwale, and into the boat. "What?! What did you see?" he cries.

"Tuna," Clasen says. "Six feet long. Three or four hundred pounds." A claim like that would normally warrant skepticism, but Clasen knows big fish as well as he knows these waters. He says it's likely a bigeye tuna.

Tuna are these spearfishermen's dream catch. The bluefin is the real king, a 15-foot, 1,500-pound torpedo that can hit speeds of 60 miles per hour. In 2001, a bluefin fetched more than $173,000 at a Japanese fish market, and voracious demand drives unsustainable levels of global fishing. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. stocks which spawn in the Gulf of Mexico are overfished. In 2007, the industry could land less than 15 percent of its quota. Even so, commercial and recreational take of bluefin continues, though spearfishermen are prohibited from hunting the animal in the Atlantic and the Gulf. Clasen had to fly to New Zealand in 2007 to hunt bluefin and came away with a 580-pounder.

The bigeye Clasen just spotted is legal to hunt, and there's not a second to waste. Clasen and Head quickly add a pair of buoys to the two already clipped to the gun by a long cord. The extra floats will help them track the fish from the surface if the quarry runs after being hit. Kirkconnell furiously cuts the bonito for chum. "I'll turn this boat into a processing plant," he promises, throwing slider-steak-size chunks of meat into the water. Clasen spends several minutes hanging off the stern, taking slow, deep breaths, then slides into the current and disappears.

Forty-five seconds later, Clasen's buoy rises like a big orange exclamation point, signaling that he's stretched out his 100-foot bungee line. "This is when I worry about him," Kirkconnell says. He knows all too well how quickly things can go wrong.

Last July, Kirkconnell went diving 70 miles off the west coast of Florida with Steve Bennett, a 20-year-old University of Florida student. Bennett suffered a shallow-water blackout on his way up from 75 feet, and by the time Kirkconnell saw him plummeting to the bottom, Bennett was out of reach. Kirkconnell aimed his speargun at Bennett's thigh in hopes of burying the shaft in his friend's leg and pulling him to the surface, but he couldn't get a clear shot, so he aimed for the fiberglass blade of Bennett's fin. Miraculously, it held, but by the time Kirkconnell pulled Bennett to the surface, he'd already been underwater for four minutes. His face had turned blue, and he bled from every orifice in his head. Kirkconnell began CPR, and a Coast Guard helicopter flew Bennett to the hospital. He made a full recovery, and after five days the hospital released him. "Cameron is a hero," lauds Bennett, who went diving a few weeks later.

"That was the best shot of my life," says Kirkconnell.

With Clasen's hover at more than 100 feet going into the second minute, his body calls upon a physiological adaptation millions of years in the making, the mammalian diving reflex. It begins with a process called bradycardia. Though Clasen is essentially running a 40-yard dash while holding his breath, his heart slows to half its average resting rate, helping to conserve oxygen. His arteries constrict a blood shunt and funnel blood to the heart and brain rather than the extremities. And the spleen, an organ better known for its role in the immune system, releases extra red blood cells, adding more oxygen to Clasen's rapidly dwindling stores.

Clasen finally surfaces empty-handed after 1:55 underwater. Kirkconnell pulls him in by the safety line hanging off the back of the boat. Clasen is enervated by the hunt, disappointed by the result, but excited by the prospect of finding monsters like this again. "Tuna is like gold," he told me earlier. "If there were no more tuna, it would rip my soul out."

I DON'T EXPECT to see any fish that large, but on our second day, with Hurricane Gustav churning its way up through the Caribbean toward the Gulf, it's my turn to go looking. We tie up to a platform and I jump into the 80-degree water.

Diving the rig is like swimming through the skeleton of a skyscraper: Fish weave through a lattice of support beams that drop ominously into infinity. Every inch of this maze of metal is covered with a spectrum of life. My urge to breathe is suppressed by fascination at the improbable wonder around me, and all I want to do is swim deeper and stay longer. At around 25 feet I pass through the murk layer and into 50 feet of visibility, like a plane rising out of the clouds and into clear skies.

The alarm that signals 30 feet comes not from my dive watch but from my ears. While taking the freediving course in Monterey, due to an old case of surfer's ear, I picked up an infection that has rendered me temporarily deaf in my left ear. At three stories down, it feels like there's a swollen balloon in my ear canal pressing against my skull. The malady is frustrating, because I won't be able to dive deep.

The water is thick with fish, but for these men the biomass is white noise to be filtered in search of real prizes. Head and Kirkconnell grab on to a crossbeam at 45 feet and hang in the current, a technique to conserve energy while waiting for fish. A cobia a long, broad fish that resembles a shark swims just out of range. Kirkconnell uses his prolific communication skills, which seem to transcend both species and mediums, by gulping out a grouper call to attract the curious cobia. The fish turns toward the men, who kick off the beam in its direction. Seconds later the hollow metallic pop of Head's gun signals the successful end of the hunt.

After geeking out on a colony of orange sponges on a crossbeam, I turn for the surface and nearly plow headfirst into a barnacle-encrusted beam. It could've knocked me out cold, and when I tell Kirkconnell about it, he says, "Welcome to the game."

We dive a couple more platforms and then pull anchor to head home as a stiff breeze washes over the bow. "There's the wind," says Clasen. "More of that coming."

Back at Venice Marina, near Pilottown, the few remaining people are loading their boats to tow inland. Homeowners board up windows, and New Orleans, 85 miles upriver, is already emptying. The guys have more immediate concerns. They have fish to clean.

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