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YOU SHOULD KNOW: if you want to take up spear-fishing

It's new and popular
Though skin diving goes back thousands of years, spear-fishing as a sport did not come into its own until about 20 years ago. With the development in recent years of inexpensive equipment to bring costs within the range of most budgets, spear-fishing has become immensely popular. It is variously estimated that there are between 1,000,000 and 2,000,000 spear-fishermen in the country today...

The beginning spear-fisherman in shallow water needs only a spear, swim flippers and a face mask. He swims quietly on the surface, peering down at his game through the mask, which gives him a clarity of vision under water unattainable through the naked eye. Once the target is spotted he dives, propelling himself downward by powerful strokes of the legs and flippers. His arms are usually busy with the spear. Descent should be gradual and quiet. It's best to avoid thrashing the water, for fish have extraordinary sensory perception. Their reaction time is [1/25]th of a second, five times faster than yours.

Mask and fins

A complete outfit costs about $320. You can make a good beginning though with an outlay of $15 or $20. The diving mask ($2.50 to $10.95) is your most important item. Its soft rubber edges should fit the facial contours snugly so there will be no leaks. Don't use plastic lenses. They scratch too easily. The mask will cover both eyes and nose. Don't be fooled by the magnification of objects. They'll look roughly a third larger than actual size, depending on the optics of your lens.

Next in importance are flippers. These will give you amazing extra speed. They should not be too flexible, and must fit snugly. They cost from $9 to $12.

Spears are cheap
Fins help you reach the quarry your mask discloses. To bring it home you will need either a spear gun (expensive) or a hand spear. These last are ideal for beginners but are not too plentiful on the market. When properly used the spear is an effective weapon. Place the right hand in the strong rubber loop at the blunt end of the spear. Hold the shaft firmly in the right hand, slide your hand up on the spear to produce tension and shoot it at the target through curled fingers. Spears can be made easily at home. Still popular with many is the Hawaiian sling, a six-inch hollow bamboo tube with attached elastic bands that propel a simple metal spear through the tube to the target. It costs only a few dollars. There is also a commercial hand spear, a four-piece aluminum model, selling for $13.75 with interchangeable spear heads.

Guns are deadly
There are many spear guns on the market. The Cressi spring-powered guns are light and powerful. Coil springs propel the spear. Their price range is $37.50 to $60. The carbon dioxide Fisher spear gun has spears with detachable bronze heads. It is well designed and powerful but really expensive, retailing for $115 in a complete unit with 300-shot refill cylinder. There are two new carbon dioxide guns—a 50-shot model by Aqua-Lung, Inc., at $65, and the Barracuda, fired by carbon dioxide cylinders, which retails for $49. Most popular gun on the market is the French Arbalete. The Arbalete comes in three models, the Junior at $22.50, Standard at $25 and DeLuxe with double elastics at $35. Sea Net Manufacturing Co. has a new rubber-powered gun, the Tarpon, which sells for $25. Warning: SPEAR GUNS ARE AS DEADLY AS RIFLES AT CLOSE RANGE. USE THEM WITH CAUTION.

Useful accessories
As you progress, you may enlarge on your equipment with a number of useful but not immediately essential accessories. One is the snorkel. This is a plastic breathing tube 18 inches long, curved 180° at one end and with a rubber mouthpiece at the other which is gripped firmly between the teeth. It fits underneath the head strap of the diving mask and enables you to float face down and concentrate on searching for game without having to raise your head for air. Don't dive with a snorkel until you learn to use it properly. Snorkels cost $2 to $3.95. A knife should always be carried, both as a handy aid and a defensive weapon. To be an all-weather, all-fish spear-fisher, you'll want a diving suit ($45 to $70) for cold water, power spear heads (about $50) that fire .38 caliber cartridges to kill big fish on impact, a depth gauge, lead weights and underwater breathing devices.

Lungs for the depths
An air lung enables you to work in deep water for long periods. Two main types are on the market. The pioneer was the Aqua Lung ($160), developed during World War II. The unit consists of air tank, harness, demand regulator valve and hoses over each shoulder leading to mouthpiece. It allows free movement. The Navy model with two air tanks costs $275. A later development, the Hydropak, is proving increasingly popular. Its main advantage is combined nose and mouth breathing. The Hydropak sells for $250, with a twin pack model costing $325.

The water
The water must be clear if you are to enjoy spear-fishing. Visibility of less than 10 feet is apt to spoil your fun. Check your local waters with only a face mask. If you can see enough to make you happy, then go ahead and get the rest of the equipment. In tropical ocean waters, be sure to check local sources for possible danger from shark or barracuda.

Fair game
Game abounds in the tropical sea regions, and you should have success if you stick to the smaller species. Shy away at first from going after anything too big. Down under the tropic coral ledges are jewfish or giant grouper, weighing as much as 700 pounds. But they are for experts. They head deep down for holes when hit, so if you shoot, don't use a line or they'll drag you with them. Don't tackle anything bigger than 30 pounds or so at the start.

Be careful
There is danger in the water, but most of it can be avoided by using common sense. Spiny but stationary sea urchins prick like needles and produce a painful poison. Don't let currents sweep you onto one. Don't reach into holes or you may find a voracious moray eel. These monsters can clamp your arm in an iron grip, imprisoning you beneath the surface. But morays seldom attack unless provoked. The same is true of the big rays that stick to the bottoms, though the stinger will lash out with agonizing poison if you step on one. The floating Portuguese man-of-war has a dangerous sting that may produce a shock effect. People with weak hearts have died from these stings.

Water safety

Always swim in pairs for safety's sake. Should anything happen to you, a partner within sight may be able to save your life. Furthermore, you should learn how to jettison your heavy equipment for quick ascent in an emergency. Loop belts back through buckles so that a light tug will open them and free you of your burden.

Be sure to look up before surfacing. You may strike pilings or overhanging ledges and injure yourself. Use special care in waters frequented by boats. Mark your location with a float of some kind so that all craft can see it easily and steer clear. Oars, keels and propellers have injured many divers swimming just below the surface.

Manners for menaces
Beware of sharks and barracuda. Remember, though they usually will not attack, they often follow a spear-fisherman with curiosity. If you turn slowly and face them, they will almost always move off. There have been many horror-provoking tales about these savage fish. Most are false. Generally the experts advise slow movements and, if you have a lung, deep swimming in the presence of these predators. Thrashing on the surface seems to attract sharks and has goaded them to attack on rare occasions. Undue thrashing in shallow water is tempting to barracuda. Don't put temptation in their way.