The thrill of the chase

Spear fishermen Dwane Herbert and Julian Hansford
Spear fishermen Dwane Herbert and Julian Hansford

Most would agree that champion spearfishers Julian Hansford and Dwane Herbert are more fish than man.

Stalking their prey 35m below the ocean's surface, lungs lacking fresh oxygen for four-minute intervals, outsmarting a creature that was born in the water.

No, this is not normal behaviour for land lubbers.

But for Julian, 27, and Dwane, 25, it's second nature.

The Whitianga pair have won the Junior New Zealand Spearfishing Championships five times running, and this year have decided to set their sights higher and take on the World Championships in Peru in November.

Julian offers an explanation for the aquatic tendencies.

"We both grew up pretty much in the ocean. Actually I wasn't even born, Dad said he just found me washed up on the beach."

The two met as youngsters at Club Spearfishing in Whitianga, which Dwane's father Herb, a commercial diver, and a few local men hosted to help promote the sport to kids.

"He was a runt and got put in our rugby team," Dwane says of his dive partner.

They used to work weekends freediving for Herb, always competing to catch kina the fastest and dive the deepest.

After the boat was full they would venture off to spear some fish to bring home, but time was always limited so they learned to seek and kill very quickly - a skill that would give them an edge in future competitions.

Clad in camouflage wetsuits to blend in with the terrain, the underwater hunters have the element of surprise on their side, with no scuba tank bubbles to betray their position to unsuspecting quarry.

But Julian says the spearing fish is not the hard part.

"It's finding them.

"Reading tides, following terrain, reading the way the smaller bait fish are acting to pinpoint where the bigger predators that we target will be."

He credits their years of experience in the water as one of the reasons for their success these days.

And it hasn't always been a smooth operation.

When the pair started competing together they were constantly arguing over where to go next, Julian says.

He recalls yelling matches where they would both be swimming in opposite directions pulling at either end of the rope tied to their guns.

"Angry little boys," he says.

They worked their way through the open events, constantly improving and usually placing high in the competitions.

Then Julian left school to take off on a different tangent which involved surfing, drinking and getting into trouble, while Dwane went on to win the Junior New Zealand champs four times in a row.

When Julian turned 21 and Dwane 19 they both moved back home to Flaxmill Bay, a small settlement just south of Whitianga in Mercury Bay.

Older and more mature, the best mates dived for work, pleasure and in competitions, playing rugby and drinking too, but always staying fit.

Their method now refined with maturity and experience, the pair dive with a synergy that could only exist between two great mates.

"We know each other in the water so well now we hardly talk, we just point and use body language," Julian says.

"Most of all we're not arguing. When a quick decision needs to be made we have confidence in each other, that's why we win."

They won the National Spearfishing Championships together four times in a row, as well as competing in Tahiti and Australia, placing second both times.

Although they are reluctant to list them for fear of sounding "blow-arse", the pair have had their share of hair- raising moments.

"We've been stuck in caves, almost run over by boats, dived with whales, orcas, great whites, tiger sharks and big scary seals," Julian says.

"Dwane got attacked by a seven-gill shark down south and I had shallow water black out."

Last year they had a year off from diving and lost the national title.

Dwane moved to Queenstown and now dives for kina and paua for a few companies around Stewart Island and Fiordland.

Meanwhile, Julian moved into construction diving.

This year, however, they have their sights set on the big kahuna.

"We've decided to go hard while we're still young and go all out, moving on to World Champs to see how far we can go."

They're off to a promising start, having won both the national and North Island champs this year and even had a big diving name sponsor approach them.

Dwane's dad Herb plans to accompany the boys to Peru.

Dwane says they aren't fazed by the prospect of competing in a foreign environment.

"The Europeans and South Americans do comps different, but we can adjust."

Julian is currently working off the south coast of Australia, diving for abalone without a shark net.

Peru should be a breeze.


How a spearfishing competition works:

A spearfishing competition is run over two days. Competitors dive in pairs for safety and the area is chosen on the day depending on the weather.

The areas are usually huge, so days are tiring.

Three boats make a starting triangle and when the starting gun sounds they have six hours to be back in or be disqualified.

Competitors have a list of target fish of which they are allowed two each at 100 points per fish and 10 points per kilo.

On the second day the two days' scores are added together and the competitor with the most combined points wins.

All fish are within local size limits and the edible are auctioned off with proceeds going towards a local charity or Lions club.

Taranaki Daily News