Hunter In The Sea

FEATURE by Willard Manus

Many are the marvels of Greece, but to my thinking none is more sublime than spearfishing in the Aegean. There are few days, even in winter, when the sun doesn't dominate the scene, constantly changing the color and texture of the water. The pelagic depths act like stained glass on the shafts of light which penetrate it, breaking them up into gently shimmering spangles of gold.

On these days, the Aegean becomes transformed, turned into a cathedral, a holy place of silence, awe and luminescence. Sometimes it almost seems a blasphemy to be hunting for fish down here.

I had never even heard of spearfishing before going to Greece in the early 1960s. My wife and I went to the island of Rhodes on our honeymoon, expecting to stay three days. Instead we ended up living there for thirty-five years!

It was love at first sight when we encountered the village of Lindos, whose white houses were scattered like confetti on the flanks of a towering acropolis and overlooked a turquoise bay guarded by two tiny islands. On one side of the bay fishing boats bobbed at anchor; on the other was a spit of land with a windmill at its tip. Beyond the bay was a vast expanse of sea stretching out to where the mountains of Turkey loomed some twenty miles away.

The juxtaposition of sea and sky, landscape and acropolis, was deeply pleasing--a feeling that was further reinforced when we began to investigate the village, whose houses were a revelation. They had walled-in courtyards and gardens, pebbled mosaic floors, high-arched rooms with painted ceilings, hand-carved sleeping platforms and cupboards. They were spacious and airy with an upstairs "Captain's" bedroom which looked out over the rooftops to the sea beyond. The average rental? Ten dollars a month.

There was no running water or electricity. On the other hand, a small colony of foreigners was living here, about two dozen writers and painters who nicely complemented the five hundred native Greeks. Among the foreigners was an American couple, Dick and Margaret Lethen. Margaret was from Delaware, a straightforward, soft-spoken, even-tempered woman who had come to Greece as an archaeologist. After meeting Dick she gave up that discipline and turned to painting village scenes with a delicate, loving hand.

Dick was tall, lanky and boyish, from Rye, New York. He painted abstracts; just a few strokes or blobs of color: simple, direct, bold. He was also an accomplished spearfisherman.

Dick invited me to come out with him. Diving without scuba tanks, using held breath only, he managed to reach depths of 30 and 40 feet, where the bigger fish lurked. His gun was a simple thing with rubber bands, like a glorified slingshot.

It was thrilling to lie on the surface and watch him as he flippered down through the depths, one hand pinching his nose to compensate against the pressure of the sea, the other proffering his gun, ready to fire.

The fish were plentiful around Lindos. The prize game was grouper, which ran from a pound or two all the way up to 25 pounds in weight. Other smaller but worthwhile targets included grey and red mullet, various species of bream, parrot fish, octopus, spineless lobster and germanos (German; so named because if you didn't handle it with care it'd jab you with a hidden, poisonous barb).

It was difficult for a freediver to shoot a fish in the open water. The trick was to chase it under a rock (where it thought it was safe), press your mask against the hole and peer in. When your eyes adjusted to the darkness and located where the fish was hiding, you'd fire a spear at it, trying for a killing shot.

If the shot were errant it became difficult to extricate the fish. Groupers in particular would jam themselves into a corner, opening their gills and spines as a further defensive move, like a man using elbows and knees to brace himself in a doorway.

That's what happened to Dick on that first day. He shot a sizable grouper but couldn't dislodge it. He made one dive after another, expending vast amounts of energy while tugging and pulling 30 feet down.

An hour went by. The sea began to darken and grow colder. We were both shivering; Dick's wrists had been scraped and bloodied by the tussle. We had to leave the grouper there and return to Lindos, where Dick conferred with his neighbor, an elderly fisherman named Iacomis, who loaned him a long wooden gaff which Dick wielded at sea the next morning.

Lying on the surface, I watched as he dove deep, eased the gaff into the crevice, and snagged the fish. Then, bracing his knees against the boulder, he gave a mighty yank.

Out came the grouper, over two feet long, solid and thick as a torpedo, and still alive. As it thrashed around, tail whipping up the sandy bottom, Dick--still holding his breath!--grabbed it by the eyes to numb it and started his ascent, legs flailing away, gun, spear and gaff trailing behind him.

That night three families feasted on bountiful portions of fish soup and steaks.

The next morning, I took the early bus to Rhodes city, bought a speargun, knife and weight belt, and set out to become a hunter in the sea.

It wasn't easy. It's one thing to be able to dive, to handle the pressure on your eardrums and torso, another to have the breath and presence of mind to operate in the sea's shadowy depths.

Let me put it another way. To be a good spearfisherman, you must overcome your ingrained fear of the sea. It's a fear that's common to all human beings, and understandable as well. The basic laws of life no longer have any relevance in the sea. You have entered a new world, a beautiful but potentially dangerous world. You are part of the foodchain down here. A shark might appear and bite your foot off; a sting ray might lash you with its venomous tail.

Fortunately, the waters around Lindos contained few predators. In all the years I dived there, only once did I have a close encounter with a shark. It happened in the 1970s, when I was out fishing with another American friend, Jerry Schiller (more on him later). We were freediving under the thousand-foot-high cliffs overlooking nearby St. Nicholas Bay. The cliffs had been featured in the film The Guns of Navarone when it was shot on Rhodes in the late 50s.

As I watched from the surface, Jerry made a deep dive in search of a grouper. While he was nosing around on the bottom, peeking under one rock after another, a tubular greyish-white shape appeared from the open sea.

It was a shark, about two feet long. It slowly approached the unsuspecting Jerry and then halted and eyed him. I gripped my gun tightly, trying to decide what to do. Would my emergency dive chase the shark away or startle him into attacking?

The problem was solved a second later, when Jerry looked up and saw the shark. Shocked, he dropped his gun and shot up to the surface as fast as he could. Equally frightened, the shark turned tail and shot off into the waters from which it had come.

But it's not only the fear of predators one must overcome in the sea. There is another deeper, more profound fear. This I learned early on as a hunter, when I was paddling around in the shallows around Lindos, chasing after the small fish that lived here.

Unexpectedly, I caught sight of a caravida, a spineless lobster, crawling up the side of a large boulder. It happened in broad daylight, in only five feet of water!

With its brown-plated body and curled, purple-tipped claws, the fat ten-inch-long crustacean was mine for the taking. All I had to do was duck down and grab it, the way I had seen Dick do many times. But as I made my move, fear rose up in me--a sudden, sour fear that took my breath away, made my hands shake. Afraid to touch the lobster, I pulled back--way back!--and aimed my speargun at it. My distant, shaky shot glanced off the lobster's hard carapace. Stunned, the caravida spun downwards, then recovered its equilibrium and jetted off into the safety of the depths.

It was years before I could claim victory over this deep-rooted flaw in me. The battle I fought was a long, slow one. But eventually I became truly fearless in the sea, able to grab a lobster and hold tight even as its claws dug into me, squeezing hard. Neither did I have any qualms about peering into narrow, dark crevices or shooting things like moray eels and sting rays.

Fearlessness breeds confidence; with confidence comes improved hunting skills. My marksmanship got better, my instincts became honed. I learned what to look for while hunting: a pile of freshly broken shells signalled the presence of an octopus; a school of tiny black fish (bouboulitsa in Greek) hovering at the mouth of a cave was the sure sign of a concealed grouper.

The more accomplished I became as a spearfisherman, the more I came to love the sport; it became a kind of addiction: blue opium. I went diving almost every afternoon, even in winter. The more I dove, the better I felt. The deep breathing and physical exertion did wonders for my health. I lost my beer-belly, felt fit and lean, ready for anything life hurled at me.

I bought a boat, a second-hand skiff called Maritsa, and an outboard engine. I equipped myself with a plethora of wetsuits and spearguns, an underwater flashlight, gloves, spare masks and flippers. I began diving with a knife strapped to each leg; one was a standard safety blade, lightweight but sharp; the other was thick and heavy, strong enough to be used as an oyster chisel.

The oysters were a personal discovery. The Lindians knew they grew locally, but since few of them did any diving, the oysters had pretty much gone untouched.

They were wild oysters, of course: big, solid, spiky things that grew, here and there, on the sides of rocks and reefs. Once I learned to identify them, I made it a point to take several every time I went out. It took work--and often numerous dives--to crack them loose, but the effort was worth it. Thanks to the salinity of the Aegean, these oysters had a briny, bracing taste, one that makes every other oyster I've ever sampled seem like mush.

By the early 70s, after a decade of diving, seafood became my family's regular fare. We would typically start off dinner with a dozen oysters on the half shell, followed by delicacies like pickled eel, fish soup, baked grouper or sea bream.

My wife Mavis, a skilled cook to begin with, became a master at preparing these Greek dishes, not to speak of stewed or grilled octopus, lobster salad and deep-fried kalamari.

We sometimes bartered seafood with the local butcher for choice cuts of meat. We also regularly invited foreign and Greek friends to share in our feasts, all of which were washed down with jugs of Rhodian red, white and retsina wine.

It was a good life, am idyllic life really: rising early to write, then heading out to sea in the Maritsa, often accompanied by Jerry Schiller. A Harvard grad who was teaching at Washington University (in St. Louis), Jerry and his wife Wendy spent their summers in Lindos. Jerry was scholarly, quiet, even a touch depressive at times. Despite weak eyes that required special lenses in his diving mask, he was a world-class freediver, the most graceful and powerful I had ever seen. Having been a competitive swimmer in high school and college gave him exceptional lungpower and stamina. He wasn't so skilled at hunting, but once a fish had been speared, he could be counted on to make one deep dive after another to wrestle it out of its lair.

Jerry's academic specialty was ancient Greek philosophy, which he often expounded on as we chugged across St. Nicholas Bay in the noontime heat. I believe I'm the only spearfisherman in the world who has prepared for a day's dive by listening to a 40-minute lecture on Plato or Aristotle!

The fishing in Lindos stayed fruitful right into the mid-80s, when mass tourism took root in the village, led by package "holidaymakers" from Britain. To accomodate them, the Lindians chopped up their noble Crusader villas into tiny "studio" apartments. They also opened up bars, restaurants and shops whose signs assaulted the eye: Happy Hour Drinks Half Price, Sizzling Hot Crepes, English Breakfast Served All Day.

The plateia (main square) became jammed with pullman buses, taxis and hordes of sweaty, red-faced tourists, some coming, others going. Klaxons rent the air, exhaust pipes billowed diesel smoke.

By the 90s, Lindos had become one of the official beauty spots of the Aegean. In season something like 15,000 visitors clogged its narrow streets, day and night. The village could boast of 45 bars and three discoteques, all of which pumped out loud, competitive, unending music.

Everything the Lindians did was centered around the tourist, his care and feeding, entertainment and titillation. Lindos became a giant machine with one basic function: to separate the visitor from his lolly.

The money brought prosperity; the Lindians were soon able to enjoy the highest per capita income in all of Greece. They could afford better food and medical care, enjoy improved public services (postal, banking, communications, etc.), send their children to be educated abroad, buy cars and computers, build hotels, condos and even swimming pools. The affluence changed everything about village life, in both good and bad ways.

On the negative side was the damage inflicted on the sea. The combination of pollution (from raw sewage) and the introduction of mile-long, fine-mesh nets (and illegal dynamiting) began to seriously affect the fish population. I went weeks without spearing a decent-sized fish. By the mid-90s, I stopped catching fish altogether. There simply weren't any to be found.

To be a good hunter in the sea, you must have something to hunt. Without a target, impatience and frustration begin to build. I began to lose my skills, my cunning and confidence. In their place came an old bugaboo.


After almost forty years of diving, I suddenly discovered that I had lost my nerve. It happened one day while I was out alone, diving under The Guns of Navarone cliffs. There, in about 35 feet of water, I spotted a large caravida sitting upside down under a rock, practically begging to be taken.

In my prime, I would have streaked down and grabbed it with a flourish. But I was no longer in my prime. I was a man in his 70s with slight cramps in both legs--the result of impaired circulation--and a thumping heart. This was exactly how I had felt that day when I came face to face with my very first caravida.

I had closed a circle, become a neophyte diver again, a timorous one at that. Instead of grabbing the lobster, I backed off and tried to shoot it from afar. Naturally, I missed.

As the caravida scuttled off, I couldn't help but think of the Inuits who, when one of their hunters became old and ineffective, set him on an ice floe and let him drift out to sea to die a solitary, honorable death.

I'm not an Inuit, of course, and nobody even thinks of me in that regard. To the world, I'm a man who is still ambulatory, still functioning. But deep inside I know that I'm reclining on an ice floe, drifting slowly and impeturbably toward the horizon.