Dwane Herbert – A Spearfishing Legend

When Cobey Herbert arrived in my class as a skinny five-year-old, I sent home the usual note asking about food allergies etc. Back it came, duly filled in: Cobey can eat anything except paua.

“Paua?” I thought. “Who would give a little kid such an expensive shellfish? We won’t be cooking paua here, at the most inland school in New Zealand.” That was certainly way out of my comfort zone.

It wasn’t until Cobey’s dad arrived with undersea treasures to show the kids that I understood, because it turns out that Dwane Herbert, is a 7-times National Spearfishing Champion of NZ.

Dwane and a student inspect a kina.
Garston kids were fascinated with Dwane’s underwater treasures.

I had no idea what spearfishing was, so I went to visit Dwane, and his wife Annie, to find out.

Dwane’s Day Job

He may live near the most inland village in NZ, but in his day job Dwane Herbert is the skipper of a kina and paua fishing boat, working off the southern coast. If you’re thinking dredge nets or fishing lines stop now. There’s none of that in this niche industry — it’s all diving. What’s more, the divers only wear snorkels and masks. No oxygen tanks allowed.

The job is tough — and so are the crew. You have to be, in a job that’s weather dependent and involves a fair amount of danger. It’s certainly not for everyone but Dwane loves it. As he says:

“I’ve  done it all my life. I started at age 7, up in Whitianga, going out on the boat with my Dad — who’s one of the best in the business.”

But much as he enjoys the snorkelling and fishing, they are the daily routine stuff. Dwane’s real passion lies with spear fishing.

“Growing up, we’d always have to work first, then we got to play. The rule was fill your sacks with paua or kina and then we’d get an hour of spearfishing. That’s the hour I lived for.”

What is Spearfishing?

Spearfishing is a technique that’s been around for centuries. Simply put, it’s throwing a spear at a fish, but of course there’s a lot more to spearfishing than that.

Forget those movie images of spears hurtling towards far-off leviathans. You have to get in close to the fish with spearfishing. There’s a 3-4 metre rope which attaches the spear to the speargun so that’s the maximum distance you can shoot from. And once again, it’s strictly snorkels, masks and flippers in this sport.

It actually seems more like hunting, than fishing.  

Dwane says it’s important to identify the fish before you shoot. Each species has its own characteristics, and a good spearfisher has to know how a particular fish will react. If you know which way the fish is likely to dodge, you have a good idea whereabouts to aim for a quick, clean kill.

Spearfishing is an environmentally-conscious sport too. “We eat everything we catch,” Dwane explains. “That’s the rule. There’s no indiscriminate hunting and you don’t get the damage to other species that net fishing can cause.” Even the competitions don’t allow waste, with all the fish being auctioned off for charity.

“In NZ the fish still aren’t used to being hunted. Sometimes they’ll swim right up to you and take a good look.” That’s because spearfishing is a relatively new and small sport in NZ.

But in Europe spearfishing has been going on for centuries. It’s a big sport with big money involved. In European countries you can sell the fish you spear, so the top divers actually are spearfishing for a living. They do it day in and day out.

“The competitions over there are at a whole ‘nother level.” says Dwane.

Spearfishing Championships — New Zealand…

Spearfishing New Zealand Nationals are held in various locations around the North Island each January.

Competitors are likely to be swimming, diving and contending with wind, weather and waves for up to 6 hours while they hunt for specific fish on the competition list. One boat takes everybody out, and they all hunt within the same boundaries. It’s demanding and dangerous, which is why the NZ nationals are a team competition.

Divers work in pairs as a team, and both catches are weighed and judged together. They take turns at diving so that one is always watching to check the other’s safety.

Dwane and his family are regular attendees at the NZ Spearfishing Nationals. As he explains, “I’ve been to them for most of my life; it’s just what we do in January.”

Spearfishing Grandfather, sons and grandsons.
Spearfishing goes through the generations in the Herbert family and most summers you’ll find them at the New Zealand Spearfishing Nationals.

… And Beyond

But his passion for spearfishing has taken Dwane well beyond the New Zealand competitions. He’s a regular competitor in the Inter-Pacific championships and has even been the Australian Champion. Biggest of all, is the chance to compete at the World Championships, and 2018 will be Dwane’s third — and hopefully best — experience of that heady event.

“I haven’t had the best luck at the World’s,” Dwane admits ruefully.

His first competition was a sobering experience — or rather a non-experience.

“I had surgery on my ankle two days before we were due to depart and turned up on crutches. I thought I’d be fine.”

The team leader had other ideas, and Dwane spent the next fortnight as a reluctant bystander

Taking on the World

Competing at the World’s is a huge step up. It’s a completely different set-up to the NZ and Inter-Pacific competitions because divers work solo with a specific area assigned to each competitor. Each diver has a team on a support boat, who are responsible for his safety and catch.

Because the Competition is usually held in Europe, the list of fish is different and includes far more fish species. That’s partly because there are far more edible fish species in European seas. We don’t have that many edible species around NZ so the lists in our competitions are small compared to overseas ones.

Dwane has to memorise what each fish on the list looks like. He has to know their behaviours and likely reaction to being hunted.  European fish are used to being hunted. They understand that humans are dangerous and will scatter or hide as soon as the spearfishermen appear.

The sea presents a new challenge in Europe, as well.

Coastal waters around NZ are very tidal and can be rough, with less visibility, but they are also shallow by comparison. In Greece, for example, spearfishers dive to far greater depths without an oxygen tank. And of course the fish are very shy and hide away in holes and crevices, so you spend longer underwater looking for them.

So when Dwane took his family to the World’s in 2016, they found that the clear, deep water presented a new danger.

Scary Experiences

When I asked Dwane about his scariest moments, he couldn’t really say, but Annie was in absolutely no doubt. The deep waters of the Greek Islands provided a huge shock.

Two weeks before, while practising for the big competition, Dwane got the bends (decompression sickness.) Because he was diving for long periods in water far deeper than he was used to, nitrogen bubbles in the blood were trapped and caused a blockage in his brain which led to a stroke when he came up to the surface.

Dwane says “I wasn’t really scared”
But Annie counteracts.  “That’s because he couldn’t see himself — the rest of us were terrified.”

Fortunately a nearby Greek diver had an oxygen tank. Dwane was given aspirin to thin his blood and relieve the blockage, taken 10 metres down underwater and pure oxygen pumped into him while slowly bringing him up little by little. Once back at the surface, Dwane was rushed to hospital. Amazingly, there was no lasting damage and Dwane was fit and ready to compete by the time the Worlds began.

But then disaster struck when Dwane got a lung squeeze. He says…

“The lungs get compressed at those depths and a sharp turn or twist can cause a tear. You don’t feel it — it doesn’t hurt, but when you get to the boat you start coughing blood and breathing is hard. I knew immediately that was it and I couldn’t go on.”

Portugal

Dwane Herbert with a large fish caught in Portugal.
Dwane with a fish caught on the 2017 recon trip to Portugal.

This year the biannual World Championships are in the south of Portugal. Once again, conditions will be different, but this time around Dwane feels much more prepared. In 2017 he, and other members of the NZ team, travelled to the competition area to check out the water conditions and fish.

They discovered that Portuguese coastal water is not as deep as in Greece, so the fish stay shallow. On the other hand, the seas are quite murky so visibility can be very poor, making the fish even harder to find.

Hopefully Dwane’s luck changes this year and there are no nasty accidents waiting in the 2018 competitions.

Family

One of the best parts of Dwane’s spearfishing lifestyle is the opportunity to travel. It’s even better when his family can come too.

They love to travel with him and experience the lifestyle of different places.

“The Greek islands were so much fun,” says Annie. “We could have stayed much longer.  Everyone was very welcoming but what we found the most strange was how everyone was out and about at night. Even the little kids were out way past 11pm.”  

Just like Dwane, his boys have been in and around boats and fish all their lives. During spare weekends and school holidays it’s the family’s joy to take the boat away to remote waters and enjoy the peace away from daily chores. Cobey and Eli love spearfishing and have taken to it with a passion. They would love to follow in their father’s footsteps.

Dwane with sons Eli and Cobey in wetsuits with their fish.
Eli, Dwane and Cobey – a spearfishing trio.

I love learning. My favourite saying is “you learn something new every day.” So I found it fascinating to listen to Dwane and Annie’s stories of spearfishing and to learn a little about the fishing life.

Their life and experience is so different to mine, and yet we live in the same little New Zealand community. Thanks, Dwane and Annie, it’s great to know you a little better now.

Follow Dwane on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/DwaneHerbertSpearo/

Sponsored by Beuchat NZ                 

 https://www.facebook.com/BeuchatNZ/

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2 Replies to “Dwane Herbert – A Spearfishing Legend”

  1. Cool blog! Dwayne is definitely an inspiration to many of us in the sport – he’s bloody talented. I liked how you put this post together, it’s well written. Just a quick little point, we have slightly more range than 1m (it’s more like 4m) and the spearguns or poles use either rubber or air for propulsion. Thanks for sharing:)

    1. Thanks, Isaac. I’m so glad you like this post and I agree wholeheartedly with your comments about Dwane. Thank you, too, for your correction about the length you can shoot from. I’m glad to have that knowledge and I’ll correct that in the post.

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