Alright. So we’ve been in Cuba for a very long time now, it feels like time to go. We’ve done everything we came for and more. I’ve had my fair share of this country, and I’ve enjoyed most of it. We’re running out of money. We’re running out of patience. We’re running out of things to see and do.

There is always the big-fish chase. The underwater sightseeing. The freediving, the underwater observation of the food chain and the reef. There is always that, at least.

It was at this point that my little brother decided to visit.


The Visit


You know how sometimes you are living in the moment so completely that you forget to take any pictures whatsoever? Nothing crazy happens. Maybe it was just a very peaceful and fun and nice few days and you want to remember that, but there wasn’t any big moment (which is what was so nice about it) – so you didn’t take any pictures. I don’t even know how to log those moments, those days.

We had those days.   They were exactly what we needed. Quiet days anchored very far from people and very close to our dive spots.   And we have no pictures of those days.

Then my little brother was flying in for a short two days with us, then he was going back to Havana for a few days and then back to that grinding worklife. He flew in, I walked to the airport (which is something I appreciate), and then he was onboard.

I love having family visit. And friends. Wonderful stuff. My goal was to get my brother on some decent fish and let him spear one or two for dinner. Outside the wind was whipping , so while we made it outside the reef – it was rough and it wasn’t all that great of visibility. It was also deeper out there.

There were plenty of smaller Cubera Snapper, a couple nice grouper, and boatloads of smaller edible fish. My brother learned how to identify a couple of the target species and then the hunt was on.   I told him he could shoot one of the snapper schooling at the bottom – he tells me it seems small. Nothing was big enough for him, his selectivity made me proud.

Inside the reef we found calmer, clearer water and some smaller fish. A few decent eating-size grouper. More Cubera Snapper. Then I told my brother to take a shot at a Barracuda, if he saw one. He saw one, he shot. He missed. That repeated itself. Barracuda can be hard to hit.

A few minutes later I pointed out a Barracuda, my brother shot and missed and the Barracuda came right at me and I instinctively shot and then we had a Barracuda for chum. I didn’t expect much as I thought the water was too shallow to hold any big fish. 5M or so. Shallow. But I was wrong.

Nothing much was coming up our chum line – a couple of smaller grouper, a medium-sized Cubera Snapper. It was my brother’s mission to get this Cubera. He kept trying, but when a Cubera Snapper gets to a certain size (and they’re in shallow water) – they are wise and easily spooked. It was not meant to be.

But then I saw the largest Cubera Snapper I’ve ever seen in my life. Ever. He looked like a dinosaur in the face and seemed to have more in common with a Volkswagen than a fish. He was not interested in the chum, he was even less interested in hanging around me. I swam and swam and tried every trick in the book – but he was gone and my brother was done diving for a while and we needed lunch.

So we went back to NOMAD. We had lunch. I had a good idea: move NOMAD over to the spot with the giant Cubera and then stay there. We could dive off the boat in shallow/clear water, there were plenty of conch. And there was the giant Cubera Snapper.

So we picked up anchor and weaved our way through the reef and then we were in the spot with the Giant Cubera Snapper. I began diving and chumming and diving and swimming and then sitting on the bottom until I had blue lips. I was, as my brother later said, obsessed with this giant, skittish fish in this shallow, clear water.

The fish was a ghost. He would make an appearance at the edge of your visibility and then just vanish. One time he came up the chum line and grabbed a piece of chum and then vanished. It was maddening. Be gone or come in.


The Obsession


We were starting to run out of fish because I wasn’t shooting anything because everything seemed so small compared to this monster/ghost/dinosaur. I had some boatwork to do, much writing to do, but my brother was here and so that could wait. What we could do, though, is get this damned Cubera.

So I dove again. And my brother moved to a different spot and I decided to chum right behind the boat – maybe we could catch this fish on hook-and-line, since he was so skittish. He came into the chum line when I was almost out of chum. About that time my brother was heading back to the boat and he saw this fish and chased it, trying to spear it. We saw no more of this fish, but we saw plenty of other fish in the chum line and so we left a couple of fishing lines out – but we only succeeded in catching the bottom.

We smoked cigars and drank rum, played a game of chess, and then called it an early night – all of this diving had taken it’s toll.

The next day was my brother’s last day. We ate very well and drank great coffee and had a very relaxing morning as I taught my brother some chess. Then, with little else to do – we went freediving and spearfishing. Diving, diving, diving. We were running out of the stupid Barracuda in this area (for chum). The only thing left was smart Barracuda (they run) and small Barracuda (they aren’t worth it). But, eventually, we got one.

The chum line started again. The source of my obsession made an appearance and then vanished again. We ate lunch. We set out fishing lines. We dove again. Nothing.

That night, we had a long dinghy ride to the marina, where my brother could get a taxi and then get to the airport and then get to Havana. He would have a couple of days there and then he would go “home” to New York City and back to work. Work. Gross. Much better to be going broke smoking cigars and drinking rum while chasing giant Cubera Snapper around. At least that’s my take on it.

That evening the wind died and we could see every detail of the fish under the boat and the coral-strewn bottom from the deck of NOMAD. Every detail. Then Ana walked to the front of the boat to do some reading and she yelled, “There he is!”

Sure enough. The damned Cubera was cruising around our boat and we could see him very clearly and he could see us. Taunting me.

I had no reason to leave this spot (we were waiting on crew and weather to take our leave of Cuba), so we stayed. This hunt for the Cubera took on great meaning. I was writing and relaxing and then it would rain and then, later, I would have a chance to dive and I would see him and then he would disappear.

This continued for a week. Almost every time we get in the water, the Cubera is within sight for a brief moment – then gone.

Then one day I took a break in the evening to grab a fish for dinner (we were, for the first time in a very long time, completely out of fish). Ana loves triggerfish, so I took one for her. Then as I’m swimming back to the boat, I see the damned Cubera again.

At this point I have largely given up hope. I’ve broken two rods and several lines trying to catch him. We’ve hooked everything else – sharks, tarpon, jacks, grouper, the bottom. With all of that, I’ve never been closer than 15M from him in the water. He seems impervious to my tactics.

This dive in question was supposed to be a short grab-some-food-for-dinner dive. I had the triggerfish to clean. I was tired. It was starting to get dark. The Barracuda were wise to me, so I couldn’t get chum.  The current was picking up.

But I decided to give it one more attempt. I shot a Chub. I started cutting it up and the fish started to come in. A small grouper. A decent Cubera Snapper. Barracuda. Mutton Snapper. Lots of Yellowtail Snapper. But no dinosaurs.

Then he was there. Sneaking around on the edge of my visibility. In and out. Not coming close enough to the chum to eat, but attracted by it.

Of course – by that time – I was out of chum, except for the head of the Chub. The stingrays and sharks and grouper and other snapper had swallowed it all up.

I kept dropping the head of the Chub and watching it fall to the bottom. Sometimes he would come, intrigued by seeing something dropping, within 10M. Then I started dropping the Chub head and (when I needed to retrieve it) diving to the bottom and flattening myself out there. He was coming closer.

I did this over and over and it was starting to get dark and the other fish had started to leave. It was me, a shark, and two Cubera Snapper all interested in this last piece of chum – a Chub head. It was a game of keep-away and hide-and-seek played together, underwater.

I started dropping the Chub head on one side of a coral head and then diving to the other side and hiding there. He was getting closer. He came within 5M and offered me a marginal shot. I didn’t shoot. I was getting somewhere with this fish, and with a fish this size – you have to be close for your spear to penetrate far enough to hold him when he takes off like a freight train.

Yes, he will take off like a freight train.

Over and over and over we play this game. He comes closer and closer and seems to be growing more tolerant of my presence.   I’m starting to hope. No more shot-offerings from him. The shark won’t leave me alone and the other Cubera seems intent on committing suicide by swimming straight at the tip of my spear.

Ana is cleaning the triggerfish on the back steps of NOMAD. I told her I might get him, to be ready to toss me a line or a float or help me, in case I made a bad shot.

She is not very excited.

I try to get my heartrate down, try to push down the adrenaline. I need to be on the bottom for a very long time before he gets the nerve to come close.

My heartrate is down. I dive. I see him leaving my area on the way down, I wait forever on the bottom, and then I see his tail on the other side of the coral head. I guess where he will come out from behind the coral head and flatten myself on the bottom.

And then he makes a very large mistake and comes out where I thought he would. And I have this fleeting hesitation – Jesus Christ he’s huge, can I really handle this fish?

I don’t know how Jesus always seems to get mixed up in these affairs.

I pull the trigger. The spear hits the fish and it sounds like the spear hit some kind of metal. A solid thud that seems to reverberate a little under water.

And he doesn’t take off like a freight train. He goes and he does pull hard (the spear bends in a U shape) – but I already know, before I come up off the bottom: this fight is over. The spear went in through the gill-plate, he’s stunned by the impact, the spear is not coming out, I’m in control of this situation.

He circles under me and I’m straining to get him in. I finally get a hand in his gills. I let out a little whoop and Ana knows I have him. She gets the camera before I make it back to the boat. He flips and splashes and crunches my hand in his gills, but he’s mine.

He beat me for a week – day and night, over and over and over. He kept winning. But I only needed to win once, and I did. Finally.

The next day I shrink the picture and send it to Jaco and my brother. They’ll both appreciate it.

Though I can’t say that being obsessive about fish is a good thing, every now and then it pays off in a big way.

Cubera Snapper spearfishing

Cubera Snapper spearfishing

PS – please excuse the disheveled appearance and the constipated look on my face.  It’s hard holding a fish up, when it gets this size.  And I was far too busy chasing this fish to bother with things like shaving, combing my hair, and general life maintenance.


PPS – Oh, and the sail that’s uncovered in the background.  You see, boat maintenance is important, but not as important as dinosaur fish.




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21 replies
  1. Jared Nowland
    Jared Nowland says:

    That was a great story, how much did it weigh? Like any good fish story I know the camera lens adds to the legend of this fish. Great story and great fish.

  2. Andy
    Andy says:

    Nice write-up! I also live on a cat and love freediving/spearfishing, I’m sure we’ll meet up somewhere. It is disappointing to see that you would target such a large fish though. You describe it as a dinosaur and you’re right, it was very old. Snapper can live to over 60 years old, your fish was probably older than you! The chances of a fish reaching that age in the wild are astronomical which is why they’re so rare. Like you I’m in the water every day and I see those big Cubera’s once every 100 dives. As you know predatory fish bioaccumulate toxins, a snapper that big is not good eating, they are toxic. A fish that big is also a critical breeder, the older larger fish have the highest re-production rates and are therefore really important to their species. The concept of shooting “record” size fish is ill conceived and is what gives spearos a bad name in the diving world. I know your first reaction will be to disagree with everything I’ve said but please have a think about it. That fish was rare and an awesome sight to see. You have denied anyone else seeing that fish. Had you taken a camera instead of the gun you would’ve had the photo, allowed someone else to discover the dinosaur, contributed to the continued abundance of the species and most of all shown respect for this individual’s amazing journey to make it to that age/size and it still would’ve been a big challenge to get close enough for the shot.

    • Nate
      Nate says:

      Alright, there are a great many inaccuracies in what you wrote but I think you’re coming from the right place, so, I’ll respond rather than doing what is infinitely easier (and more sane): hit the delete button.

      A) We ate the entire fish, it was very good eating. Nobody got sick or died, so you’re wrong there. Cig toxins (which are what you are attempting to condemn all large fish with) depend on region, species and a variety of environmental factors. Google is your friend. I don’t have the time or energy to explain it all.

      B) In Cuba there are a great many of these fish, that size, out there. I saw one again (larger), right before I left – but left him in peace as we had plenty of fish. You’re wrong there, too. But you’re forgiven, again.

      C) They reach that size fairly often, as long as there are appropriate regulations and there isn’t heavy fishing pressure. Humans are their only natural enemy at that size. I’ve watched them bump large sharks out of the way for food. I’ve seen these fish all over the world, including on oil rigs in the States and they are particularly prevalent on the Pacific coasts. Been there, done that, got the shirt (and the pictures) to prove it. You’re wrong there. They are, on the other hand, often difficult to get close enough to, in order to land a responsible shot. They don’t get big by being stupid.

      As far as breeding – yep. It’s true fish need to breed, and that’s why you let them get to maturity before killing them. Hence the minimum size limits on fish in well-regulated fisheries. This much is well known: it is far more destructive to shoot a fish that hasn’t reached breeding size than one that has been breeding (and was clearly past his prime) for twenty years.

      Based upon your remark about the rarity of these fish it would be reasonable to assume that you are based in the Caribe in an area with quite a bit of (possibly unregulated) fishing pressure. Cuba is not that – the Cubera Snapper are thick here. THICK. They are, probably, the most prevalent eating-fish in this area. And are definitely the most prevalent, sizable fish. I have seen (and took one from) a school of monsters that numbered over 30. And many, many smaller schools are seen almost daily.

      So. Thanks much for your comments. I had a think about them and I find them remarkably inaccurate. As such, they hold no water for me. On the other hand – I’m glad you’re out there spearing and I’m glad we have, in our midst, conservative spearfishermen. Cheers, keep sailing and spearing.

  3. Andy
    Andy says:

    Hey Nate, thanks for engaging, to be honest I didn’t think you’d approve my post so I didn’t bother to add too much detail. These sort of conversations are usually best over beer or rum, not the internet where the written word can be misinterpreted. Let me clarify my points. You’re right, I’m cruising areas where there has been fishing pressure but I’ve also been to a lot of places where spearfishing is illegal or the site is remote and fish are super abundant (like Turks and Caicos). In two years of spending pretty much every day in the water (like you) I have seen probably 3 Cubera’s the size you’re pictured with (you yourself commented that it was the biggest you’ve ever seen). I never said Cubera are rare, they’re not but the really big ones certainly are. Many fisheries management plans are now shifting away from minimum size limits to maximum size limits because the studies have shown that the big guys are far more important to fish stocks than the small ones, they are simply far more successful breeders and pass on strong DNA that allowed them to get that far in the first place. Leaving the small ones doesn’t actually help significantly until they reach a big size at which point..well you get the picture.
    When I talked about bio-accumulation I’m not just talking about ciguatera, I’m talking about ALL the toxins that all predators accumulate over a lifetime of eating other organisms. This includes all the heavy metals like mercury and lead plus all the chemicals that don’t get broken down and are stored in the fat like DDT. All this gets into the food chain from land based activities like agriculture (pretty big in Cuba I assume). There’s a ton of studies and papers on it which you can google. The message from all the studies is don’t eat old fish because they literally are toxic, you may not get sick straight away but over a number of years of eating them you are also bio accumulating toxins and it may mean a premature end.
    BTW my wife is a marine scientist who worked on this stuff so I’m not spinning this off the top of my head but you can do your own research if you don’t believe me.

    You’re right, I am a conservative spear fisherman, I love chosing my food based on the most sustainable option so I take only what’s abundant at a size that’s sustainable and I have certainly taken my share of Cubera’s. However shooting a 30 plus year old fish is not sustainable, if every spearo did it there wouldn’t be many Cubera’s that size left, same goes for the massive groupers that some people shoot to “get a record”. As much as I like spear fishing I have developed a love for under water photography. It’s even more challenging than spearing because you have to get closer and so you end up spending a lot of time with one fish (like you did) and it’s just as satisfying, well almost. I’d be surprised if you didn’t just have a tiny shred of regret as you took that fish’s life but maybe that’s just me. I guess my overall point is that you could’ve taken one or two of the smaller Cubera’s that were “thick” and let the big one do its thing, for me that’s a respect thing that recognises the natural order of the reef but you may disagree.

    • Nate
      Nate says:

      Again, I see where you’re coming from – and I’m glad, after the clarification, that I did engage.

      Anyways, although I understand your point completely and it’s fairly well taken – I will still shoot big fish. I enjoy it, and as I eat them – I don’t feel bad about it. At all. They provide a much greater challenge. I think much of this stems from a couple beliefs that seem pretty apparent to me: a) shooting big fish (freediving) is not something that everyone can do, so we don’t have to worry about the “if everyone did it” argument (which I’ve never put much stock in) b) dwindling fish stocks are hardly caused by spearfishermen (think nets, longlining, dynamite, environmental impact, etc) and c) I have not procreated: overpopulation and overconsumption are what is truly killing this world – I did my part by not procreating, though I do practice as often as I can :).

      I can’t stress point “C)” enough. That’s the real issue, the resolution of which would solve the vast majority of the worlds other problems. Of course, what is needed to make this world a truly sustainable place is pretty dramatic… And I don’t think any politician would be elected if they were to run on a platform of “we’re going to kill half the world population, so the other half can have a chance at long-term survival.”

      Anyways, if I see you around – let’s have that rum/beer and talk about it. You can show me your small fish pictures :)

  4. Jess Cripps
    Jess Cripps says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this one Nate, having been there myself and in particular watching Michael like a man possessed hunt down a big Cuberra that he lost on a wreck in Mexico. We just kept going back to that wreck! Hope you’re well, dive safe mate those Pargos are dangerous fish.


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