Sacrifice and the Sea

WORDS AND PHOTOS BY Tyler Sharp

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MODERN HUNTSMAN, VOLUME FOUR: THE WOMEN’S ISSUE


“Part of the beauty of spearfishing is that it requires sacrifice. You give up all of the power you have on land, like speed and strength, and put yourself in a vulnerable position to catch your food.” 

Valentine tells me this in her French-Canadian accent, the silence between words broken by the scrape of a knife across the scales of a hogfish, the weight of the words accented by the gestures of her once-manicured, now-blood-covered hands. “As humans, we’re very inferior in the water. Even the smallest fish can swim so much faster than us. You still have to be strong though, because if you’re seen as weak prey, you might get eaten by a shark. But you also have to be humble and respect what’s around you. I think these are all really good skills to have in life.” We’re in the middle of the ocean some 30 miles off the coast of southwest Florida. The water is calm and clear, the skies are blue, and the sun is beating down on my “just emerged from a long Montana winter” skin. I’m here to learn the ropes of arguably the second-most dangerous sport in the world behind base jumping, and as Valentine quickly fillets a fish for ceviche, her three dive partners prepare their gear for the next location: a shipwreck known to host a lot of fish, and a lot of sharks. They’ll be diving down to about 80 feet — child’s play depths, I’m told — in hopes of spearing fish, then fending off opportunistic predators to get our would-be dinner into the boat. Yet Valentine Thomas, an accomplished 170-foot freediver who ranks among the top women in the world, was once deathly afraid of the ocean. Growing up in Montreal, Quebec, Valentine had a close-knit family and a comfortable life. Often, for summer holidays, she would travel with her mother, father and sister to explore the seaside of southern France. Then, on what seemed like a normal day at the beach for a 14-year-old, she was dragged beneath the waves by a strong current, lost consciousness, and nearly drowned. Hauled to the shore by her boat-building, seafaring father, she was revived, and a crippling fear of the ocean resulted. She would not set foot in that blue terror for over a decade. Death having been defied, landlocked life in Canada went back to normal for the most part, and Valentine resumed her intention to follow her mother’s footsteps and become a lawyer. Yet after seven years of school, a bachelor’s degree in law and psychology, and a master’s in law, something felt missing. So Valentine quit her job at the law firm, moved to London, and started to work in finance. It was new, challenging and stimulating, and it paid well. The voice was quieted, at least for now. Fast times in London, as they say, with higher-paying jobs leading to bigger apartments, nicer shoes and handbags, and faster cars. She had it all, even the approving nods of discerning maître d’s from upscale restaurants as they eyed her designer ensembles. Is this it? Something is missing, something is calling. 

Then, in 2011, a group of friends convinced her to join them on a spearfishing trip to Egypt, despite her protests. A slow boil of panic commenced as she pondered re-entry into the ocean — the nemesis who’d nearly taken her life. Whether it was peer pressure or fear of disappointing her friends, Valentine went out on the boat, and eventually got into the water. It did not go well. Multiple panic attacks and repeated hyperventilations made it impossible to hold her breath long enough to free dive. The voice came back, louder this time, wilder. Grab a spear, get in the water, dive after your dinner. Facing her worst fears, Valentine dove back in, and shot her first fish. Later that evening, as she cooked it on the beach over an open fire, the fear dissolved and was replaced with a deeply satisfying sense of resourcefulness and appreciation for the ocean bounty she had harvested herself. From that point on, the course of her entire life changed. “I immediately fell in love with spearfishing, and the idea of catching my own food. When I went back to London, nothing was the same, and I was deeply dissatisfied. I felt like I was just working to buy stuff, that my whole life revolved around getting a bigger apartment, a nicer car, and that I was living a life to impress people instead of doing what I really enjoyed. So I freaked out, and fled to Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania for six weeks. I went from being judged by what shoes I wore in London, to wearing no shoes and eating what I had caught on the beach. I don’t think I had ever been happier.” 

Shortly after, she was hired to be in a documentary for a French TV channel about living a double life — working in finance and then camping in the bush of Africa to catch her own food. “I think I got paid like $200, but it made me realize that I might be able to do this for a living,” Valentine recalls upon reflection. London lost its lustre, and a void of purpose grew beyond her ability to deny any longer. Doubt crept in and grew stronger with the passing of each corporate hour, time ticking louder until it couldn’t be ignored. Get out, run.So she quit her job (again), packed up, and moved to Miami with two dachshunds and $2,000 to pursue her dreams. “I had no clue what I was getting myself into. I ran out of money quickly, and it got pretty bleak. But even though I was completely poor and living out of my car, I was waking up at the beach, doing what I loved, and eating really well. Not knowing what I was going to do the following day or how I was going to eat was challenging, but when you have nothing, it definitely makes you realize what’s important, and what you really want. It became very clear that I had to work my ass off to make things happen for myself. So I lived in a friend’s garage and slept on a crappy futon couch while I worked on my marketing and networking.

“Part of the beauty of spearfishing is that it requires sacrifice. You give up all of the power you have on land, like speed and strength, and put yourself in a vulnerable position to catch your food.”

Each day it got a little bit better, eventually it started to pick up, and now I make a decent living doing what I love,” says Val. As she first entered into Florida’s thriving spearfishing scene, Valentine admittedly got caught up in the competitive nature of the industry to spear the biggest fish she could — a trophy mentality that can muddy the ethical waters of any hunting pursuit. Not long after, she met GR Tarr, an experienced free diver and maker of industry-leading spearguns under the moniker Red Tide Spearfishing, who helped mentor her in the virtues of the tradition.“GR is a guy who loves to teach and pass on his knowledge, so when I told him my story, he took me under his wing. He taught me that it wasn’t about big fish, it was about enjoying yourself, hunting for your own food, and sharing it with the people you love. That’s it. GR really helped ground me in that reality, and now he’s like a second father to me,” Valentine explains. “Now, I don’t care about the size of the fish. The food is my focus. I realized how important it is in my life to be eating fresh, quality ingredients that are sourced in a responsible and sustainable way, and spearfishing allows me to do that,” she continues as the boat slows down on approach to our destination. Her shift in philosophy served to open universal doors, and in the few short years since, not the norm for a passion pursuit, Valentine’s career has skyrocketed. Traveling to over 25 countries in the farthest reaches of the world as a guide, chef and free-dive instructor, she has earned social media renown, numerous brand partnerships, and countless appearances on TV, radio, and podcasts — most notably with Joe Rogan — and repeated invitations to share her story of risk and bravery as a TED Talk. Fortune favors the bold, it would seem. Needless to say, she has been busy, and with a recently published cookbook, and another on the way, along with a schedule full of international dive trips and speaking engagements, she’s showing no signs of slowing down.

In spearfishing, however, it’s vitally important that you slow down. Calm the mind, relax your breathing, lessen your heartbeat — it’s an ocean meditation of sorts (just ignore the sharks). For those not familiar, free diving is performed without oxygen tanks, requiring extended breath holds to reach the ocean floor, camouflage yourself against a reef or shipwreck, and lie in wait until fish are curious enough to investigate, or apathetic enough to allow your approach. According to the mammalian dive reflex, humans have an evolved ability to develop this skill easily with time and training. Valentine can hold her breath for over six minutes. But in the deep, those mortal inconveniences like panic, fear or hesitation are oxygen thieves, and need to be avoided at all costs. The faster your heartbeat, the more oxygen gets burned, and the sooner you have to surface. Calm, collected, calculated. A hunter under the waves. 

As the boat rocks gently on the tides formed from a lunar pull a world away, stratagems are formed for the next few dives. The mood is relaxed, lighthearted even, and jokes are hurled back and forth in the spirit of competition. Classic rock ballads issue from the speakers, complementing the lapping of waves on the hull. The plan: watch each other’s backs, have a good time in the water, put fish in the boat, and everyone comes back alive. Despite surface assumptions of individual conquest, spearfishing is very much a team pursuit. There are innumerable things that can go wrong, potentially fatal things, and it’s the responsibility of your dive partner to to be on the lookout or come to the rescue if needed. One of these dangers is called “shallow water blackout,” a dark reality of spearfishing that has claimed many lives, often due to a lack of vigilance from a partner. Whether through over-confidence in a deeper dive, an oxygen-sapping battle with a fish on the line, or kicking too frantically to ascend, those afflicted by this start to lose control of motor functions as they near the surface, often causing muscle spasms and erratic body movements as the brain starves for oxygen. Divers pass out, often after breaking the surface, and if someone isn’t watching, they drown. It has happened to many experienced divers, and the lucky ones had partners who came to the rescue and dragged them to the boat. 

Another reason for team vigilance is sharks, which, I would come to find out, are a major component of spearfishing. Like wolves and grizzlies in the American West or hyenas and jackals in Africa, sharks are opportunistic feeders, often looking to poach an easy meal of fish on a stick. “Most people think that it’s blood that attracts sharks, but usually it’s vibrations in the water caused by frantic fish. Ideally, you are shooting a fish in the brain so it dies instantly, but sometimes you miss, hitting the body, and they start thrashing around. Sharks can sense these vibrations from miles away, and it attracts them. So you try to stab the fish in the brain with a dive knife to stop the movement, or your dive partner has to come down and fire a second shot to kill it,” Valentine explains nonchalantly. “There is sort of an unwritten code between spearfishers and sharks, and you have to project strength and dominance to keep them at bay. If you hold the fish away from your body as you surface, they’ll often go for it. But if you guard it close to your body, or are back-to-back with your dive partner, they will usually retreat and you can get the fish in the boat.” What’s mine is mine. But it doesn’t always work out like that, and numerous fish are lost to aggressive sharks. While she hasn’t been bitten, Valentine casually mentions that she’s had a handful of shark encounters in recent months: charging, bumping and chasing her out of the water as she tried to fend them off with the tip of the speargun until dive partners provided strength in numbers enough to scare them off. There are no such perils in the grocery store. In spearfishing, you must both earn and defend your dinner.

“In spearfishing, you must both earn and defend your dinner.”

She adorns her fins, mask, and dive knife, grabs a speargun, and jumps into the ocean. Confidence wavering, camera in hand, I follow. Despite a lifetime of swimming experience, I am no free diver and can only descend to about 30 or 40 feet — about half of the distance to the shipwreck on the bottom. Through the ever-darkening blue of deeper waters, I can see their shadowy figures gliding into position — seeking, stalking, waiting. I can also see a few sharks. I resurface, wait, and watch for the tiny bubbles that foretell the return of the ocean hunters. At first, they’re empty-handed, but the team starts to gather intel from each dive: spotting fish, passing on strategy, offering advice. I dive deeper, float motionless, and listen to a deafening heartbeat blast in my ears. Then, I hear it — a faint pop and a click, followed by a bright, shimmering flail of a fish in its final throes of life. Valentine swims slowly toward the surface, wreathed in an effervescent cloud of exhaled bubbles, a colorful fish in tow at the end of the spear. She takes out her knife, cuts the gills to bleed it out, removes the spear tip from her prey, and places it on the back of the boat. “Fish tacos tonight,” she says with a smile constricted by a wetsuit hood and the dive mask suctioned to her face.The team continues to take drops, or dives, and they continue to bring back fish, filling the coolers in the bow with species I’ve never heard of before: cobia, hogfish, black grouper and mangrove snapper. But I’m missing the action, so I don a scuba tank and slowly descend to find them, some 80 feet below.

It has been years since I’ve been on the ocean floor, and the serenity of the scene quickly calms my land leg jitters. I make my way to the edge of the shipwreck and do my best to remain still, despite the huge cloud of bubbles I keep sending up every ten seconds or so, like some telegraph of disruption that certainly isn’t helping the stealth mission. I feel clumsy, awkward and overdressed — a bull in a china closet compared to the lithe and agile free divers circling above like silent, silhouetted eagles on a high, dry mountain wind. Slowly, silently, shadowy, Valentine descends toward me, delicately perching on the edge of the wreck, effortlessly blending in with the rough edges of a reef forming on the faded glory of the once-seaworthy vessel. She lies completely still, yet her speargun tracks horizontally as she sizes up fish for maturity, species and season. Many fish swim by. She passes on all of them. Then, after the fifth minute of me polluting the tranquility with my turbulent mouth-breathing, she resurfaces, empty-handed. 

“This is when it strikes me: this is not fishing, it’s ocean hunting. In fact, it’s very similar to traditional archery, both in skill required and proximity to prey. You have to be close — very close — so that you can assess the individual animal, and decide whether to loose an arrow or not. As many hunters know, you seldom do.

It’s the same under the sea. ”

This is when it strikes me: this is not fishing, it’s ocean hunting. In fact, it’s very similar to traditional archery, both in skill required and proximity to prey. You have to be close — very close — so that you can assess the individual animal, and decide whether to loose an arrow or not. As many hunters know, you seldom do. It’s the same under the sea. “Pulling the trigger is never fun, and I always feel bad. The more I dive, the more horrible I feel every time I shoot a fish. But I think that’s a good thing, because I feel responsible, and that I’m part of the ecosystem, not above it,” Valentine confesses as we start to clean fish, pack up gear, and admire the bounty of the day. Much like we land hunters scout an area, read migration reports, or check fish and wildlife surveys, Valentine and her dive contemporaries do their research before they hunt an area. “Before I go fish somewhere, I read as many scientific reports as I can from different ocean conservation organizations to understand the region and what I’ll be hunting for, and consider things like population dynamics, reproduction seasons, males versus females, and potential for buildup of poison or disease. This way, you can be as prepared as possible, and ideally you never pull the trigger unless you’re absolutely sure that what you’re spearing is not damaging to the ecosystem.” Selective, sustainable harvest of specific fish — it’s a concept not often discussed in today’s world of trendy fly fishing pursuits and a pervasive culture of seemingly high-horse, catch-and-release ethos backed by so many commercial brands. I gave it little consideration before this trip, but now I can see the merit and morality in it. If you’re going to catch and eat fish, there is no better way to determine the age class, sex and viability of your prey than by getting up close and personal to it, and making a judgement call based on informed observation. This, of course, is in contrast to the commercial line or net fishing industries, where fish are blindly caught in bulk, and the non-desired species — the bycatch — are often thrown out and wasted. This is a reality, it seems, that Valentine is dedicated to addressing in her conservation work.

“Seafood is the number-one traded commodity in the world — more than coffee, more than sugar, more than anything. It has become a multi-billion-dollar industry, and it’s hard to affect change in something with that many dollar signs behind it. But it’s estimated that two-thirds of the commercial fish catch is being killed and thrown out, and it’s depleting our oceans. The word ‘sustainable’ is a complex term that gets used a lot, and some companies take advantage of grey areas. There is a lot of seafood fraud, and ‘greenwashing’ — where companies say something is organic, wild or sustainably caught when it isn’t — in an attempt to trick consumers. But at the end of the day, we as consumers have the power to create change with our purchases. Buying is voting, and if we make better choices to purchase seafood that has certified labels, and traceable sources that are sustainable, we can make a difference. Another thing is to just vary the types of fish you eat, which your local fishmonger can help with. This takes pressure off some of the main fish species the world consumes — tuna, sea bass, halibut and salmon — and allows populations to recover,” she says, her frustration apparent as she weighs the momentous task ahead. This complexity, and the corporate villains who seek to capitalize off the discrepancies and lack of regulation in the seafood industry, are issues that Valentine takes head-on through her social media platform, which has significant reach. She regularly posts scientific information and consumer reports, and provides insight and education for consumers to make better choices, and support the right organizations. For better or worse, she calls it like it is, often drawing attention to the abuse of single-use plastics in chain restaurants and stores. Sometimes this creates positive change, other times it gets her blocked. Either way, she’s being heard. 

“As spearfishers, we are on the front row in the ocean, and are witnessing what’s going on with fish stock depletion, coral health, and the reality of important conservation issues. So I believe it’s our job, first of all, to harvest responsibly, and second of all, to spread the word about what’s going on. I do what I can to provide educational resources and information, and offer advice to those who want to change some of their consumptive habits and contribute to positive change.” We as consumers can help by ditching the convenience of non-local or out-of-season fish, the packaged sushi that is likely not what it says it is, the salmon that is harmfully farmed versus wild caught, or the comfort of knowing the fish species name when variety of diet could very well be the major key to shifting the tides that keep our oceans alive, thriving, and well stocked. Valentine’s other passion is cooking with the freshest and fewest ingredients possible. This concept, as exhibited by her recently released cookbook, A Contre Courant (Against the Current), aims to show that amazing meals don’t have to be complex to be delicious, or world class. Now it’s time for her to prove it. The fish are cleaned, the beers come out, and after devouring the ceviche that has been curing in fresh lime juice and Floridian sun, we point the boat shoreward and attempt to outrun a menacing-looking squall brewing in the distance. We barely make it, the rain stinging our eyes so badly upon reaching the shore that our captain has to wear a dive mask to see.

We dock the boat, wait out the rain, and start to make preparations for the big group dinner to ensue. As friends start to arrive, they bring their contributions with them: lobsters from the Bahamas, delicious rum from Barbados, banana leaves from the Philippines, even my addition of turf to compliment the surf — elk steaks from my Montana hunt last year. We talk, laugh, and drink, and in the background Valentine makes a seamless transition from wetsuit-clad killer to chef, and cranks out an incredible menu of conch fritters, African pompano sashimi with a spicy mango dipping sauce, citrus-stuffed whole hogfish, DIY sushi nachos, ponzu-glazed mangrove snapper fillets, and several other dishes that I can’t recall, though I eat more than the appropriate amount of each. Throughout the evening, I get a chance to meet more of the characters from this amazing spearfishing community — old, young, amateur, expert, Floridian, Estonian — and hear their stories of adventure, camaraderie, and danger. It strikes me how much effort it took to bring all of this fish here tonight. Between the scouting, travel, boats, dives, breath holds, spearguns, shark dueling, knifing and filleting, it’s tedious, but rewarding work. 

I now fully grasp the complexity of spearfishing, how it requires specialized hunting skills, a knowledge of many species, and above all else, the humility to put yourself in a vulnerable and disadvantaged position for a chance at success. There are few land pursuits that require this much relinquishing of our natural abilities as humans: breathing, running, climbing — even our reliance on ballistics and technology. In the ocean, there is almost nowhere you can hide, nor anything you can outswim. These aqueous steward hunters are out there doing things the hard way, and bearing witness to the many conservation issues firsthand, they have a vested interest in doing what they can to preserve the resources of the ocean. Spearfishing represents an interesting, and important, intersection between hunters and anglers that fascinates me, and just as soon as I can hold my breath longer than it takes the progress bar to load with rural Montana internet speeds, I plan to join them again on the ocean floor, tankless, full-well knowing that the sea demands sacrifice.

Read More: Valentine’s recipe for Baked Whole Hogfish & Messy Sushi Board

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