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Daring divers seek fish, thrills

An avid boater, angler and scuba diver, David Shelton was looking for a new challenge.

"We are surrounded by water and I wanted another way to enjoy it," the 51-year-old dentist said. "Free diving took it to a whole other level."

Shelton, like most breath-hold divers, is passionate about his sport.

"It is the ultimate challenge," he said. "There is nothing like it."

Armed only with a mask, a spear, fins and the air in their lungs, breath-hold divers venture into the open ocean to track, shoot and retrieve fish, which sometimes are twice the diver's size. Nearly 100 of the nation's best gather today in the warm gulf waters for the U.S. National Free Diving Championships.

"It is quite an honor to hold an event of this magnitude here," said Bill Hardman, a free diver and tournament official. "Hopefully, if all goes well, this may help us bring the World Championships to Key West."

In many parts of the world, such as the Mediterranean and the South Pacific, free diving is a huge sport and the top practitioners are treated like professional athletes. But in the United States, the sport has not enjoyed much success, except among a small number of traditional "watermen" who call the ocean home.

"There is a real brotherhood," said Hardman, who operates Aquatic Obsessions, a shop that caters to free divers. "A free diver from South America could walk in and ask where to dive and there would be a half a dozen guys lined up ready to take him out. You don't get that kind of camaraderie among scuba divers."

Using pole spears and homemade copper goggles, the early spearfishermen of California, Hawaii and Florida stalked their prey without the benefit of scuba tanks.

These "free divers" tackled shark, tuna, even sailfish, while holding their breath for well over a minute at a time.

The sport gained prominence after World War II as manufactured spear guns became available on the market. Free diving probably reached its peak in 1955 when Fred and Art Pinder, two legendary spearfisherman, graced the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Today, most spearfishermen take the easy way and strap on the scuba tanks; only a handful pursue their prey the traditional way.

"It is not easy," Hardman said. "And it can be dangerous."

Every year, experienced free divers die from what is called shallow water blackout.

An explanation of shallow water blackout is offered in the book Freedive! by legendary breath-hold diver Terry Mass: "Shallow water blackout strikes most commonly within 15 feet of the surface, where expanding, oxygen-hungry lungs literally suck oxygen from the diver's blood."

It is the build-up of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, not the lack of oxygen, that signals the need to breathe. Breath-hold divers learn to "override" the breathe impulse, and as a result, sometimes pass out on their return to the surface.

"That is why free diving is a team sport," Hardman said. "You never dive alone."

The 22 teams competing in today's tournament each have three divers and one alternate diver. The teams are ranked on a point system.

Divers are awarded one point per fish and one point per pound (with a maximum of 20 pounds). So a 20-pound grouper is worth 21 points. Each diver is limited to a total of 20 fish.

"It is real workout, diving and trying to shoot fish," said Shelton, the dentist from Port Richey. "It keeps me in shape."

It is not uncommon for a top free diver to hold his breath for several minutes as he hunts and kills a fish in 60 feet of water. Shelton's personal record is an 85-pound amberjack that he shot in 80 feet of water. But a catch like that is rare, and since the tournament imposes a 20-pound limit on all fish, it is not worth shooting something that big.

The eligible species include mangrove snapper, yellowtail snapper, cubera snapper, gag grouper, black grouper, red grouper, gray triggerfish, cobia, hogfish, amberjack and sheepshead.

"It is funny the sport is getting more popular," Shelton said. "But we aren't seeing many young people getting into to it. Most of the new free divers are 28 to 35 years old. They are usually scuba divers who just got bored."

Want more?

For more information on free diving, go to the International Association of Free Divers' Web site _ www.iafdusa.com. Bill Hardman of Aquatica Obsessions Scuba Shop also sponsors a free free divers club. Beginners are welcome. Call (727) 344-3483 or log onto www.aquaticobsessions.com.

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