Fifty-five miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, Rosibel Molina slid off the back of a pink boat into the blue-green water. She steadied her spear gun.
“Remember, we saw that shark here yesterday,” Molina said to her teammate, Melody Engle, who was also entering the water.
Molina wasn’t afraid. She’d come face-to-face with a 7-foot hammerhead once that snatched a 35-pound cobia right off her spear. But she was mindful.
She sank beneath the surface on this August day, her eyes adjusting to a glittery underwater sunburst. Visibility was poor even this far out, possibly due to Red Tide. She swam around a white jellyfish the size of a serving platter, searching for a sunken tugboat.
Molina began breathing purposefully through her snorkel, calming her heart rate.
Next month, she, Engle and two teammates are headed to Sardinia, Italy, to a world spearfishing championship. They will dive in the Mediterranean Sea from boats with American flags.
But she’d been practicing closer to home.
Molina inhaled deeply and spit out her snorkel. She folded herself in half and headed 60 feet below, to the floor of the Gulf.
An unexpected talent
Molina grew up in the town of Sagua La Grande, surrounded by water on the north coast of Cuba. Her father had a family farm and built machines that processed sugar. Her mother took care of the home.
As a teenager, Molina yearned to come to the United States. A cousin lived in Tampa.
In college, she played volleyball and handball. One day in class, she saw swimmers using a stopwatch to time how long everyone could hold their breath. Molina surprised herself, lasting 3½ minutes. Then she showed them she could do it in a pool.
A freediving coach approached her, but she told him she didn’t know how to swim. She’d nearly drowned in a river at age 5, so her parents had kept her away from water.
In 2003, at 22, she arrived in Tampa. Her mother had won a visa to the U.S. in a lottery. Molina got a job in housekeeping at a Radisson on State Road 60.
For a few years, her days were filled with work. But by 2009, she had saved enough money to take a freediving class. By 2010, she’d broken a Cuban freediving record. She’d gone 216 feet underwater in one breath of 6 minutes and 3 seconds.
That year, she went on a spearfishing expedition in the Florida Keys and became hooked.
Molina, now 40, is a mother to 14-year-old Caleb and 3-year-old Jocelyn. She lives with the father of her children, who owns a trucking business and prefers baseball to the ocean. For the past 15 years, she has worked as an account manager for corporate apartment rentals. She also runs a family housekeeping business and sometimes works as a licensed massage therapist.
After she began spearfishing, she faced criticism on social media from friends who didn’t like that she killed fish for sport. But she countered that she only caught as much as she and her family and friends could eat.
She realized that spearfishing was all about feelings. She had to intuit each fish’s motivation and weaknesses, figure out if the sharks were passing through or being aggressive. She had to keep tabs on her own body, making sure to come up before she ran out of air.
A diver who goes down 100 feet will only have a quarter of the surface volume of oxygen, explained Dr. Juan Valdivia-Valdivia, a local neurosurgeon and competitive freediver who has worked with Molina on her breathing.
As the body senses being underwater, it shifts blood from the arms, legs and spleen to the lungs, heart and brain, giving the diver more time. But as oxygen levels in the blood reach a critical low, some people misjudge the time they have left and lose consciousness underwater.
Thousands of spearfishermen have perished that way. One mistake and Molina could die.
But she also finds an inner peace down there. In the quiet of the ocean, she escapes emails and text messages, the clamor of people on shore.
“It’s relaxing and gives you time to see what your body can do,” she said. “It’s cerebral.”
She thinks about the meaning of life while holding her breath. It makes her humble.
Taking her shot
Sixty feet below, Molina’s eyes adjusted to the darkness. She made out the remnants of the old tugboat, guarded at that moment by a 180-pound Goliath grouper. That species is protected. She was not allowed to shoot it.
The brown fish, with its wide head and tiny eyes, wasn’t overly aggressive, but it would likely be interested in anything she caught.
In the world spearfishing competition, points are awarded based on the largest fish and most variety of fish. Divers bring in their haul to be weighed in front of other competitors. Here in practice, Molina was trying to be more precise with her aim.
She noticed schools of bait fish and smaller groupers in the sand at the front of the boat. One of those might work. Clusters of mangrove snapper peered out from crevices in the center.
She paused, and waited patiently. A minute and 15 seconds had passed since she’d taken a breath.
She raised her speargun, which was powered by long, thick rubber bands, and pulled the trigger. The spear shot over the bow of the boat and pierced an 18-inch snapper.
She pulled the string attached to the spear, drawing the fish toward her. It flapped, so she grabbed her knife from her belt. A jumpy fish attracts sharks.
She sped upward with the fish, blowing out to empty her lungs. As her mouth and nose broke the surface, she sucked in air, sharply and over and over.
Joining the competition
In 2018, Engle had asked around about forming a women’s team. She lived in Tarpon Springs and owned her own records conversion company. She’d been a skydiver, a figure skater and a scuba diver. She’d turned to spearfishing a few years before.
Molina joined the team, as did another experienced diver from California, Kelsea Albert, a doctor of sports medicine.
They won first place in the women’s division at the U.S. nationals. But only the men were headed off to the world championship in Portugal.
Since 1958, spearfishermen from around the world have earned their way into the now biennial championship run by the World Underwater Federation. The team and individual with the most points wins gold. A male U.S. diver won once in Malta — in 1959. European countries, such as Spain, Greece, Italy and Croatia, regularly dominate.
Women, however, “were the red-headed stepchildren of spearfishing,” Albert said.
A woman joined the Russian men’s team in 2008, said Dr. Erick M. Salado, a judge for the world championship.
“I was personally pushing for a women’s competition for many, many years,” said Salado, a spearfisherman and orthopedic surgeon from Miami. But no women’s teams had come forward.
Engle called Joe Fernandez, the captain of the U.S. men’s team at the time.
Fernandez, who once owned a dive shop in Miami, realized it was a unique opportunity.
“I had to do a considerable amount of politicking to get this group to be part of that, and I did.”
That year, the international spearfishing competition introduced a women’s cup, inviting the U.S. team that had won at nationals.
Seven female teams entered. The U.S. women’s team, which included Molina, won gold. She also placed second individually, after a woman from Portugal. Albert took third.
The team headed to Italy in September includes Molina and Albert. Engle, 56, is captain, and Nicole Burko, 34, rounds out the team. They are a formidable group. (Last year’s competition was postponed due to the pandemic)
Albert, who attended her first nationals in 2009, has been a women’s world record holder in the white seabass, bluefin tuna, wahoo and cod, among others. She’s seen great white sharks while hunting. Once, a boat propeller hit her in the dive belt. She’s caught many fish the size and weight of her body.
Like Molina, Albert finds peace underwater.
“It’s the same reason some people go to church,” she said, “to answer questions they have about themselves and what’s going on in their lives. It’s the ultimate mirror into my own heart. You can’t find that above the surface.”
Burko, who lives in Rockledge, has a picture of herself in a bikini holding one of her catches, a 40-pound African pompano nabbed 100 miles out in the Atlantic. A shark had ripped away the bottom half of the fish as she brought it to the boat. On one dive, captured on video, she catches a red snapper and sees a 7-foot shark about 6 feet below, circling up toward her and the snapper. She makes it to the boat as the shark moves closer. She recently caught a 26-pound red snapper, giving her the women’s world record for that fish.
Originally from Canada, Burko moved to the U.S. when she was 12. She is an artist with a master’s in fine arts from Columbia University. She often paints the underwater landscapes she sees. Sometimes, she hops on a commercial fishing boat, spending a couple days on the water diving with her spear gun.
It feels primordial.
“The foreboding, the vastness, the endlessness of it, the experience when you feel like you are part of something much larger than yourself.”
Exploring our backyard
They’d steered Engle’s 25-foot boat, the Speara Vida, to another wreck. In the Gulf of Mexico, there is an underwater skyline of sunken ships, dredges, barges, army tanks, airplanes, culverts and piles of concrete from the old Skyway Bridge, the Courtney Campbell Causeway and the John’s Pass Bridge — all left there or put there to create habitat for fish.
Molina put out the dive flag. Dark clouds skittered across the empty horizon. Engle had caught a mangrove snapper, a barracuda and a 34-inch amberjack.
Molina had promised her brother she’d bring him two barracudas. To her family, the species offered a tasty meal. She looked below and saw flashes of the silver fish everywhere. She wondered if they had hit a spawning ground. The barracuda look more frightening than they are, with large, toothy jaws, slender bodies and teeth like daggers.
She shot from the surface, they were so plentiful, and picked off two within minutes.
It will not be that easy in the Mediterranean next month.
It will be colder there, rockier. She’ll have to hold her breath longer and hunt at a depth of more than 100 feet. But she’s excited to compete — she’s learned how to maneuver in new worlds.
The USA women’s spearfishing team will gather for a sendoff party at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 9 at Tampa Bay Brewing Company, 13937 Monroes Business Park, Tampa. The team is trying to raise $20,000 for the trip to Italy and can be found on Facebook at @USAWomensSpearfishingTeam.