Lionfish Hunt Festival

by Barb Eller  (May 2012)

It was 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning this past February and the alarm went off. I jumped out of bed, got my swimsuit on, and loaded my gear into the car, then headed back in the house to fix some breakfast. I had to be in town by 7:30 for the official opening of the Lionfish Hunt. I was going to be the "bag lady" for the Mahahual Dive Centre's team. (Remember, I wrote a few weeks back about carrying the bag for the lionfish hunters' catches.) Just about the time I was ready to leave, I got a call from Bucito saying there was a change of plans. The day before, we did a dive just past where I live and saw a lot of lionfish so he decided that we would start the hunt there. The boat would pick me up here and he wanted to use our beach to store all the extra tanks we would need today. By 9 the tanks were set up on the beach and all our gear was on the boat and ready to go.

The five-man team was Bucito, Moises, Andrea, Victor, and John. Since the rules said each man had to carry his own catch they didn't need a "bag lady" but Bucito said I could join them and watch the action. The water was nice and calm and the sun was just peeking out from behind the clouds as we headed to the other side of the reef and south. We entered the water in two groups; Bucito, Moises, and Andrea put their gear on first and then we passed them their spears. Victor, John and I geared up, rolled in the water, and dropped down to about 65 feet to start.

We weren't in the water three minutes and both Victor and John headed over to a huge barrel sponge and speared their first lionfish. As they put their catches on a stringer, I hovered over the barrel sponge and did I get a surprise! There had to be at least eight lionfish inside! I franticly waved my arms and pointed inside. Victor was the first to see my signal, swam over and just started stabbing away. When both of them finish bagging the lionfish, we headed down one side of the wall at different depths looking for more fish.

After about 30 minutes or so we headed for the surface. At that depth and with the work of catching the lionfish, the guys used their air fast. We climbed on the boat and went looking for the other group. Moises came back with a swollen hand that had been stuck with a lionfish spine. He spent our surface interval with his hand in a bucket of hot water to deaden the pain.

A little more than an hour later, we were ready for our second dive. We already had gone back to shore and swapped out our tanks and I grabbed my camera. Everyone had good luck at our first site so Bucito decided to do the second dive close by. We entered the water and dropped down quickly to begin the hunt. John and I were headed down a narrow canyon and he signaled me to take a picture; as I looked ahead there was a large turtle slowly swimming along. I swam alongside of him taking his photo and he just looked at me as if to say, "I can swim faster than you. Goodbye," then off he went. I got a few pictures of Victor and John spearing some lionfish and then it was time to head back to the boat.
Our third dive was not as productive; it seemed the lionfish decided to fight back and both Moises and Andrea came back with stings. They dropped me at the beach in front of our house then headed to Tequila Beach. This was the headquarters for the tournament and all lionfish had to be turned in before 3 p.m. to be counted and weighed. There was a prize for the most lionfish caught and for the
largest one.

The next day, Sunday, we began again only it didn't look like the weather was going to be that great. Saturday we had little wind and calm water, but that day the winds picked up to about 12 knots and the water was choppy. The boat picked me up from the beach and we headed down the coast a couple of kilometers.
Since the water was rough, the captain and Bucito told us we should try to stay together. Once we got down to the reef, we saw the visibility was poor and that made it more difficult to keep track of each other. We swam up and down canyons and found quite a few lionfish; some were good size too. At the end of the dive three of us surfaced together and found the wind had really picked up and the waves, well, let's just say they were big.
We did our surface interval on a boat that would have been a great ride for an amusement park. A few times the waves came splashing into the boat. Bucito said that because the wind kept increasing, we would make one more dive and that would be it for the day. After a little more than an hour we geared up and began the last dive for the tournament. The current had increased and, at times, when we had to swim against it, we were really struggling. When we did find the lionfish they were swaying back and forth in the current. The guys were good with their spear guns; I don't see how they could aim accurately. John's air was getting low, so Andrea and I headed up with him. When we got back to the boat, Victor was sitting there with his hand in the hot water. One of the lionfish spines went into his hand and it was already swollen badly and he was in a lot of pain. The captain dropped me at the beach and then headed into town so Victor could see the doctor. I cleaned my gear up, got a shower and headed into Tequila Beach to find out how everyone did in the tournament.
I found Patrick with Kelly and Laurie, two good friends of ours, and we watched as each boat came in with their catch. Local restaurants have their own competition to see who can be most creative in preparing a lionfish dish.
Mahahual Dive Centre came in second place with the largest catch of 182 for the two-day hunt. Victor's hand returned to normal, as has Moises's, and I would be willing to bet that they would be the first ones on the boat if someone says, "Let go lionfish hunting." Over 1,000 lionfish were caught that weekend by 11 teams of divers and snorkelers.

This was the third tournament in Mahahual and I am sure there will be more in the future. Hopefully this will stop some of the damage done to our reef since the lionfish invasion. There is plenty of information online if you want to learn more about the lionfish invasion in this area.
Until later
Happy Bubbles