Freediving, spearfishing go state-of-the-art
By GERRY BARKER
North Palm Beach Life/ email@example.com
All Photos: North Palm Beach Life
When Frank Smith goes fishing, he doesn't pack a rod and reel and tackle box. His gear of choice is a wetsuit and speargun.
And instead of a scuba tank, he simply holds his breath.
Smith is among the thousands of devotees who practice freediving, or breath hold diving, along with his other passion, spearfishing. And both are not only his passions, but also his job.
Smith works for Florida Freedivers at their newly opened location, 633 Northlake in North Palm Beach. Formerly the location of The Camera Store, its bright aqua-and-white exterior is classic Florida.
"Everyone who works here spearfishes and freedives," said Smith, who handles shipping and online orders, along with maintaining the store's website.
The store's origins go back to 1999, when Mike and Cherryl Damms relocated from South Africa to Florida to pursue their love of the ocean and and freediving. They started the store to serve freedivers, and eventually moved it to a location off US 1. After a number of expansions, they sold the business to the current owners, Jonathan and Kelsey Dickinson.
Going with an industrial-look theme inside, Florida Freedivers features everything the diving or spearfishing enthusiast might need, including the latest state-of-the-art technology.
A good example is their selection of wetsuits, which start at around $200. At the high end, Smith talked about the HECS StealthScreen wetsuit, made with a conductive carbon fiber mesh designed to reduce the body's natural electrical energy field.
Why is that important? Because some marine life can detect electrical energy. Smith noted the suit allows divers to get closer and not disturb the sea life. The HECS suit goes for about $600.
Shoppers can choose from a wide array of masks, fins, hats and a complete selection of spearfishing options. They also repair equipment as well.
"We have guys bringing in spearguns that their dad handed down to them," said Smith. "Some will last forever if you take care of them."
The store also offers instruction classes.
"We teach here as well," Smith said. "Freediving class Level 1 starts at 12 years old." With Level 1 certifications, people freedive up to 66 feet; Level 2 divers go to 132 feet.
"Freediving is holding you breath and using all the high-level products to be as efficient as possible in the water," Smith explained. "Kicking, everything -- takes away from your oxygen level. The less you use it, the more you can stay down."
How deep can a freediver go? Pretty deep, it turns out, with Smith noting "records are being broken a weekly basis."
Austrian freediver Herbert Nitsch, "the deepest man on earth," currently holds 69 world records in eight different categories of freediving, including the deepest dive, 831 feet, as well as holding his breath for nine-plus minutes.
While this may be the off-season for tourism, Smith said summers are the busy time at the store as people from all over come to Florida and the Bahamas for water sports. One popular destination is Dean's Blue Hole on Long Island, Bahamas. It is the "deepest known salt water blue hole with an entrance below the sea level."
So how did Smith get into the sport?
"I used to work on boats," he said. "If we had a day off, I would go out spearfishing in the Bahamas. I used the cheapest gear -- just borrowed stuff." Later, Smith had a friend that was also into it and he graduated to deeper dives and better equipment.
"It's awesome," Smith said. "You shoot your first fish and you're hooked. You are just in the moment. Not thinking about the outside world."
So far, his deepest dive has been about 85 feet and his goal is getting Level 2 certified.
Smith has been with the store going on two years. He's seen the popularity of the sport grow, driven by social media and online resources like SpearBoard. In fact, Smith learned about his job opportunity via social media.
Every third Thursday in the month, the store plays host to the Palm Beach Freedivers, with meetings that start at 7 pm. The store itself will stage its grand opening on Aug. 27.
For all the recreation the sport provides, Smith can recall an anxious moment or two. Like hunting cobia fish, who hang with bull sharks.
He recounted this as well:
"I was in the Bahamas two weeks ago, swimming back to the boat, and all these reef sharks are hanging around. One of them suddenly charges right at me.
"Reef shark can be unpredictable. So I poked it away with my pole spear." He said it swam away, but not before turning around and giving him one last look.
"I was freaked out for a second."
I would be, too.
You shoot your first fish and you're hooked. You are just in the moment."