Prologue: At the time of its publication, some wondered why I featured author, freediver and spearo Carlos Eyles on the cover of what was to become the world’s premier technical diving magazine. Today, more than a quarter century later, freediving—technical diving’s edgy cousin—has become the fastest growing segment of sports diving and is redefining the limits the limits of apneic diving and in the process raising new, unanswered questions about diving physiology. In fact, freediving has many parallels with the early days of tech diving.
Eyles, who was one of freediving’s pioneers, chronicled its early development. I suggest that those who are interested seek out some of Eyles’ books mentioned below as well as some of his later work; “A Dolphin’s Dream,” “The Blue Edge” and “Dolphin Borne.” You won’t be sorry.
Here is the original interview as it appeared in aquaCORPS, Issue # 2 Solo, June 1990.
Carlos Eyles: Blue Water Hunter
“Somewhere between the sandy bottom of the shore and the deep water where no bottom can be seen at all lies the true obstruction, one forged of materials that have existed throughout human history. It is built on a foundation of myth and misconception. The great bulk of it rests in the fear of the unknown and its power lies in man’s awareness of his vulnerability in the environment.” Carlos Eyles, The Last of the Blue Water Hunters.
Just beyond the reef and the kelp forest lays a wilderness that few have entered. Fathomless. Offering no mental handholds. Where humans are both predator and prey.
It was a little more than 60 years ago that breath-hold divers began to venture out into blue water. Like other explorers who first penetrated uncharted territory, these men were hunters. Accepting, but not daunted by their vulnerability, the Fathers wandered Baja, the Gulf, and the Keys, like a lost tribe, in search of Yellow-tail and Grouper, White sea bass and blue fin tuna, armed with an equivalent of an underwater bow and arrow.
Long on leg and lung, these blue water hunters—the forerunners of modern scuba—opened up a frontier, and in doing so defied ancient myths and fears, testing themselves in the process. For a time, their achievements and daring graced the early pages of Skin Diver, but in the rush of technology, their legacy was all but lost. Perhaps that’s what makes Carlos Eyles’ work so important.
Freediver and author of Sea Stalking, The Inner Experience of Diving (later retitled Diving Free), The Last of the Blue Water Hunters, and a forthcoming black and white photographic album entitled Sea Shadows, Eyles captures a vision that few will ever see. From a childhood born out of the blue waters of Hawaii, Eyles, 48, father of three, has had the conviction to live the life he dreamed about, rejecting the American Dream for one of a different order. He made money and lost it, worked as a spearfishing guide in Baja, wandered the Gulf, sailed the South Pacific, worked odd jobs to stay alive, and at times hasn’t worked at all.
How do you set down the story of a man like Eyles, particularly when his writing touches so deeply? Perhaps the best way is to simply let his words speak for themselves.
Photo courtesy of Carlos Eyles
Do you consider yourself primarily a hunter?
Carlos Eyles: Yes and no. I don’t hunt fish like I used to. But I think I will always be a hunter of things that are difficult to grasp. I expect in metaphor that would be the White Sea bass, which really was my favorite fish to hunt because it was so difficult. On warm summer days, I still find myself on Catalina Island looking for them, but not with near the vigor that I did before.
In the opening passages of Blue Water Hunters, you use a quote from Emerson: “Few adults can see nature.” Does the hunter have a special way of seeing nature, a special relationship with his or her environment?
Absolutely. I think that’s why there are so few blue water hunters, because it’s not something that you can just step into and begin to do. It takes literally years and years of dedication to develop a hunter’s eye for nature: perhaps not so much an eye as a sense of the environment. In the underwater world where visibility is limited, operating is more of a sensing than it is a seeing.
Most hunters in blue water or on the edge of blue water look for movement. They’re watching the bait react to something that they can’t see; watching the movement of the bait, which is watching something else. It’s an awareness of all the elements at all times.
This level of awareness is so acute that it just can’t be developed overnight. It is a very subtle thing, a very practiced thing, and it evolves over many years before that sense can imbue you. Before you are the ocean in many ways. When that occurs, when you become one with that which you are in, then the ocean will open up and a whole other realm will expose itself to you.
Throughout Blue Water Hunters and much of your other writing, you present a set of principals or attitudes that you’ve arrived at as a result of your experiences. Could you elaborate on these?
A hunter’s value system begins with never taking a single fish more than he or she needs to have. It’s all right if you’re going to spearfish for dinner for seven. You find the fish that’ll feed seven. But there are people who abuse the skill of spearfishing. They invariably spear more fish than they will eat. These people have no real respect and understanding of the environment and its creatures – no love for them; and no appreciation of the fact that the numbers of fish are diminishing.
I’ve made it a longstanding ritual— I can’t even remember when it began— that after the spearing of a big fish, I will always take a piece of raw meat out of it at the first chance I have. Then I’ll eat it as the Indians did, and that transfers the power and spirit from the fish onto me. It makes the taking of the fish more symbolic of it as a gift, rather than me as a taker.
If I am a good hunter and the ocean is ready to provide that gift for me, and I’m impeccable, then I’ll be able to have that fish. But if I’m not, then I won’t. It’s not really a matter of what the ocean chooses to give me rather than if I am good enough to take whatever I want.
A metaphor for living?
Yes, I think we all get what we need. We all get enough of it. The greed factor is a mighty one in our culture today as it is in the oceans. But the Native American peoples of this continent operated differently. Their system could have operated for millions and millions of years, whereas our system—we only have a few short years left the way we’re operating. Our culture is going to have to change radically or we won’t survive. But the older system would’ve prevailed, and I believe it still can prevail within the individual.
An evolution of values – and inner transformation?
That’s right. I think most people who begin spearfishing have sort of a killer attitude: in effect, they re killers, not hunters at all. That’s part of a stage they go through. They go out and learn to use a spear gun, and learn the habits and stalking techniques required to take fish. To do that, you have to kill things. But after that stage is over, there are some who continue to do that, who never really get the fact that we don’t need to continue to kill to produce food. A hunter’s higher values will take him not to the easy fish, but to the more difficult fish. In doing that, you learn more about the ocean and more about yourself in the ocean.
There is a point where a decision is made: Am I going to be a killer or am I going to be a hunter? There’s discipline in hunting; there’s not a whole lot of discipline in killing.
Photo courtesy of Carlos Eyles
In Blue Water Hunters you compare underwater stalking to a dance, becoming attuned to the rhythm of the environment. What are the skills that a hunter has to master?
Breath-hold diving takes a lot of strength, both of lung and leg. It depends on the fish you’re stalking, but if you’re diving in Baja or looking for grouper and you have to go 50, 50, 70, or 80 feet—in some cases 100 feet. It takes a lot of leg to come up from that depth, particularly if you’re holding a fish.
Of course, the really good divers don’t smoke and their diets are strict and their physical regimen is arduous. I think they’re always in excellent physical condition, because they’re doing it all the time; it’s not something that you can just jump into and begin doing. Physically, you have to be ready.
Plus, you have to learn how to operate in the ocean—learn to move without appearing to move; move without making a sound. The simple act of pulling a snorkel out before a dive—which eliminates the bubbles that might come out at an inopportune time—may make all the difference between getting and not getting a fish. Or the act of clearing one’s ears at the surface and then making that continuous pressure in the inner ear, so that no squeaking will occur from pressure built up inside. The simple squeak from an eardrum will blow a fish. Very subtle acts like that make the difference.
The undersea world is a world of sound, isn’t it?
It really is. People have no sense of that. Using White Sea bass for an example, people may look for weeks and never see one, not realizing that the minute noises that they’re making are spooking the fish that they can’t see.
How important are feelings or instincts when you’re in the water?
Well, if you get in the water and it doesn’t feel right, then you’ve got to get out. Too often, something isn’t right there, and there’s no putting your finger on it. If it’d not right, you’ve got to go with those instinct, particularly if you’ve been diving as long as I have. You’ve got to trust those instincts. Get out; go somewhere else; try it again. If it’s not right, then don’t go diving that day. You might be so full of fear that you’re attracting every shark in the area.
How do hunters deal with fear?
Dealing with fear is a major aspect of blue water hunting. There are good divers, good hunters who never get over their fear. They will invariably draw sharks to themselves. There are divers who are well known who I won’t dive with simply because their fear is so great that they’ll attract sharks.
Photo courtesy of Carlos Eyles
You feel sharks and other creatures have that kind of sensitivity?
Absolutely. I think sharks are no different from any other animal. If you’re a predator, you can sense fear. If you have that fear, you can’t operate. I went through a period myself where I was spooked out.
Sharks are our last sort of mythological bogey men. They may not be painted on cave walls, but they still come out on out TV sets, which is the equivalent. We haven’t distanced ourselves that much from the sea gods of thousands or millions of years ago. We just handle it differently, so we think we’re different. But we’re not.
We give then scientific names and try to distance ourselves from them, but they still represent almost an omnipotent presence in people’s minds
That’s right. For me to operate, I had to deprogram this TV, Jaws, story-telling myth out of my head. Which is to say: if the shark comes, I’ll deal with it then, rather than worry about it and run this tape in my head. Because I wasn’t operating as well as I could operate when that was going on.
Once you eliminate that tape—once you’re free of sharks—you can jump into any water and just feel free to operate; you see and sense and perceive it in a level that the person who is fear-filled can’t possible understand. There are people who go in the ocean who have no sense of that because they are so fear-filled. And there are those I’ve seen go in with very little fear and operate almost immediately.
Have you ever had a really frightening experience in the ocean—one that you learned from or that cost you a little?
Yes. It had nothing to do with sharks. It had to do with my own carelessness. It was during El Niño and I was doing a lot of yellowtailing. I seemed to be feeding half of Catalina; my life was fishing and trading the fish for vegetables.
I got very cavalier; and this one day I went out and speared a yellowtail and strung it on my boat and then I had to go back and get something. When I returned, I saw that the yellowtail was all clawed up and ripped open. I was curious, but I didn’t really add anything up. I just put the fish in the boat instead of hanging it over the side.
Then a school of yellowtail came in. I took a shot, and got two in one shot. I was working both fish at the same time and letting out a lot of line. Eventually, one got away, but I still had the other one; and I had all this line out – more than I usually let out. You shouldn’t keep line kind of hung around you because if the fish makes a run, you can be pulled down and killed.
So I was making a point to push it down current, but I was being very casual. These were small yellowtail—15-20 pounds— so I wasn’t really that concerned. Then an enormous sea lion came in, and hit the fish from the shaft and took off with it. The line half-hitched around my wrist and pulled me down. I didn’t have a breath and I went down about maybe forty feet. I couldn’t pull it out of his mouth and I couldn’t undo the knot. I don’t normally carry a knife with me; so I couldn’t cut the line.
I was on the surface, heaving breaths, almost passed-out. I was afraid he’d hit the fish again; I couldn’t unhook the knot and I had line draped all over me. I had the fish on my belly and was sort of floating on my back. Them the sea lion came up and was about three feet away, still wanting the fish. So I had to beat him off with the spear gun and try to get this big mess back in the boat.
Let’s talk a little about technology. What about scuba and its uses in hunting? Does it change the balance of things?
To me, coming from a sort of purist point of view, it’s almost like hunting elephants from a helicopter. You just wait out the fish, being able to breath; the fish will come right to you. Where’s the skill?
In blue water hunting, we’re not using high-powered guns, we’re not using scuba. We’re on a breathhold. We’ve got to get within seven or eight – maybe ten feet – of the fish. There’s a lot of strength and conditioning that goes into that. That makes it equal, and make the fish taste better when its all over.
There are certain fish that are very susceptible to straight scuba – stationary fish like cod or rock cod. Other fish, like calico bass, a scuba diver would have a very difficult time getting a big one. Free divers really hunt calico and like calico bass. They’re really the hunters who get close to them. There are as many calico bass today as there ever have been, especially because there aren’t that many free divers.
In a broader sense, what’s your feeling about scuba – apart from hunting? When it came out in the ’50s it was revolutionary, but blue water hunters never really adopted it.
When scuba came out – for me I guess it was ’53 – I went to a sporting goods store and picked one out. The guy said, “OK, this is how it works, just follow your sloe bubble up.” That was it. So I used it for maybe a year, but there was not nearly the sense of operating that I had when I was free diving. I was the observer, not the participant. It was nice that I could observe – see things close-up in deep water – but I didn’t feel a part of the system anymore. I was an outsider now. All the commotion and the weight were burdensome, isolating.
Without really thinking about it, I just said, “This has been nice, but I’ll go back to free diving.” It’s easier to be a free diver. I’m not going to get as much dome or see as much, but I can stay in the water longer. Usually I’m in for three or four hours.
That’s an interesting point. I’ve always looked at the free divers a thought they were so limited.
Free diving is no different that the sea lion or the sea otter or the harbor seal who have to get a breath every now and then. There’s an integration that doesn’t occur in scuba diving. Your focus, particularly with a snorkel, never breaks. So I’m really underwater all the time. I’m just moving up and down the ladder and seeing things from a larger panorama.
If you have a tank on and you’re working a reef, you’re kind of looking at what’s in front of you. A a free diver, I’ve got the whole perspective. I’m up high and I can see a far distance and I can dive down to a coral head; I can see actually more things going on. So, the dive is really a three-hour dive, until I get cold. I just stay in all the time, with the perspective changing. With a tank on, the perspective more or less stays the same.
We’ve really kind of overlooked free diving in the industry. There are “snorkelers,” but most snorkeling is resort tourists kicking around; and then there’s scuba diving. But there really aren’t any programs for free diving, to my knowledge.
Spearfishing is the vehicle that gets people into free diving. But they trivialize it by calling it “snorkeling,” implying that if you snorkel, you’re not really a diver. Maybe the industry has decided, “Well, there’s no money in it. The big money is in the scuba gear.”
But there are more free divers now than ever before – more people spearfishing than at any other time. It’s not because of greater population; it’s because people become bored. These divers are not photographers; they’re not wreck-divers; and they have found they can operate in a different way by spearfishing and free diving.
Throughout you books, you talk about letting your dreams guide you.
It goes back to following your bliss. It’s important to just follow the things you love to do. You meet somebody doing what they want and it seems contrary to the flow. They’re doing what’s right, coming from here [gesture to his heart]. Most people have lost that sense. They just follow along. They don’t understand life.
Having the perspective that I have has put me on the peripheries of civilization and society. I didn’t see it in the same way [as other] simply because I wasn’t reared that way; then when I did come into civilization, I went into myself. I acquired a vast internal world in which I could entertain myself. I didn’t really need society.
But it did make me an outsider. In a very young person, it’s difficult to be an outsider. You can’t really understand the value of it until you’re older. Fortunately, I’ve been able to take that and make it valuable. I enjoy my perspective now. Before it was a burden; now it’s a source of life.
You’ve created a metaphor in you writing which in many ways reminds me of Carlos Castenada. Are you a fan of his?
I was fascinated when his books first came out, though it still hasn’t been determined whether his work is fiction or non-fiction. But I don’t think it matters. He filled a need we all had, a sense that something else was going on out there.
I see that in nature. There’s a mystery, a hiddenness that we can’t put our finger on. Everybody wants to name an unnamed thing. And we will never name it.
Trying to get closer to that unnamed thing in life and in adventure and in the water – that’s what life is all about. Trying to touch the untouchable; trying to name the unnamed – knowing as we go into it that we can’t do it; nevertheless, trying to do it anyway.
All we have is our ability to act, to put ourselves out there on the edge.
I think adventurers per se have shorter liver simply because they stick it out there. No matter what happens, they’re going to get caught in something, somewhere. When I was in Fiji, I contracted Ciguatera and almost died. These insidious things that are just part of travel catch up to you. Life becomes precious; you treat every day with more respect than those who just sit home and watch TV. Your perspective of mortality changes; the threat of death doesn’t jar you a whole lot.
I may not make a lot of money in this lifetime. That’s not important. I may not do a lot of things that I see other people doing, but I’m doing the things that I need to do for me. And that keeps me content. I believe if you just do what you do – put it out there – that takes everything takes care of itself. I’ve been living that way now for 10 years. I get what I need and I’m content with that.
The ocean will provide?
Life provides. It simply goes back to following what you love to do and letting it take care of you.