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Here they come, rising through water so blue it might be Montana sky. They are still deep, but already it's obvious: These fish are enormous. They come up slowly, curious and in no particular hurry, swelling in size, gumdrops becoming half dollars, half dollars becoming balloons, balloons becoming tuna, solid and blue. There are two of them, each looking as big in circumference as a Volkswagen Beetle.
Please, please let them come closer. Suspended 30 feet below the surface of the water, free diver Terry Maas can see the fish drifting upward. Tuna are hypersensitive. Maas swears they can sense an accelerated heartbeat. They can also swim 55 miles an hour, whipping through the water like madcap footballs. Maas has a good idea of their speed and their strength, having once speared a 180-pound tuna that dragged him through the water for nearly a mile. Raise the spear gun slowly. Disconnect emotion. The strategy isn't much different from that used by a love-struck student in a high school hallway: You ignore the object of your desire—and hope she finds you irresistible. God, these fish are huge. Fifteen feet. That's how close the tuna must be, close enough for Maas to see their eyes, rolling slowly, taking him in. The shot can't be good, it must be perfect. Tuna flesh is soft. A spear buried in the wrong spot is easily torn loose. Moving the spear gun toward the tuna is out of the question. They'll spook and disappear. They must swim in front of the gun. The bigger one does. Now.
Maas is not an excitable fellow. A friend ribs him for being "more serious than a heart attack." His wife, Beth, calls him "the most competent person I know." Maas, an oral surgeon, can fix almost anything, from a Ford pickup's engine to a crushed human jaw. His voice is soft, but it's the voice of one who is accustomed to being in charge. At the moment Maas is no longer talking to a visitor in a luncheonette a block from his office in Ventura, Calif. He is 350 miles away, bobbing in the water off Guadalupe Island, a lonely rock in the Pacific off Baja California, being charged by an enormous wounded tuna. His hands carefully pantomime the action—the speared fish bolting for the bottom, then, just as suddenly, surfacing and streaking right at Maas. There is no record of anyone's ever having been attacked by a tuna, but as Maas, a logical sort, points out, "No one had ever shot one that big, either." As the fish barreled toward him, Maas was certain he was about to become a deep-sea-fishing footnote.
"I thought, Well this is it," he says, smiling. "The second I thought that, the fish turned on its side and started to sink."
Bringing the tuna to the surface was no easy matter. That north Pacific bluefin weighed 398 pounds, the largest tuna ever taken by a spear fisherman. Ten years later the record still stands, mainly because most divers never see a tuna, much less spear one.
"They're an offshore animal, so you've got to be offshore to find them," Maas says. "Not a lot of people do what we do."
Maas, 48, is a member of an obscure but rabid fringe of divers whose consuming passion is to take a motorboat out into the middle of the ocean and drop overboard with nothing more than their wet suits, spear guns, snorkels, masks, weight belts and the air in their lungs. Maas reckons there are fewer than 200 serious blue-water hunters in the world. Floating 30 miles out at sea in 2,000 feet of water isn't everybody's idea of recreation. The choicest spots are usually remote, and getting to them is often difficult and expensive. Once there, the amenities are few. Maas's 26-foot boat—a spare, functional vessel named the Blue Fin—has twin 160-horsepower diesel engines, sophisticated satellite navigation equipment and automatic pilot, but it doesn't have a head. Also, there's the matter of plunging into a world where, in a blink, you change a credit-card-carrying member of society into a floating tidbit in the food chain. Diving in blue water has its advantages, though. "It's never crowded," says Maas.
Maas discovered free diving through scuba, a sport he fell in love with at 14. Each Saturday morning in Saratoga, Calif., 55 miles north of Monterey, Maas would run from his house to the local dive shop, gear in hand. He would loiter at the shop until someone offered to take him diving. Then one day at a spearfishing contest in Monterey, Maas saw men leaving the beach on paddleboards with only a spear gun, mask, snorkel, weight belt and fins tucked under their knees. The vision struck him like an icy wave. "That someone could go down, hold their breath and actually capture a fish, I thought that was remarkable," says Maas, who was instantly consumed by one thought—he wanted to do it. Except to free an anchor now and then, Maas hasn't used an air tank since he was 15.
As a blue-water diver Maas takes risks, but in most instances they are the risks of a chess master, as calculated and controlled as he can make them. The Blue Fin, which Maas designed himself, contains two of every essential—anchors, engines, navigation systems—and a complete emergency medical kit. There is no question, then, that safety is a concern to him, but sometimes the pull of the hunt is too strong. Maas and his fellow blue-water hunters make a big point of the importance of always diving with a buddy, but as soon as they hit the water, they promptly swim off in different directions.
Speaking to members of a local scuba club one evening, Maas is cornered on this point. He shrugs sheepishly. Out in the audience Beth leans over and whispers, "They'd swim in pairs, but they're always afraid the other one's going to find the fish."