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Exploring the World Beneath the Waves

Exploring the World Beneath the Waves, Sept/Oct Cape Cod Life |

Photograph by David Wood

Freediving and spearfishing

Greg Bernard of Nantucket describes being “immediately immersed” the first time he tried diving. Pun intended. He was 19, and he has been diving for 23 years since.

His newest passion is freediving—staying underwater with a mask and fins for as long as a lungful of air can stretch. “It’s the closest thing to flying,” Bernard says. “I can fly for as long as I can hold my breath down there. Just me—nothing mechanical.”

Bernard extols the physiological and even psychological lift diving gives him. “You have to learn to lower your heart rate, to be completely mellow. You are super-packing your lungs with oxygen, forcing all that oxygen into your body. Afterwards there is a sense of euphoria.” He describes it as a natural high, feeling mellow and very tuned in to his surroundings, breathing more easily, seeing more clearly.

He heads out in his 15-foot Boston Whaler, a stable fishing and diving platform with gunwales low enough to allow easy boarding. While down below, he enjoys taking still photos and video, occasionally hurling himself right into pods of bubble-net-feeding whales to get point-of-view footage.

Bernard enjoys fishing with a speargun, where he can be more discriminating than a rod-and-reel angler, who pulls up whatever bites on his bait. While spearfishing for striped bass is illegal in Massachusetts, Bernard sees them, as well as many other species. “You see tautog, big black sea bass, ‘prehistoric’ scup,” he says. “The big ones have big eyes, too. So they can spot a hook and line.” The speargun allows Bernard to fish selectively, keeping the medium-sized “good eaters” and leaving the big fish, the successful breeders, in the water to drive the ecosystem.

Bernard worked in the Nantucket charter fleet, crewing on the Albacore with island legend Bob DeCosta and later lobstering commercially with Chuck Butler. Today he likes to dive along the jetties that protect Nantucket Harbor. He says a wreck off the end of the west jetty looks like an “anchor store” for all the lost ground tackle that has accumulated over the years.

He sees his share of lobsters when he freedives the jetties, but it’s when he heads offshore and dives on wrecks in 130 feet of water that he sees the real giants. “Literally 20-pound lobsters,” he says. They have a massive claw spread, he adds; “They look like elk ears when you hold them up.”

Of course sharks are never far from divers’ minds, and Bernard says one territorial but skittish sandbar shark patrols the jetties. “He’ll follow you around, kind of sneak up on you, but as soon as you spot him, he’ll back up and then vanish.”

Like Jeter, Bernard stresses safety in this inherently dangerous activity. “I cannot stress enough,” he says. “Take a class—it will save your life. There are a lot of obstacles down there—fishing line, anchor lines, handling your own equipment, controlling your breathing and heart rate. A lot can go wrong, and there’s very little margin for error.”

Even without the deep-water dives that necessitate decompression stops during ascent, diving can be a dangerous sport with “shallow water blackout” a threat even in less than 20 feet of water. Bernard does his freediving and spearfishing on Nantucket’s teeming jetties only on incoming tides, figuring that if anything should go wrong, he’ll at least be swept into the harbor and not out to sea.

“The right training and the right equipment are the keys to safe diving,” Bernard says. And keeping a cool head. After that, it’s all enjoyment: the incomparable thrill of being underwater and flying.

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