Hunting dogtooth tuna out on latham banks off the coast of Tanzania and spearfishing deep ledges in the Kilwa area
With an invite from Tanzanian spearfisherman Eric Allard to set the ball rolling, airline tickets were booked many months ahead of the due date. Eric would meet us at the airport in Dar es Salaam and then we would drive the 310km to Kilwa. Dive there for three days and then back to South Beach forty kilometres south of Dar es Salaam as our base for diving Latham Banks. With Eric’s local knowledge of weather conditions it was decided that November would be the best month with settled winds and calm seas and this proved to be the case. New gear was purchased and guns were pool tested for accuracy.
Guns were 1.3 and 1.4 metre barrel lengths with mostly slip-tips used; with Eric opting to use a fixed barb. The pool test was a big eye opener as some of the longer barrel guns that we were initially going to use proved to be very inaccurate over maximum range. We used a mix of solid and blow-up floats as it was easier when flying to take the inflatable ones. We had problems with the inflatable floats from the start, with one popping on inflation and another having a leak that made it unusable. Later in the trip we were again reminded of how important it is to have the right gear for the fish you are hunting. Twenty metre bungies were used but in hindsight thirty metre ones would have been better for Latham. Speed pouches are the way to go for lines as they work well and mean that you do not have tons of line needing to be pulled onto the boat each time you head up current. When hunting big fish in deep water it is important to remember that if a fish sounds and pulls all your floats under and then succumbs in the depths, your floats will probably not be enough to lift the fish and you will lose it plus all your gear. This is especially true if you are using inflatable floats as they would have collapsed under the pressure and will have no buoyancy.
After spending the first night in Dar es Salaam we made an early start hoping to get to Kilwa in time for an afternoon dive. The road south is very good with the exception of a sixty kilometre stretch. This stretch takes about four hours to travel and is very character building to say the least. Arriving at Kimbilio lodge, where we were to stay for the next four nights, we were greeted by an idyllic tropical setting with white sandy beaches and blue seas stretching to distant islands. That afternoon we dived on a deep ledge not far from the lodge, where Eric had landed some big marlin and plenty of wahoo. Visibility was a good thirty metres but a thermocline at about 12 metres meant not much action. However, Andrew managed to bag a nice green jobfish for supper that evening. The next day saw us on the ledge again with excellent conditions and more fish activity. There were wahoo in the deep water and plenty of kingfish on the drop; with big jobfish and a shoal of sailfish making an appearance, plus the odd small dogtooth tuna but the bigger boys eluded us. The next day we explored far south finding some very promising drops but a thermocline once again kept the big fish out deep. We came across some locals fishing out in 160 metres catching some ruby snappers on handline. This is an amazing looking fish, bright red in colour and a body similar to a rosy jobfish and these ones looked about seven to eight kilograms in weight.
Kilwa Kisiwani Island was the principal trading port along the East African coast and dates back before the ninth century. Gold, iron, ivory and slaves were traded through the port and its ancient fort is steeped in history. Treasure seekers regularly hunt the area for sunken treasure and there must be some amazing finds still to be found. A group of overseas treasure hunters was due to stay at the lodge soon after our departure, hunting for an Arabian treasure ship that had reportedly gone down in the area.
We left Kilwa in high spirits with great expectations for Latham Banks but had a trailer problem not far from Kilwa. The bearings had gone on one of the trailer wheels but luckily we found a replacement in Kilwa and were soon sorting out the problem. Unfortunately, while all this was going on, some thieves took advantage of the fact that we had not locked one of the truck doors, getting away with a video camera and Andrew’s document bag. This delayed us for another day in Kilwa as it was imperative to try to get Andrew’s passport back. This did not happen and the lesson learnt is to always keep your essential valuables such as passport, air ticket and money on your person or safely locked up.
Latham Island is the exposed top of a seamount and covers roughly only 2000 square metres. It is an important bird-nesting site and could be important for breeding sea turtles. There are steep drop-offs all around the island down to 300 metres and the banks cover a large area of roughly 410 square kilometres measured to the 200 metre isobath. It is forty six kilometres from the nearest land and provides exciting underwater fishing.
Our privately owned accommodation at South Beach, roughly forty kilometres south of Dar es Salaam, was directly inshore from Latham. This meant we had a ninety-two kilometre run each day to get to the Banks and back. Quite a haul - which Eric’s Wild Cat made by Kei Marine handled effortlessly with two new 40hp enduros. Both days we were out there, the current was fairly strong running south to north with good visibility on top becoming a bit greener further down. We worked the drop-offs mostly looking for dogtooth tuna and were not disappointed as there were some big shoals patrolling the area. With some 90+ kilogram fish recently caught on the banks, there is a new world spearfishing record waiting for some lucky spearo as some very big fish were seen. Eric got the fish of the trip - a 63 kilogram dogtooth tuna, with Andrew seeing an absolute monster in the same shoal - double the size of any of the other fish. Andrew lost his rig on a good fish with the dogtooth heading for the deep and taking one hundred and sixty metres of line and floats with it. That made it an expensive fish as that works out to about R2000 worth of gear, and although it pales in comparison to losing your first dogtooth tuna, at least he managed a 25kg dogtooth on his last dive of the trip so all was not lost.
The first day out there we had some shark activity with some big Zambezi sharks patrolling the drop-off. They were pretty relaxed but still the thought was there when you were heading down. Andrew had an oceanic white tip come up very close behind him whilst his attention was focused on a fish and he never saw the shark. A big greater hammerhead paid us a visit later in the day but he was more impressive than worrying. Foreign and local longliners have probably decimated the shark populations, as the place should be crawling with sharks under normal circumstances. Day 2 saw no sharks but still the same fish activity so something must have been different to keep the sharks away.
Both days we were out there we saw five or six fishing dhows working closer to the island. These guys have GPS now and carry big ice boxes and mostly use hand-lines, although there are reports of dynamite being used. Fish like jobfish and grouper could be under threat by these fishermen and although pelagics are probably not under as much pressure from this type of fishing, without a proper study of their catches it is just guess work.
Latham Banks must rate as one of the top spearfishing places in the world if only for the possibility of landing a new world record dogtooth tuna. But apart from this, it is a very exciting place to dive - far from sight of land with lots of big gamefish patrolling its waters. We chose not to chum on this trip and it is something I personally do not agree with as shooting a fish whose attention is focused on food is not sport. It is something that all spearfishermen should think about. Your choice of gear is so important when hunting big gamefish in deep water as the disappointment when you realize your floats are not going to come up is very real.
Safe dunga dunga (diving), John Little.