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Sashimi in her sights
by TERRY TOMALIN Apr 16, 2004. 
 
Free diver Sheri Daye of Boca Raton follows a nurse shark, getting in a little practice for this
weekend's Florida Skin Divers Association tournament in Bayport. (Photo by Chad Carney)


Floating alone off the coast of Costa Rica, holding a line that led to a 157-pound tuna swimming somewhere below, Sheri Daye's mind turned to sharks.

"The local fishermen said there were several big tigers in the area," said Daye, the first and only woman competing in this weekend's Florida Skin Divers Association's annual state free diving tournament. "I had been fighting the fish for more than an hour. I started to get a little nervous about how long it was taking."

But Daye wasn't afraid of being attacked. She was worried a big tiger shark might grab onto the tuna, a popular gamefish that has grown in popularity as sushi and sashimi in the United States in recent years, and make it ineligible for a world record.

"Eventually I brought it in," said Daye, an engineer from Boca Raton.

Like many free divers, Daye began venturing beneath the waves with scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.)

An avid spearfisherman, Daye became intrigued with the sport two years ago after stumbling across a now legendary picture of Californian Terry Maas holding a 398-pound bluefin tuna.

"I saw that picture and just had to get a tuna," she said. "Free diving became my passion."

Daye made two trips to "The Lump" - a seamount or area where the ocean floor rises near the surface - off the coast of Louisiana, hoping to bag a record tuna.

"The fish just weren't there," she said. "That's how it goes sometimes when you are spearfishing."

Her third attempt was a charm. In November, Daye and seven men, all keen free divers, went to Costa Rica in search of yellowfin. The men in her party worked in pairs, but Daye knew if she wanted her fish to count as a new women's world record, she had to bring the fish in alone.

"It sounded right away," she said. "I was just hoping it wouldn't take all three floats with it."

Free divers use floats, or small buoys, to help gain control of a speared fish in the open ocean. Competitors in this weekend's FSDA state championships will be diving in 20 to 80 feet. At least a dozen three-person teams from across Florida are expected in Bayport.

"The guys from Miami will be diving the really deep stuff and should have an advantage," said Chad Carney, Daye's teammate. "With the way the wind has been blowing for the past week, the water inshore should be pretty muddy."

The teams will be scored on their aggregate catch. Species include grouper, snapper, hogfish, sheepshead and triggerfish.

"Of course everybody looks for grouper because they get the biggest and can be worth the most points," Carney said. "But they are also the hardest fish to get."

Daye, Carney and Ed Walker, a local fishing guide and Times correspondent who recently was bitten by the free-diving bug, formed their team a few days before the tournament last year.

"We finished in the middle of the pack," Walker said. "Not bad for just one day of practice."

Daye, Carney and Walker (Team Wong in 2004) face some stiff competition. Tournament organizer Dr. David Shelton knows the waters around Bayport like the back of his hand. Gary Zumwalt, a local legend, always has a strong showing. The Red Tide team of Ritchie Zacker, G.R. Tarr and Chris Gardinal was second last year, a few points behind the Miamians.

Free diving is not a sport to be taken lightly. Many experienced divers have died over the years as a result of shallow-water blackout, an inherent danger in breath-hold diving. Sharks are another legitimate concern.

"It has been very sharky out there lately," Carney said. "There have been several reports of divers having run-ins with bull (sharks). That is always in your mind. You feel a little more vulnerable when you are not wearing a tank."

To learn more about free diving, visit the FSDA Web site: www.divefsda.com This nonprofit organization is dedicated to helping keep oceans safe and clean and deserves your support.

DIVING TOURNAMENT.

WHAT: Florida Skin Divers Association Free Dive State Spearfishing Championship

WHEN/WHERE: Saturday, Bayport.

AWARDS: Individual and team, points-based.

ELIGIBLE SPECIES: Grouper, snapper, hogfish, sheepshead and triggerfish.

 

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