Philippe Virgili recently shot the largest ahi tuna ever to be taken by a freediver. A world record by a long shot, and after reading his story about how the hunt went down, there is no denying his devotion to the game. Even though English is his second language, he gets the story told pretty smoothly.
The action took place two days ago in the North Atlantic coast, about 170 miles off the coast in the direction of Newfoundland. At the time, the main goal of the trip was to spot giant Atlantic tuna and to record some video. In particular, at [that] time the tuna are hunting herring schools, which are plentiful here in August.
If you plan to do this hunt, luck is the master of the game, because these great pelagics are constantly moving along the North American coast, swimming from 100 to 150 miles per day! The weather is the second issue, because the sea must be calm if you intend to see the herring run and to luckily spot tuna. Great mako and white sharks are also often taking part [in] the hunt, which is the third issue.
After three days boating in great weather conditions, we finally spotted some surface predation action. A lot of birds and two whales were obviously feeding. I figured tuna were probably there hunting in a school below. Each time we see this kind of action, it only lasts several minutes or less before the tuna school vanishes to the depths.
I jumped from the boat [in] among the slaughter. Hundreds of birds were hunting the herring; the surface water temperature was about 19 degrees [Celsius], but was much colder at depth. The water was green and dirty, so the visibility fair, at about two meters.
I was diving with my wood spear gun, [which] was equipped with a special spear tip at the end of [its] shaft. The special tip is designed to penetrate the thick tuna skin and does not rip the meat when the tuna fights the shot. I dove about 50 feet deep, where the visibility was better than [at] the surface, [and] I observed a couple of massive tuna swimming like rockets to the surface, hunting fiercely.
I have been freediving among these fish a few times over the years, and each time it is like watching an incredible and amazing rodeo. The tuna come from nowhere at high speeds and eat all of the fish in the school, to the very last one, before they vanish in seconds. Usually you never find middle-size tuna, because in these schools the fish are all massive. The school was made up of only 600- to 900-pound tuna.
I made several dives from 40 to 70 feet deep, but I could not spot any tuna once the herring were eaten. There were probably several hundred tuna hunting herring a minute ago; did they move away?
At the time, I was thinking about how hard it was to shoot a giant tuna, since they move at about 10 feet per second and are constantly changing direction sporadically. As I was thinking that, a huge silvery black and blue shape suddenly swam right in front of me, and then under my fins. I aimed in front of the head of the tuna, taking into account its speed, and when the fish was in range at six feet, I took the shot. The shaft hit the fish in the middle of the body! The tuna vanished in a split second, taking the bungee with it to the depths. I grabbed the bungee as the fish was diving and was towed as if I were a buoy. The power of this fish is incredible.
In the Strait of Gibraltar during the summer of 2009, I shot a 1,000-pound tuna and the fight lasted about three hours. I was towed without a break by this huge fish for three hours, about 15 miles, and lost it at night. [This time] after about 30 seconds of being towed underwater, the tuna took a short break and I was able to get back to the surface for a breath before the tuna took off again. The fight lasted about an hour before I suddenly felt less resistance while trying to pull the line, but because the fish was so heavy, it was hard to tell by pulling on the line.
The tuna stayed motionless at about 120 feet deep, and I was exhausted. The fish was dead. It was pulled up and gaffed by the captain, who attached the fish to the bow of the ship before it was landed on the deck with a crane. When I checked the fish on deck, I saw that the spear tip worked perfectly and was securely jammed under the skin. The shaft probably hit the tuna’s spine, killing it rather quickly.
[The] fish has not been weighed, but the length was 124 inches (3 meters 17 centimeters) and [the] girth [was] 88 inches (2 meters 23 centimeters)! The weight was estimated between 1,200 and 1,250 pounds.
Gear I used for the catch:
A homemade 69-inch teakwood tuna gun (St. Alexander style), equipped
with a (3/8) 72-inch-long Riffe shaft and a homemade slip tip (harpoon
The spear is connected to the gun with a 3 mm stainless-steel plastic-coated cable liter. My swivels, snaps, and sleeves are about 600-pound test resistant.
I use five 20 mm elastic bands.
My float line is a 75-inch Riffe bungee (550-pound nylon-line core), and
the float system is a T Botha board ([that] I improved with some modifications) and an inflatable Riffe buoy that was connected to the board by a North Water Wedge SpectrX Throw Bag (used in kayaking).
Hunt, shot, kill, and story by Philippe Virgili. Edit by John Maher.