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Paul Bunyan of the Pacific

HMB diver wins top spearfishing prize

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Posted: Thursday, August 16, 2012 10:44 am

Even by the standards of Mavericks surfers, Half Moon Bay resident Dan Silveira is a little bit crazy.

Whereas big-wave boarders regularly brave 30-foot waves, they think twice about following Silveira when he dives 80 feet underwater. With a crossbow-like gun and flashlight in hand, Silveira is a master at diving down on a single gulp of air to explore the ocean reef. That’s where he usually finds his dinner by spearfishing for cod, salmon and other sea creatures.

A blend of hunting and athleticism, spearfishing involves swimming down into underwater nooks and crannies to catch large fish practically by hand. Dubbed the “bow and arrow” approach to fishing, spearfishing is a gutsy activity, requiring strength, stamina and a knack for ignoring fear. Perhaps most challenging, the activity is usually done without an oxygen tank, meaning the diver has limited time and energy to navigate around the sea floor.

“It’s among one of the toughest sports you can put your body through,” he said. “You’re battling with a lack of mobility. You’re diving with limited vision in extreme temperatures and you have the mental fear of the unknown.”

It’s no exaggeration to call the 27-year-old Silveira the best undersea hunter around. Earlier this month, he won first prize in the U.S. Spearfishing Nationals, catching a dozen fish and shattering the world weight record in the process. That victory followed four consecutive years in which he won the Pacific Coast Spearfishing Championship.

His feats resemble that of a larger-than-life figure, like some Paul Bunyan of the Pacific.

He talks nonchalantly about holding his breath for six minutes, diving 150 feet underwater or swimming within sight of sharks, which he calls the “landlords” of the ocean. He once speared a 350-pound marlin that dragged him nearly three miles across the ocean before yielding.

Local surfers greet him as “Diver Dan” when they see him paddling out, and they are amazed at his bravery.

“He’s an impressive human being, that’s for sure,” said surfer Tim West. “I surf Mavericks and big waves, but it’s hard to go down more than 15 feet. I have a phobia of that.”

“I think they’re crazy for surfing 30-foot waves. They think I’m crazy for diving 150 feet,” responded Silveira.

Stifling his body’s instinctual fears and using the adrenaline for extra power is something Silveira says he’s learned over the years of diving.

To hear Silveira tell it, his love for spearfishing and watersports started in Half Moon Bay. He moved here with his family when he was still in middle school, and he became fully immersed in the seaside experience. Along with surfing, boogey-boarding and skateboarding, he regularly went with his dad to collect seafood at the tidepools of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve before it became a protected area.

“He never wanted to come out of the water,” recalled his father Manny Silveira. “Now he’s more like a fish — he’s more comfortable in the water than out of the water.”

After graduating from Half Moon Bay High School, he completed service in the U.S. Coast Guard, and in the following years he made a living giving scuba and freediving lessons.

Perhaps his most challenging experience in spearfishing came earlier this month at the championship in Albion Cove, just north of Fort Bragg. The contest lasted a single day, but Silveira and dozens of other competitors spent about a month in advance of the contest kayaking around to scout the one-mile ocean expanse where they would be competing. Diving underwater, Silveira and his teammates tried to find the best “honey-holes,” ideal spots in the reef where a large rockfish would likely be hiding. He’d mark good spots on a GPS navigator, careful to make sure no other competitors were spying on them.

One of those spots turned out to be the jackpot. On the contest day, Silveira swam about 45 feet down on a single breath and pulled himself through a small reef hole about the size of an air-duct. It was completely dark, and when he flashed his light across the cave, he saw a glimpse of a gargantuan fish dashing by a few feet away. He fired off a blind shot with his speargun, and then something suddenly began kicking up lots of dirt in the cave, making the water too cloudy to see anything. He knew he’d hit something.

Trying to maneuver in that narrow cave, especially to hoist out a huge kill with fishing line, was dangerous. Silveira went up for air and to ask one of his teammates to monitor him.

“I thought to myself, I could die doing this. I could easily get caught down there,” he said. “My teammate looked down there, and he said, ‘You’re nuts.’”

He ended up needing two more spearguns to subdue the fish, which turned out to be a 37-pound lingcod, a new record. Getting the fish out required digging a small trench to open up the hole. He estimated he dived about 30 times to wiggle out the fish.

The day of the contest was challenging with waves topping 8 feet and winds of 20 knots. One member of Silveira’s three-man team ended up being disqualified because his kayak hatch broke open and it flooded with water. But his team still won first prize, with Silveira also taking the top individual prize for capturing nearly 100 pounds of fish. All the fish caught that day were donated to a local senior charity.

Silveira says he loves holding barbecues and sharing his catch with friends and family. He insists on using all parts of the fish he catches, saving the heads for soup and the throwaway guts as crab bait.

Even though he eats it nearly every day, he never gets sick of fish.

“No, it’s still my No.1 thing to eat,” he said.

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