I kept seeing people in Sydney carry spearguns to and from the ocean. To understand why, I held my breath and dived in.
Emma Shearman held her speargun and focused on her breathing. In, out, relax, she thought. Deep and steady, as rhythmic as the waves.
She plunged into the cold Pacific off Sydney's rocky coast, holding her breath until she reached a depth of about 10 metres. Quiet and calm, she lifted the gun, aimed and fired — spearing a red morwong through its middle.
It was the second catch of the day. Her friend Tim Charody, who taught her to spearfish during Australia's coronavirus lockdown, had already caught another morwong, a common fish in these waters. But this was Shearman's deepest dive, and she emerged proud, holding her prey by the gills.
"There's a real courage and confidence to know that I can go out and catch my own food and provide, and still do womanly things — go salsa dancing and wear heels," she said when we were all on land.
"It's so challenging," she added, "but also meditative."
I'd joined them early one morning out of curiosity. For months now, since the first coronavirus lockdown, I've been seeing more and more people carrying spearguns to and from the waters around Sydney. One day I nearly collided with a spear-toting dad lugging Australian salmon into our suburb, at which point I started to wonder what was going on with all the Poseidons.
Sydney has long been a city of surfboards in hatchbacks and sandy toes on sidewalks. The ocean here is like a neighbour you see everywhere. It appears around unexpected corners from the craggy coast and for miles inland along a harbour shaped like an oak leaf — as Mark Twain pointed out in 1897 when he called the sheets of blue "superbly beautiful."
All those spear guns seemed to be introducing a deeper and darker vibe. Or so I thought.
In fact, during a time of rising unemployment and restrictions on group sports and social gatherings, spearfishing has become an increasingly popular escape for people seeking calm, control and sustenance far from the anxieties of land. Spear gear has been selling out at dive shops up and down Australia's east coast since March. Young and old, men and women: They are all finding something for their stomachs and souls in an act that is ancient and elemental.
"It's all about living off the ocean," said Robert Cooley, a lifelong spearfisherman and the leader of the Gamay Rangers, an Aboriginal group that helps manage and protect Botany Bay on Sydney's southern edge. "It's a catch-your-breath type of thing, far away from the big city."
Cooley, 53, tall, talkative and full of local lore, said his team of a half-dozen rangers had already put their spearfishing skills to good use. During Sydney's peak lockdown period in April, their underwater hunting became community service. Between fish, lobsters and abalone, they caught 3,000 meals to distribute to neighbours in need.
"It was critical work," Cooley said. "Some of our elders live alone. Others couldn't leave the house."
One day at dawn, I met him by the bay where he had speared his first flathead as a boy. Later that morning, we joined a few rangers at the point where James Cook landed in 1770, bringing together European and Aboriginal cultures for the first time.
Cooley put on his wet suit around the corner from a statue of humpback whales, an important animal for local Indigenous groups, at a site across the bay from Sydney's commercial port with its towering cranes.
The industrial and the traditional — on the surface, they pressed against each other. In the water, they disappeared. A soft blanket of blue covered sea grass that swayed like slow-motion dancers on the stage of a sandstone reef.
Cooley and two other rangers dived head first, using their long fins and weight belts to help them search between rocks and under the layered shelves of the coastal ledge.
In many places, spearfishing with scuba gear is allowed. In Australia, it's considered cheating. The skill and joy of the sport come with a stretching of the lungs.
Most people learn with friends, but I had taken a spearfishing class with two 14-year-olds. Fábio Leitão, a pony-tailed instructor originally from the Azores, taught me that if I did not suck in a huge breath or hyperventilate, I'd be able to hold my breath for longer.
So when one of the rangers waved me over to a lobster, I was ready. I steadied my breathing and pushed myself down, holding as long as I could.
The little guy had lodged himself in a tight spot. I tried to grab him and failed — there'd be no Instagram bragging from me, I caught nothing on my reporting trips — but with a few more dives, the rangers pried him loose.
"My supermarket is safer than the one you're going to," Cooley told me.
In terms of the coronavirus, he was right, of course. But spearfishing is hardly risk free.
Sharks are lazy bullies that grab fish after they've been shot. Shallow water blackouts — fainting underwater — can lead to drowning if there is no one around to help. That seems to be what happened to Alex "Chumpy" Pullin, 32, an Australian Olympic snowboarder who died while spearfishing alone in early July.
And yet, along with such dangers come benefits. In Sydney, edible fish can be found just a few feet down, and spearfishing is the most sustainable form of fishing, with no lures left behind and no by-catch from nets. Many "spearos," as they are called, take great pride in being able to feed their families with their kill.
At Adreno in Sydney, Australia's largest spearfishing retailer, one of the employees, Jayden Nightingale, 22, told me he goes out three times a week and would soon be in the water to catch a feast for his brother's birthday.
"My mother asked for octopus," he said.
Feeding others, he added, was only part of the appeal. Sitting beside me as I tried on fins, he dialled down his sales clerk ebullience.
"I was in a coma for three months," he said. "When I came out of it, all I wanted to do was get in the ocean."
He described a bad car accident, a head injury — he put my hand to the wound — then a bout of depression that only water could cure.
Kimi Werner, a champion spearfisher from Hawaii, often speaks about feeling hugged by the ocean — the pressure on her chest, the peace she feels looking up to the sun from deep below. Nightingale told me the entire experience amounted to therapy.
"The ocean is like a different world," he said, surrounded by shelves picked clean by the recent surge of spearfishing interest. "It's relaxing because you get to be one with nature."
Shearman, 25, described a similar feeling, with a twist — a bending of time.
We'd met at sunrise at the top of a cliff in Manly, a seaside suburb to the north, where our little group hiked down a treacherous path to a rugged outcrop. The water was chilly, the swell was large, and we saw a few small sharks along with a bull ray big enough to cover a king-size bed. By the time we got out of the water, more than three hours had passed in a blur.
Asked later what she thinks about during all that time in the water, Shearman replied: "I actually don't think about anything. It's not like running, where you think about ideas or things you want to do — you're just there."
In such uncertain times on land, that alone draws many of us to the sea.
Written by: Damien Cave
Photographs by: Michaela Skovranova and Matthew Abbott
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES