Aboard a 20.8-foot fishing boat in North Fork waters, Joseph DiVello dangles his feet off the side, hovering over the water. Long, carbon fiber swim fins replace his toes, and a 5-millimeter camo-patterned wetsuit covers his entire body, leaving only his eyes, nose, and lips exposed. As the boat sways with the waves, DiVello stays seated with ease. Wrapped around his head is a low-profile mask and in his hand is a gun he fiddles with. But instead of bullets, this gun uses a bungee system that propels a spear — DiVello is spearfishing.
This isn’t your “Castaway” spearfishing kind of thing. DiVello slips into the water as quietly as possible, so as to not scare the fish, dips his face in the water and looks around at the other world happening below him. On this hot June day, he is searching for porgy and bass, the fish in season. He pops his back up and spits out his snorkel. DiVello asked that his spearfishing location be kept confidential so that others wouldn’t flock there and “spot burn” his hunting grounds.
DiVello, a real estate agent by trade, started off diving for clams and sinkers off the shore at 18 years old. He graduated to spearfishing soon after, equipped with nothing more than a broomstick and a bungee cord. Now, he said, as someone who has been doing it for 12 years, it’s part of a bigger way of life for him.
“It’s more of a lifestyle than a hobby, right?” he said. “You need to stay in shape, so you can dive deep enough. And then, when you dive, you provide yourself with the food that helps you stay in shape. So, it’s kind of like a cycle.”
Back in the water, DiVello continues to search face down. Then, in a swift movement, he pops up, takes in a breath, dives down, and kicks his fins up in the water. The scene becomes quiet except for the low rumble of the boat, idling in neutral. One minute later, he pops back up and sucks in another breath.
“Water’s dirty. Try and bump me in a little bit,” he says to the boat operator while pulling himself back up. We move in closer to the shore.
Spearfishing isn’t an easily learned hobby. It takes years to master the art of freediving, a key component of spearfishing. But once you do, the feeling of pushing your body’s limits creates a rush.
“When you rod-and-reel fish, you don’t get to go swimming,” said Will Lee, a fellow spearfisher and third-generation farmer at Sang Lee Farms in Peconic. “You get all those aspects of being out on the water — ocean air, the relaxation of going to pursue your own food and catching yourself dinner, which is an instinctual thing.” But with spearfishing, it’s taken to another level.
“You don’t get the same level of physical exertion [with fishing], and it feels good to tire yourself out hunting for your own food,” Lee said. “You’re circulating your blood, and you’re breathing heavy. It’s almost like when you go for a bike ride or you go for a jog, you’re getting more of a physical endorphin rush.”
DiVello agrees, equating it to a runner’s high.
“We get stressed out from the day to day, sometimes get so hectic,” he said. “Once you get underwater, especially at depth, you don’t think about any of that stuff, even if you want to, you’re just not. It totally clears your mental palate.”
For Lee, who first learned how to spearfish in Hawaii, the sport is an extension of farming — it’s another way to live off the land around him in a sustainable way.
“There’s definitely something primal about using a speargun, where you are stabbing something that’s alive, that you’re going to eat,” he said. “There’s 100% some sort of connection to how it has always been done in our history. Mankind has always done this.”
On the boat, DiVello leans over the driver’s shoulder and looks at a screen marked with little dots. “These are all my marks from my other boat,” he said. “They call these breadcrumbs. These are all marks where I caught fish or speared fish.”
He sits back down on the edge of the boat and catches his breath. He takes off his mask and suit hood to reveal his “quarantine haircut” — long, shaggy locks that fall down in front of his eyes. Squinting in the sun reflecting off the water, he adjusts his weight belt and puts his gear back on. After close to three hours out on the water, he hasn’t caught anything yet.
“Sometimes, it’s just like this,” he said, before slipping his snorkel back into his mouth and diving back into the water.
One minute later, he comes up with a shriek of joy.
“I got one!” he said, holding a striped bass in the air like a trophy.
“I feel like spearfishing is what I’m supposed to be doing,” he said later. “It’s my favorite thing to do on Earth.”