Speared by a Marlin!

A fishing trip turned to terror for three friends when the huge fish leapt directly toward them

By Diane Godley Published Apr 22, 2024 13:17:55 IST
2024-04-22T13:17:55+05:30
2024-04-22T13:17:55+05:30
Speared by a Marlin! Illustration by Marcelo Baez

Quentin Peck kept a keen eye on the forecast in the days leading up to his fishing trip. He was concerned that the weather would turn bad. But as the time drew closer, he could see that conditions would be ideal for the short break with his brother, Nathan, and their friend Andy Sprott. 

On Tuesday morning, 21 May 2019, Quentin packed his car with a wetsuit, fins, mask, spearguns, and everything else he needed for the trip to the north coast of New South Wales, Australia. The 46-year-old pulled out of the driveway of his Sydney home mid-morning. After picking up Andy, 46, and his gear, the pair drove north for three-and-a-half hours to Nathan’s home in the coastal town of Old Bar. When they arrived, the three experienced recreational spearfishermen prepared Nathan’s boat with child-like enthusiasm. They wanted the boat to be ready for an early start in the morning.

The sun was just peeking over the horizon when the trio piled into Nathan’s Ford Ranger truck the next day. With his five-metre inflatable powerboat in tow, they drove another three-and-a-half hours north to Wooli. When they arrived at 10 a.m., they headed straight to the town’s boat ramp.

By this time the sun was high in the clear blue sky, gently warming the trio as they pulled on their wetsuits and launched the boat into the calm, sparkling ocean waters. They couldn’t have asked for better diving conditions.

With excitement mounting, 48-year-old Nathan started the boat’s engine. Standing shoulder to shoulder at the helm, the men raced out to sea, enjoying the wind and water spray as it brushed against their faces.

The first stop was about 40 minutes north of the boat ramp, in the Solitary Islands Marine Reserve, an area where the south-bound East Australian Current, carrying both tropical and subtropical waters, overlaps with a cold current flowing north. The result is a mix of warm-water and cold-water marine life, including 90 species of corals, more than 280 species of fish, humpback and southern right whales, marine turtles, and great white sharks.

The waters of the Solitary Islands are also home to larger predator species such as kingfish, Spanish mackerel, and tunas, which the men were hoping to catch. There were sharks, too, but Quentin knew that they were more interested in fish than in the humans who catch them.

Quentin and Andy went into the water first, leaving Nathan behind to watch out for vessels that might get too close to the divers, and to collect any fish they speared before sharks could take them.

The water was warm and the sun penetrated the ocean’s surface, lighting up the depths below. But there was one problem: The large fish were nowhere to be seen. So, after a short time, Quentin and Andy hauled themselves back on board and the trio headed further out to sea. They were now about 20 kilometres off shore.

The mood was upbeat as they looked at the big, blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean. They travelled at a steady 40 kilometres per hour. The waters around them were calm. Then, without warning, a huge black marlin jumped out of the water directly in front of the small boat. At any other time, it would have been a magnificent sight to behold, but the men didn’t have time to be awestruck—the 100-kilogram fish was flying straight at them. 

In a split second, the trio’s jocular mood had turned to terror.

image-71_031524050543.jpgNathan Peck (left) and his younger brother Quentin on an earlier spearfishing trip. Photo courtesy of Quentin Peck

With the fish’s long spear-shaped snout pointing straight at him, all Nathan had time to do was lift his arm to protect his head. It wasn’t enough. The spiny, razor-sharp bill tore into his into his armpit before exiting at the back of his shoulder. The impact slammed him to the deck of the boat.

Quentin fared even worse. As he ducked and twisted to get out of the way, the powerful marlin hit his right arm with its open lower jaw, tearing his flesh and ripping apart the tendons. The force of its scaly wet body sent Quentin hurtling to the back of the boat. He landed in front of the speargun rack, which stopped him from catapulting off the boat. And with that, the fish splashed back into the water—without landing in the boat.

In shock and gasping for breath, Quentin lay in a foetal position between the motor well and the gun rack. Everything hurt and he wasn’t able to breathe for what felt like an eternity. By ducking when he did, he had avoided the fish hitting him in the head, but the rest of him had felt the full impact of its huge body. Three of his ribs were broken.Nathan had also been knocked to the deck. When he regained his senses, he saw his younger brother lying at the back of the boat, his face ghost white and blood splattered everywhere. He could see that Quentin’s right arm was broken and had a large gash.

Andy, who wasn’t injured, took control of the boat and headed for shore. Meanwhile, Nathan grabbed his mobile phone, called emergency services, and relayed the bizarre events to an initially sceptical paramedic. The paramedic told Nathan to apply steady pressure to Quentin’s arm with a towel if the bleeding became worse. An ambulance would be waiting at the boat ramp to take over when they arrived.

It was not quite midday. Since they headed out from the shore a couple of hours earlier, the wind had picked up. Andy tried to go as fast as he could, but the waves pounded the boat and Nathan cried out in pain from being banged around. To make the trip smoother, Andy steered across the swell, rather than into it, zigzagging back to shore in what was an excruciating 30-minute trip.

When the men reached the boat ramp, they were relieved to see two emergency services officers waiting for them. They were soon followed by an ambulance and rescue helicopter. Quentin was put on a stretcher and medicated for his pain while his brother’s shoulder was stitched up. Then Quentin said goodbye to his fishing buddies and was airlifted to the nearby Coffs Harbour Base Hospital.

Doctors at the regional hospital quickly realised that they were not equipped to deal with Quentin’s injuries. The decision was made to transport him to Sydney for microsurgery to reconnect the severed tendons in his arm. Less than 36 hours after leaving Sydney for his fishing adventure, Quentin was heading back there in a medivac ambulance plane. Equipped like an ER treatment room, the plane also carried two nurses and all the medical gear they might need during the 90-minute flight.

Quentin underwent two surgeries: one immediately, and another six months later. The tendons and muscles had been severely lacerated from the elbow to the wrist, and during the first procedure, surgeons cut the tendons from the elbow to prevent infection. They then repaired the broken radius bone in his arm with a plate and stitched him up. Just before Christmas 2019, when the bone had healed, he had the second operation to reattach the tendons.

The one-in-a-million encounter with a marlin took only a few seconds, but for Quentin it was life-changing. He lost 60 per cent of the movement in his wrist, half of his right arm’s muscle mass, and much of its strength. But neither his damaged arm nor the freak accident has stopped him, Nathan, and Andy from going spearfishing together again. “It hasn’t put us off,” he laughs.

Black marlins, which frequent the waters around the Solitary Islands Marine Reserve, are not known to be aggressive. However, juvenile black marlins do ‘free jump’ when chasing smaller fish that swim near the surface. Fortunately, fully grown fish weighing 500 kilograms or more are less likely to launch themselves out of the water. Before the terrible encounter, Quentin always hoped to see marlin jumping while fishing. Now, he hopes never to see one that close again.

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