Camouflage: the hidden truth

How could camouflage help the spearfisherman?

We all know the story; a good size fish boldly cruises into view, then suddenly, just before the gun is aimed, it turns away in a flash. These heart-stopping moments can happen many times in a single dive, resulting in much frustration. It’s a good job bad language can’t be heard underwater! It doesn’t take many of these encounters before you start to wonder if there was anything different you could have done to prevent this. Maybe you could have tried to move the gun less, chosen a better position, hidden in the weed or stayed motionless on the surface? All of these will make a difference in how a fish responds to your presence, and changing one of them may have resulted in a catch, not another story of “the monster bass I saw”. (sounds familiar Mike) Knowing which tactic to use and when becomes more instinctive once you begin to understand how the fish are likely respond to you in different situations.

On trying out all these solutions you will eventually come to the conclusion that some do work but you still won’t catch every big fish you see. If only there was one simple solution, guaranteed to work every time in every situation. Many slow moving marine hunters solved the problem long ago by taking the idea of camouflage to the extreme. Members of the stonefish family have evolved to be invisible by disrupting their body outline with seaweed-like growths of the skin which mimic the exact type of coral and weed of their hunting ground. Small prey fish are totally unaware that they are swimming within inches of a creature ten times their size. Watching documentary footage of these fish in action is guessing game as to which lump of coral is actually the stonefish. Many flatfish such as turbot and brill use the same tactics to ambush much faster prey. It makes sense that a perfectly camouflaged diver should also be able to fool fish in the same way. If camo does work, why isn’t everyone wearing it? 

It is apparent by the profusion of totally black or blue wetsuits worn, that most divers do not see any degree of camouflage to be beneficial. Those that have tried the idea usually report there to be no significant difference in the attitude of fish to their presence.

Until a couple of years ago the only camo suit widely available for anyone to test was the mottled green pattern which, as can be seen from foreign spearfishing magazines, was obviously designed to blend in with the green algae covered rocks of the Mediterranean. I was far from satisfied that any solid conclusions could be drawn by myself or anyone just by wearing one of these suits. The colour and pattern is far from convincing when viewed in good conditions against a background of vraic, kelp or japweed.

Which colours are best for a camo pattern?

Fish cannot see the full range colours that we can. I was unable to find information on exactly which colours local species can see, but I
would suspect that nocturnal or deep water hunters such as Pollack and possibly bass, would have very limited colour vision. Most animals that hunt in the dark have sacrificed some, or all coloured light receptors in the eye in favour of black and white receptors, as these give much better night vision.

Colour vision is also of little use in deeper water, as at a certain depth, all colours fade to tones of grey. The poor viz conditions that we are often faced with accelerates the loss of reds and oranges, then yellows, greens and blues. Two contrasting colours on the surface may fade to the exact same tone of grey at depth, as seen in black and white photography. In these conditions, the new pattern created by the tones of grey becomes far more important than how the pattern appeared on the surface in bright daylight.

Even though the exact colours we see in a camo pattern may not be of  uppermost importance, it is interesting that many of the marine predators and prey that rely on camouflage also fool us just as well. This suggests that there are actually very close similarities in how humans and fish perceive form, pattern and sometimes colour.

How can the idea of camouflage be properly tested?

Taking the previous points into consideration, and many more that I will not attempt to bore you with, I put my camo theories to the test. Armed with a tube of silicone sealant and wavy strips of brown material, my green camo suit was about to be transformed into a rock covered in vraic. The same material was also used stuck to the mask, snorkel and gun. On first testing the suit, I found the huge amount of loose material flapping around reduced my top swimming speed by half. Material was then removed from the legs, which would be buried among weed anyway. The reaction of others to my new camo suit varied from total bemusement to total amusement. One memorable dive, I was crawling back toward the shore in two feet of water when large stones suddenly started by plunging into the water right in front of my mask. Raising my head in surprise brought into view a woman stood less than twenty feet away throwing stones at me. Before I even had time to see if she was wearing a “save the mullet” T-shirt, I was mounted head on by a large black labrador, which I assume was trying to reach the next stone, which had landed behind me. I had no intention of involving myself in an act of gross indecency with a dog (not on the beach anyway), so I took evasive action. I will never forget the look of terror on the woman’s face as she witnessed the clump of seaweed her dog was climbing over suddenly throw her dog aside and rear up into a six foot sea monster decorated with dead fish. Until then, I didn’t think it possible for a human to run up the beach faster than their dog.

The test results

While performing the camo tests, I found that feeding bass would begin to approach from out of visual range as I descended into a weed bed. This is normal, as they sometimes associate underwater disturbance with potential food. When a fish came into visual range and still had not seen me or realised what I was, it continued to home in on the source of the sound at full speed, in a bid to be the first to arrive. On one shallow dive, a double figure fish immediately came flying in from one side and only slowed down on reaching touching distance. From this close up I could see its eyes scanning me up and down trying to work out what this object was. Within seconds the eyes locked on to my face, and the fish froze in shock, realising that he was only feet away from something very large and very alive. Next, a resounding thump in the water almost dislodged my mask as the fish bolted. A similar thing happened on many occasions and each time the whole episode took no longer than a few seconds.

When a big fish is so close and already suspicious, the slightest attempt at moving the gun or any other part of you and the game is over even sooner. I concluded that the only chance of a shot was on the 1 in 10 occasions when the fish approached in line with where the gun was pointing. Initially though, I would wait for a broadside shot as the fish turned away, but this never happened at a slow enough speed to see let alone shoot at. The only successful tactic proved to be taking a direct head on shot the moment the fish appeared in range. This did though; cause significant problems when an embedded trident had to be removed.

Is total camo the right approach?

My attempt at total camo used in combination with waiting in ambush among weed definitely fooled many good sized fish, but it was clear that the camouflage was causing the fish to come too close and too quickly.  The camo was possibly too effective in concealing the gun while it was positioned motionless among weed, as the slightest movement of the gun or arm & the fish would suddenly realise that the long object it was almost touching was actually part of the much larger suspicious looking object behind. I am sure that the gun is normally seen as extension of your arm, not as a separate object. A fish will understandably keep at a further distance from a creature that appears to have a six foot arm pointing in their direction.

Does a fish see a diver as a threat?

On several occasions, much to my frustration, fellow divers (Paul) with much less camouflage had good bass swim casually in front of them and almost wait to be shot. Initially, stories from other divers of bass circling them several times made little sense until I thought about it from a different angle: Bass have no real reason to suddenly bolt on seeing a swimmer or diver, as such a fast and agile fish has always left that slow lumbering creature standing with one flick of the tail. These fish probably knew what the diver was and were keeping at what they considered to be, a safe distance. Seals and dolphins are the only large animals a fish in local waters may have learned to fear. They pose a serious threat when in visual range and also in sonar range for a dolphin. In calm, shallow water, a bass can sense your movement from tens of metres away and if previously alerted by the presence of seals it has more sense than to wait around to see what you are. The ability of a fish to distinguish between a diver and one of its natural predators is one of the most important issues in considering camouflage. I am sure many small bass and mullet have seen two eyes on a smooth, rounded head staring out at them from a weed bed. It wouldn’t have taken the fish long to learn that 300lbs of  blubber was about to take pursuit at 25mph (no, Dobber can’t swim that fast). If a fish really can distinguish between a predominantly black creature with four obvious limbs and a mottled grey one shaped like torpedo, then the best approach may not involve a high level of camouflage. It must be better to be recognised as an animal the fish are slightly wary of, than to chance being mistaken for a known predator hiding in the weed.

Conclusions

If fish do not feel seriously threatened by a diver, camouflage may still be some use in making the diver appear less imposing by disrupting some of the smooth outlines and bulk of the body, but not to such an extent as to loose all the recognisable features of a diver (I would still recommend the total camo approach for hiding from tourists among the rocks if that unwelcome five pound “sea trout” decides it is going to make an appearance). The ideal camo would cause an approaching fish to set its safe distance at somewhere near the end of the range of the gun. At this distance the gun can often be moved without the fish bolting as it has already considered the gun as part of your arm when setting its safe distance.

There are now wetsuits on the market that have camo and disruption patterns which look convincing in local waters. Most have several irregular bands of brown camo pattern on a black suit. Continental divers seem to have been aware of these disruption tactics and have been wearing a different colour top and bottom to their suits for some time, as pictures of competitions in French spearfishing magazines illustrate.

The next step

The total camo approach may be more of a success, if I had a gun capable of pointing in all directions at the same time. The next best option is a very short gun that has to be moved much less to aim, as with a pistol. The problem with such a short gun is poor accuracy and limited range. A trident head helps slightly with the accuracy but it halves the already poor range. The resulting gun is useless if you have to shoot at anything more than a few feet away.

The next step was to find a short speargun with a good range. These already exist as compressed air guns and are a reasonable solution if you can get used to aiming one. The problem is, that I couldn‘t even shoot myself in the fin with one. My first attempted making an alternative was done by moving the handle of a band gun up toward the muzzle, with the trigger release mechanism still connected at the back of the gun. The first gun had 30 cm of barrel in front of the handle & 60 cm behind. This gun only stuck out 30cm but had the same range as a 90cm gun. I thought I had cracked the problem until I missed two double figure bass, at point blank range in the space of five minutes. Discovering that I could not aim a gun that I had spent months working on was annoying enough, without Mike Shearer adding insult to injury by proceeding to pull out two, nearly double- figure fish, from right alongside me. I stress the “nearly” as with a few more lessons he might actually catch a 10lb bass.

Originally published by Chris on jerseyspearfishing.co.uk

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