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Dangerous but exciting sport of freediving is catching on in America

The reigning U.S. national male and female spearfishing champions float calmly on the ocean's surface, looking down through their dive masks at a sunken barge 75 feet below.

Mike Hickey and Sheri Daye inhale slowly and deeply several times, hold the final breath, then kick leisurely toward the bottom.

Spotting a 12-pound yellow jack, Daye calmly waits for it to swim within her speargun's 20-foot range, then pulls the trigger. Struck just below the dorsal, the fish tries to swim away, but Daye reels in the line attached to the spear and brings it to the surface. Dinner is now imminent.

Hickey, meanwhile, is fixated on a different quarry - a 20-pound black grouper - widely considered the top prize of breath-hold spearfishing. But as soon as the diver begins closing the gap, the grouper spots him and heads safely into the wreck. Out of air, Hickey swims back to the top and tells Daye what happened.

"Those are the ones you remember the most - the ones that got away," Daye chuckles.

That might be true, but both have succeeded in boating memorable fish. Daye, a 50-year-old IBM engineer in Boca Raton, shot a women's world-record 157-pound yellowfin tuna off Mexico. Hickey, 43, a Sunrise telecommunications company owner, once bagged a 42-pound black grouper - among many fish he has speared since boyhood in Durban, South Africa. Both won individual honors in last summer's U.S. National Spearfishing Championships in Pompano Beach.

There's very little either would rather do than hunt fish underwater.

"It's exciting. It's fascinating," Hickey said. "And peace and quiet with four kids at home. It's almost like space-floating around the moon, seeing all the sights."

Added Daye: "The ocean is Mother Nature's masterpiece. It can be creepy and spooky. It's a very wild, raw state of nature_no manmade rules or anything."

DANGEROUS SPORT

Headliners in a potentially dangerous sport that's hugely popular in Europe and drawing an ever-larger following in the United States, Daye and Hickey emphasize safety even as they chase big fish deep underwater while holding their breath.

The top lethal hazards to breath-hold divers, they say, are shallow-water blackout and boat collisions.

Shallow-water blackout usually occurs when a freediver is returning to, or on, the surface. The lungs - compressed when the diver went down - are now expanding, sucking oxygen out of the blood and out of the brain, which causes a loss of consciousness. If no one is there to rescue the diver, he or she usually sinks to the bottom and drowns.

According to statistics assembled by California spearfishing world-record holder Terry Maas - who lost a son to shallow-water blackout several years ago - the continental United States averages three such deaths a year among an estimated 10,000 freedivers. Hawaii, with an estimated 5,000 freedivers, accounts for about six fatalities annually from shallow-water blackout. France, with as many as 30,000 breath-hold divers, had 33 deaths in 2003 alone.

Daye, who once rescued an unconscious diver in Hawaii, says nearly every freediver has experienced a blackout at some level.

"The precursor to a blackout is a samba - your legs spasm," Daye explained. "If you've had a samba, you're at the hairy edge and you need to be more conservative. You need to tell yourself over and over that no fish is worth your life."

But to guard against impaired judgement, freedivers are advised to dive with a partner_one person acting as a spotter while the other hunts.

CAUTION

Freedivers are particularly vulnerable to boat collisions - even when they carry the required red-and-white dive flag with them - because they spend 80 percent of their time on the surface scouting and retrieving fish. Unlike scuba divers, they must return to the surface at frequent intervals to breathe.

Last March, freediver Ricardo Araujo of Hialeah Gardens was struck and killed by a yacht about five miles southeast of Cape Florida. His dive buddy, Orlando "Tata" Lanza, escaped unharmed. The accident is under investigation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Hickey says he has had numerous near-misses with boats-despite diving with a flag.

"That's my No. 1 fear," he said.

But neither Hickey nor Daye is about to give up their sport. Instead, they act as unofficial ambassadors for freediving safety, conservation and enjoyment.

Daye, who has been a triathlete, tennis player, scuba and technical diver, says she does not believe freediving is a phase.

"It's the challenge that keeps us all coming back," Daye said.

Chuckling, she added: "I'm saving golf for when I can't do anything else."

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