Ever since I first went to sea with my uncle, Capt. Bill Dunn, I’ve been fascinated with swordfish. On a slick, calm August day in 1981, running out of Shinnecock Inlet on Long Island, my uncle calmly proclaimed, “Swordfish, 1 o’clock.”
We were on the bridge of his 38-foot Scopinich sportfisherman, Last Resort, and he physically guided my head in the direction of the fish, whispering the distance and pointing. He made certain I got my first glimpse of the unmistakable silhouette of that basking Atlantic swordfish, its proud, distinct dorsal fin leading the way like a submarine’s periscope, followed by the sickle of its crescent-shaped tail.
What transpired next was both exhilarating and frustrating. We deployed a rigged trolling squid as we made a large, slow, swooping circle. The idea was to swim the squid in front of the swordfish, triggering a strike. I watched closely as my uncle deftly maneuvered the boat so as not to drive the fish down. The first two passes brought not a twitch or a move toward our bait. As we circled for a third pass, the anticipation was almost painful.
Suddenly, as if the switch to a neon sign had been flipped, the fish lit up in purple, silver and royal blue, and with two powerful swipes of its tail, it took aim at our bait. In a flash, 400 pounds of swordfish erupted from the glassy surface. I remember its sword glimmering in the sunlight like polished tanzanite. Sheets of water fell to either side of its enormous head. The line came tight as the fish disappeared with the bait into the deep, blue hole it had created. The rod began to load as the drag on the reel engaged and then … nothing.
We never saw that magnificent fish again, but my heart was pounding, and a lifelong fervor for swords had begun. I fell asleep that night emotionally exhausted and dreaming, for the first time, about swordfish.
First scientifically named and identified in 1758 by Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician Carl Linnaeus, Xiphias gladius have fascinated humans for centuries. Call them what you may in your native tongue — smak ’abu sayf in Arabic, pez espada in Spanish, espadon in French, sululu in Swahili — swordfish occur in almost every sea or ocean around the globe. Possessing freakish strength and speed, they are the sole member of their family Xiphiidae, genus Xiphias and species X. gladius. Swordfish are a special fish, not related to marlin or sailfish or any other creature in the sea.
Several biological characteristics enable swordfish to dominate oceans and bring anglers fortunate enough to hook one to their knees. They can acclimate to an extreme range of temperatures and have been recorded diving to depths greater than 9,000 feet. They are one of few fish equipped with a special organ that heats the eyes and brain, providing tremendous eyesight and the ability to thrive in cold, deep water.
The wide, flat sword enables swordfish to slash their prey and root for crustaceans on the seafloor. When hooked, the fish uses its sword to create what amounts to a giant planer (think of the lip on a trolling plug), making it difficult to bring the fish within range of a gaff or harpoon. Swordfish have been known to pierce the hulls of fishboats with their swords. They can strip the largest reels while diving straight to the bottom and driving their swords into the seabed. And they have been known to swim directly toward the propellers of the boat that hooked them in an effort to escape. Much like a gladiator, they will do anything to survive.
Since that summer day 39 years ago, my admiration and respect for the species has only grown. I have traveled the world in search of this magnificent animal, experiencing both history-making catches and stinging losses. We are now using swordfish and their diverse abilities as roving marine biologists of sorts. By attaching traditional satellite pop-off tags and new dorsal-attached and towed SPOT tags, researchers are enlisting swordfish to gather information from the little-known mesopelagic zone. This is the layer of the ocean where there is enough light to orient, but not enough to drive photosynthesis. Little is known about this “twilight zone,” but by instrumenting and tracking swordfish, we will gain insight into how this ecosystem works.
A special fish, indeed.