One of the most common questions I get from new divers is ‘does a camouflage suit really make a difference?’ The short answer is yes, millions of hunters and soldiers and virtually every other predator in the world can’t be wrong – camouflaging yourself makes it harder for your prey to see you and allows you to get closer to them.
The long answer isn’t so simple though. I personally wear a variety of different wetsuits and have never noticed much difference between them. What does make a huge difference though is the effective use of cover.
There are two things that fish easily see and give you away – your silhouette and movement. The most important thing when stalking fish is absolutely minimizing these two exposures. You are a very big fish in the water and will make the little fish very nervous if you let them see all of you.
Your silhouette is most noticeable against open water. Sometimes there’s just not much we can do about this and have to use our body language to get close to the fish but most of the time we can use the terrain around us to hide and stop ourselves from being caught out against a light blue background. Hug the coastline whenever you can. This is the aquatic equivalent of terrestrial hunters avoiding ‘sky lining’ themselves while walking along ridge tops. We spend most of our time on the surface and particularly when we’re hunting the shallows this is where we spook most fish from.
The next step is not allowing yourself to be silhouetted when you dive. Sometimes this is very easy as we can just follow a rock wall or ridge all the way down from the surface. Other times there is no option but to dive down through open water to get to the cover of the bottom. In these situations the critical thing is planning where you think a fish may be hiding and how to approach it without being spotted. Most of the time this means spotting a rock ahead of you that may have a fish on the other side out of view from the surface. If you simply swim up to the rock and dive down you’ll spook your fish and it will be gone. Instead you dive all the way to the bottom using the rock to mask your descent, swim along the bottom to the rock and then slowly come up and peer over the top. This way even if the fish does spot you it will only see a small part of you and may not be spooked.
Even if a fish can see your silhouette if you remain absolutely still it’ll most likely eventually come up and check you out. It is your movement that really freaks them out. When you’re spearing it is critical to keep all your movements slow, controlled and to a minimum. Not only will this be less threatening to the fish it will also make a big difference to your breath hold. When you’re hunting you need to be absolutely still as much as you can and if you do need to move you need to hide it. You can achieve this by dropping into gutters and over ledges to move along the bottom or by moving through the stalks of the kelp.
Once you have the basics of concealing yourself by using cover and hiding your movements it is worth giving some thought to camouflage. The idea of the camouflage is to reduce the contrast between your body and the background, usually with colour, and to break up your outline through the use of patterns.
The first thing to think about is colour. You want to choose a colour scheme that is going to blend well into the environment you’re going to be diving in. No matter where you are these colours need to be dull, muddy types that will smudge into the shadows. Another thing to keep in the back of your mind is the fact that colour is lost in the water as depth increases. Reds go first and greens and yellows go last. It can be quite startling just how quickly red dulls into crimson and then a muddy brown underwater. We also need to remember that we are in the water not the forest so don’t be fooled into choosing army type camo that works great in the trees but isn’t so flash in the kelp.
There are two basic choices when it comes to camo colours – ones designed to be used on the reef and ones designed to be used in the blue water.
Reef camos – These are the most common and I think the most useful patterns especially here in New Zealand. The majority of our diving is around the reef and it is the flightier reef species that we most need to hide from. A good design will utilize at least three or four different colours to blend into a variety of terrain. In New Zealand 99% of our bottom terrain and kelp is some shade of brown and so should your wetsuit be. Green seems to be a popular colour for wetsuits but I have yet to see much green in the water here. It’s different diving in the Mediterranean where they have huge areas of sea grasses.
I think it also very important to consider where the hardest areas on the reef to hide are and to try and use camo to help here. Too many manufacturers concentrate solely on blending into the kelp. Blending into kelp is great but when you’re diving with plenty of kelp around you should be right down in it making your wetsuit camo kind of redundant. Where things get more difficult are over sand patches and the bald, white rock. Wetsuit colour schemes like on the Rob Allen suits have been specifically designed for diving in New Zealand with these tricky sandy areas in mind. This pattern uses four colours – a light sand, a dark brown, khaki and black. This pattern is very effective on weed edges and other spots where finding cover can be difficult.
Blue Water camos – These are designed for blue water environments where you’re trying to blend into the water itself. This is very difficult to achieve but luckily the fish we target in the blue water are among the easiest to get close to due to their great curiosity. These suits typically have a blueish base colour chosen to match the colour of the water. This obviously doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny but can sometimes conceal you just enough to make the fish have to swim within range to check you out. Obviously controlling your body movements and sending out the right vibes is going to be far more important than suit colour here. Blue water suits don’t tend to blend into the reef very well at shallow depths though so if you’re only going to have one wetsuit I’d definitely go for a brown one.
The final piece of the camo puzzle is the pattern. This is what will break up your outline with the idea to hide your size. The only thing you really need to worry about is that the pattern is utilizing big splotches rather than small ones. Too many camo patterns are made up of intricate designs, usually integrating a brand logo, that look great up close but when you take a step or two back it all blurs into one solid colour which is exactly what you’re trying to avoid. The simplest way to break up outline is just to wear mismatched jacket and long johns.
So yes, camo can definitely make a difference to you and help you get closer to fish but only when you’re doing everything else right first. If you’re struggling to close that last metre or two or you feel that fish are spotting you and shying away even when you’re absolutely motionless – absolutely motionless means absolutely and includes eyes – then a camo suit may be for you. The fish have every advantage over us in their environment so any thing you can do to tip the balance in our favour, even just a little bit, has to be worthwhile.