Peconic farmer travels the world as spearfisherman

At 60 feet below sea level, William Lee feels as if he’s flying. 

Wearing a wetsuit with a mask on his face and fins on his feet, he relies entirely on the last deep breath of air that filled his lungs at the surface. Fresh oxygen awaits high above.

The most challenging aspect of freediving — underwater swimming without the benefit of scuba equipment — is diving the initial 30 feet, where a swimmer faces the first change in pressure. From there, negative buoyancy settles in, allowing Mr. Lee to kick his fins like a fish, propelling him farther down.

At 60 and 70 feet below the sea, Mr. Lee floats as if jumping out of a plane and hitting terminal velocity, he said.

As he descends, water pressure squeezes his lungs, shooting oxygen through his bloodstream. 

“If you’re relaxed enough, you feel like you’re flying like a superhero,” he said.

At the sea floor, he steadies his spearfishing gun amid the passing fish, ever careful to remain still or risk startling the school. Patience is key. He waits for the right target to enter his sightline. And then — fires.

As spring arrived on the North Fork, Mr. Lee, 32, returned to the family farm in Peconic — Sang Lee Farms. A 2004 graduate of Southold High School, where he helped lead the boys soccer team to the state finals in 2001, Mr. Lee has spent his life on the farm working under his parents, Fred and Karen, and contributing in myriad ways. On any given day, Mr. Lee can be spotted on a tractor plowing. He helps manage the staff, the markets and payroll, among other duties.

He recently helped build a wash station deck where vegetables can be triple-washed. He’s designing a new lettuce bubbler to wash baby greens.

“Being a small-business owner, you’re doing everything,” he said. “Plus, I’m the eyes and ears out in the field doing watering, the weeding, the cultivating and all the tractor work and tilling. Crop management right now is huge.”

During all that time on the farm, it’s not uncommon for his mind to sometimes wander to the far-off locales he has visited, like New Zealand and Indonesia. For a brief moment, he may close his eyes and picture himself back under water, hunting for his next meal.

Spearfishing dates back to ancient times, when early civilizations used sharpened sticks to pluck fish from rivers and seas. In the modern era, spearfishing has evolved into a sport. Annual competitions are held throughout the world.

Mr. Lee’s introduction to spearfishing began in 2009, when he lived in Hawaii working on a mixed-vegetable farm called Waihuena Farm. He had always snorkeled and was comfortable in the water. He was living at Sunset Beach in Oahu when he met a man who encouraged him to tag along on a spearfishing trip. Twice a week, they would go out onto the reef at sunset, catch their dinner and return home to scale the fish and fry it.

William Lee Sang Lee farms
William Lee holds a dogtooth tuna he caught spearfishing off the island of Mo’orea in the South Pacific. (Courtesy photo)

“It kind of became like going to the grocery store,” Mr. Lee said. “And it’s kind of like an athletic hobby. You’re bringing food home at the end of the day, but you’re also enjoying your time while you’re doing it. And it burns a lot less resources than normal fishing if you’re shore diving.”

Hardly limited to exotic locations like Hawaii, spearfishing has grown in popularity on Long Island. Mr. Lee said the ocean water on the South Shore typically offers better visibility than the North Shore. Proper visibility is key to spearfishing safely. Long Island Spearfishing, a Facebook group dedicated to the sport, has more than 1,000 members. The coast of Montauk offers ideal spots to hunt for black sea bass and blackfish, Mr. Lee said.

To begin spearfishing first requires mastering the skill of freediving. It’s a challenging, potentially dangerous method of underwater swimming. Spearfishing with scuba equipment is widely frowned upon. Consider it like cheating in a way.

So how does someone dive 100 feet or more under water on a single breath?

“You can get into freediving with some swim training and with some depth training,” Mr. Lee said. “If you’re already a scuba diver, you’re very close. You already understand the mechanics of equalization. The hardest thing to train is the aspects of freediving that comes with going down in depth and dealing with the pressure and letting your body adjust to those things.”

Mr. Lee transforms into a science teacher as he explains the physics behind underwater swimming. The key, he explained, is less about breathing in oxygen, but rather expelling carbon dioxide.

“You have enough oxygen in your blood to feed your brain for five to seven minutes,” he said. “But the average person can only hold their breath for a minute, minute and a half. That’s because their brain is telling them you put your hand on the exhaust pipe. The trigger to breathe is really an exhale.”

Mastering the technique of expelling carbon dioxide through a snorkel allows a freediver to stay under water longer than most people would think possible. Experienced spearfishermen can typically hold their breath for five to seven minutes, Mr. Lee said.

He consistently would dive to depths of 40 to 50 feet at the start, but it took him about three years to finally get past the 60- to 70-foot mark, he said. It took about five years to get past 100 feet. Now, nearly a decade into freediving, he’s working on passing 150 feet with a goal toward 200 feet.

William Lee (second from right) has spent nearly a decade honing his skills as a freediver and spearfisherman. (Courtesy photo)

In scuba diving, maintaining proper equalization while ascending to the surface is vital. Freediving is different because the air in a person’s lungs stays the same during the duration of the dive. In scuba diving, the compressed air entering the lungs at a deep depth will expand as the diver rises, potentially puncturing the lungs. People often ask Mr. Lee why he doesn’t take an air tank down with him. But that can be even more dangerous because he’d be unable to regulate his air intake.

There are still dangers to freediving, which should always be done in tandem with a partner. Shallow water blackout is a condition that occurs when a diver overbreathes and artificially lowers his carbon dioxide levels. As the diver holds his breath under water, carbon dioxide levels increase and the body becomes starved of oxygen, according to the website Shallow Water Blackout Prevention. The brain essentially shuts off to preserve oxygen, causing a diver to blackout.

Everything in Mr. Lee’s life — from eating, sleeping, yoga exercises and stretching — is centered around keeping his body and mind right for freediving. 

“I’m still learning how to control my heart rate,” he said. “I’m still learning how to balance my diet so I’m not eating too much sugar.”

Mr. Lee’s job on the farm affords him the time to travel in the winter. Already this year, he’s been to Mexico and Tahiti, where he spent a month working on a pearl farm and sleeping in a bungalow. He would spearfish the triggerfish, which are a particular nuisance to oyster shells. The fish use their sharp teeth to break open the oysters to eat the pearls.

“Those were really prized to shoot because it means you’re protecting the pearl farm as well as harvesting food,” he said.

Mr. Lee returned home in early March. Earlier trips have taken him to Panama and Ecuador.

He envisions himself getting involved with charters in the future to put his captain’s license to use to lead spearfishing and freediving expeditions.

“Swimming is a real release and a real amazing sport,” he said.