KEY WEST, Florida -- Gary Cagle, an avid free diver, made two mistakes on a Key West fishing trip last Saturday:
He speared a goliath grouper, a fish that is illegal to kill in the Florida Keys. He also forgot to bring along his knife.
That error cost him his life.
Cagle, spearfishing a half-mile off Smathers Beach, shot a 40-inch goliath grouper. The fish bolted under a coral head, entangling the diver in the line and, acting like an anchor, held him underwater until he drowned.
On Sunday, Key West police divers found Cagle's body pinned to the coral 17 feet down, his mask still on but the snorkel out of his mouth. The spear line was wrapped three times around his wrist, with the spear shaft still in the carcass of the dead fish -- shot right through the gills.
''It is bizarre,'' said Becky Herrin, spokeswoman for the Monroe County Sheriff's Office.
Goliath groupers, which can grow up to eight feet and weigh more than 600 pounds, are not known as aggressive -- but many of them show little fear of divers or snorkelers. The huge fish can be found on many wrecks in the Florida Keys.
Fishing goliath grouper in the Keys has been illegal since 1990. But friends of Cagle's say they believe something unexpected happened, expressing doubts that he would have speared the protected species intentionally.
''He must have been trying to protect his life,'' suggested friend Lori Kerry. `` The grouper was about 160 to 200 pounds and must have surprised him.''
Other experienced divers saw self-defense as an unlikely reason for spearing a goliath. But Kerry said Cagle had great respect for nature and once insisted she return a 50-pound goliath she had caught by accident, she said.
Cagle, 42 and a Georgia native, worked many years bartending at the Bull & Whistle Bar on Duval Street in Key West. His friends say he saved his money and invested well so he could spend most of his time on his aquatic passions. Almost daily, he drove his Jet Ski to sites where he could free-dive -- that is, dive without a supplemental air tank -- and fish for four to six hours at a time.
His friends say he weighed about 175 pounds, was in great shape and could hold his breath for four to five minutes under water, sometimes free-diving in depths of up to about 70 feet.
''He was like a fish,'' said Cagle's girlfriend, Melissa Aiello.
Last Saturday, Cagle left Stock Island alone about noon. When he didn't return that night, his friends became worried and called the Coast Guard. The Jet Ski was found that night but Cagle's body wasn't located until the following morning.
''While we worried about him diving by himself, we also didn't worry because he was so good at it,'' Kerry said. ``But Gary always, always, always said if he died he wanted it to be in the water.''
Marks on Cagle's body showed he struggled to free himself from the spear line. But he could not and drowned, according to a preliminary autopsy report.
Bob Holston, director of operations at Dive Key West, said he knows of few free diving or spearfishing accidents, but when they do occur it's usually because safety practices weren't followed. A major safety requirement is bringing a knife, in case a line does get tangled.
''Not wearing a knife is like crossing I-95 with your eyes closed,'' Holston said.
Kerry said Cagle was not a careless diver. But she has no answer why his knife was left behind on her porch. ''It's normally on his leg,'' she said.
A memorial service for Cagle will be held 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Dean Lopez Funeral Home in Key West. Later Saturday, his friends and family will board the catamaran Sunny Days to sprinkle his ashes into the waters he loved.
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