Spearos of Death Metal

Tom Flambeaux is cleaning up poisonous lead under the ocean’s surface one breath at a time.

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A small, long-distance swell lifts and dashes onto wave-cut rock platforms in Biarritz, France, under bright winter sunshine. A dusting of snow on the Pyrenees frames the setting just so, while a glassy blue sea surface shimmers with appreciation for the respite after weeks and months of unrelenting Atlantic gales.

The rangy physique of Tom Flambeaux negotiates the cliff path with the familiarity of someone who’s done so countless times. A bright-eyed, bony cheeked, chin-bearded dial grins from the aperture of a thick dive hood. He’s
kitted out in a 7mm suit, along with gloves, booties, and a weight belt. What started as a summer pursuit, when the waters here reach upward of 75 degrees, has become a year-round endeavor. Above his head, an iron footbridge—designed by Gustave Eiffel, of tower fame—hangs from the continent out to le Rocher de la Vierge (the Virgin Rock), a popular fishing spot for recreational anglers. Flambeaux quickly adjusts his facemask and slips into the icy, clear brine.

He soon emerges, straining under the burden of his haul. While the traditional spearer’s quarry surfaces furiously to stay alive, his oozes its death hum from the benthic—silent, invisible, relentless.

Toxic lead isn’t the typical haul for a spear fisherman, and it might be as dangerous as anything down below. For Flambeaux, it’s the catch of the day, every day. Photograph by Gorka Larzabal.

Flambeaux is a local surfer born and raised at Marbella Beach on Biarritz’s south end. With a French mother and Australian father, his formative years were shaped by summers in France followed by long escapes to Indo and Australia in winter.

“I’ve been spearfishing since I was a small kid,” says Flambeaux. “A few years ago, I started noticing all these piles and piles of lead weights—fishing sinkers—on the bottom. One morning, I left my speargun tied to the buoy and started collecting up all the crap. That first day, in 2016, I gathered 27 kilograms. I was like, ‘I can’t leave it like that.’ So I started leaving the speargun at home all together.”

Flambeaux first focused his efforts on his local beach.

“I cleaned Marbella out completely,” he says, pointing to the finger of reef that dominates his home spot. “I got 93 kilograms in one week. Heaps of people were like, ‘That’s great, what you’re doing.’ But the fishermen, the other spearos, I struggled to get them into it. So I just thought, ‘Fuck it, I’ll get it all by myself.’ I got 600 kilograms in that first year, 2016.”

Word did eventually spread through social media, and now some 17 lead dive crews are involved both across France and farther afield. Anyone who collects a metric ton (2,200 pounds) in a year is rewarded with an objet d’art, a Basque cross or whale Flambeaux makes by melting and molding the lead he collects. Given how toxic the metal is, though, he makes them only when needed, either as a trophy or to sell so he can buy new dive gear.

“Whenever I need new gloves, which is all the time, I put a photo of one up and it sells straight away for 25 bucks. Gloves are $23. It’s not a huge earner,” he laughs.

It’s a circular micro economy that mirrors the physical loop gravity wants complete, ever trying to repatriate lead back to the depths after having been initially extracted from the subterranean against its will.

“Lead is so toxic. It gets in any living organism, then bioaccumulates in the food chain—worms, crabs, fish. It’s really nasty stuff, it’s everywhere, and nobody’s really talking about it.”

He’s applied to the local town council for a grant to buy more gear, and for a place to store the lead. Right now, he has well over a ton sitting in his garage.

“I won’t sell it,” Flambeaux says. “It’ll just go into shotgun cartridges and end up on the forest floor. In France alone, 5,000 tons of lead gets shot into nature every year by hunters.”

The odds are fairly overwhelming, yet Flambeaux seems anything but discouraged on that winter’s day. The surf is on the rise as the tide continues to ebb; he’ll be back out for a second dive shortly, a rarity for midwinter.

“It’s on all year,” he says. “I’ll go every day when it’s small, then surf when the waves are good.”

His upbeat attitude and self-reliant approach to activism is refreshing, admirable, and impressive—almost as impressive as saving the planet while holding your breath.