No, I did not actually soil myself last weekend, although I came close several times.
The putrid undies (don't worry, we'll leave them behind soon) had been lurking in a plastic bin full of watersports gear since 3:00 a.m. last Sunday, at which point I was stripping off my wetsuit on the deck of a friend's fishing boat. When I took my towel, snorkel, fins and wetsuit out of the bin after I got home at 4:00 a.m., somehow the underwear I had worn under the wetsuit escaped my notice, and remained in a wad there for the next three days. When I returned the rinsed and dried equipment to the bin on Wednesday, I was greeted with a stench that surpassed that of the hamper where we throw the twins' used cloth diapers.
I had tried to bail on this nautical excursion when I first got the text message at 9:00 p.m. on Saturday; but my wife, hoping for a windfall of fresh seafood, had not cooperated with my project of enumerating the reasons that it was a bad idea to leave the couch. She had little sympathy for my lack of motivation, which was caused largely by my having gone to my nephew's hockey game on Friday and drunk way too much beer, both during and afterward.
And I had been wanting to join my friends on one of these trips for quite some time; so I ultimately talked myself into it. I decided to embrace this opportunity to try lobster diving for the first time.
We left the marina at about 11:30 p.m. on a moonless night, creeping through a maze of multi-million dollar yachts, and then motoring past dry-docked submarines, dilapidated fishing boats, harbor seals, pelicans, and seagulls, our wake glowing neon blue as the boat's motor churned up the bioluminescent "red tide" that has bloomed here recently.
We didn't have to travel far before we got to our destination: a long jetty half a mile offshore that creates one side of a channel at the mouth of the bay. A pile of rocks somehow blacker than the sky and the water, with a few beacons to keep boats from crashing into it.
Two of us suited up for diving while the owner of the boat set out some nets to try and catch lobsters the more passive and sensible way. I had pretty high hopes that this would finally be the way I would reap my rightful harvest from the sea.
People don't believe me when I tell them this, but I am not only a terrible fisherman, but also a jinx to whomever I'm fishing with. I warn them when we head out to their super-secret, can't-miss fishing hole; and they always pooh-pooh my prophecy. When we return, the parting comments are the same: I can't believe we didn't even get a nibble...I've NEVER gone home empty handed from that spot.
I've caught some fish before. Worthless crappies that we threw back in the reservoir, fucked-up looking bass with bulging eyes downstream from the textile mill, gristly sucker fish that proved impossible to scale, much less eat.
But I've never caught a good, solid fish that was worth eating, except for catfish, which we caught by casting our bait out into the muddy lake and leaving it there while we drank beers by the campfire. My theory is that I emit an electrical impulse or vibration that makes robust fish either skittish or just not hungry.* (The catfish exception can be explained by the fact that I was far away from the rod when they took the bait.)
I wish I could say that I didn't care that I can't seem to catch a decent fish. But I regularly have dreams of landing a glistening trout or stately salmon. I've been fishing hundreds of times, and despite the evidence to the contrary, can fully envision this happening.
I had mentioned my jinx problem to my buddies that I went out with last weekend, and, as usual, they said I was ridiculous. For my part, I was hoping that crustaceans would not be able to pick up my weird vibration through their thick shells. In fact, I had caught some crabs in traps in the Chesapeake Bay decades ago, so I was quite optimistic.
As we suited up, my friend the expert lobster diver explained the strategy. Snorkel on the surface for a while. Dive down and shine your flashlight into the nooks and crannies in the rocks. When you see a "bug," pin it against the rock with one hand, drop your light, grab it in both hands, and come back to the surface.
We would work together, "leapfrogging." One of us would dive down and cover a few yards and then come back to the surface to let the other dive down and cover the next few yards as we crept alongside the jetty. Soon, we would reach our limit of seven lobsters apiece, and kick back to the boat, triumphant. Awesome.
I rubbed some spit in my mask, dunked it into the water and swished it around, put it on, and rolled backwards into the black water.
Have you ever been on one of those snorkeling excursions, maybe in the Bahamas or Hawaii or Cancun? You go out on a catamaran, sip some fruity mixed drinks, and then bob around looking at beautiful little fish and corals that look like Finding Nemo?
This outing was not like that at all.
And then there's the problem of visibility. The ocean at midnight is darker than the earth at midnight. I see nothing beyond the one-foot diameter of the flashlight's beam, and as we kick toward the jetty, there's nothing much to see in the murky water anyway, since the beam doesn't penetrate anywhere near the bottom. Just swirling sand and the occasional silvery fish.
When we get closer to the jetty, things begin to lurch into the spotlight. Undulating arms of kelp. Then black rocks covered in barnacles and plants.
Hey, look! Fish! A Garibaldi, just like at the aquarium. Huge red and orange sea stars! It's ridiculous, but even though I've scuba dived and snorkeled in Hawaii, Fiji, Mexico, Vietnam, and the Caribbean, I've never looked around underwater in California, where I've lived for a decade.
When I focus on the interesting flora and fauna, and feel like I'm in control of where I'm going, I don't think about the fact that I'm breathing through a straw sticking out of the ocean. But then a current pushes me away from the rocks and I'm staring into an empty circle of dull light, and all of the sudden I. CAN'T. GET. ENOUGH. AIR. THROUGH. THIS. LITTLE. FREAKING. TUBE!
Or I find myself suddenly too close to a craggy boulder, or tangled in a stand of kelp. My feet can't kick fast enough to get me away, and my lungs can't get enough air to keep me moving.
But worse than the freaky underwater landscape is my own imagination. Images from all the underwater thrillers I watched and read as a kid impose themselves on my thoughts. I try to quiet my mind by asking "What's the worst that could happen?", which turns out to be the worst question I could ask myself. Damn you, Peter Benchley!
I don't even worry much about Great Whites, which have been spotted recently, not far from here, because I assume that if I see one, I will die almost immediately. Instead, I think about getting dragged out to sea in a riptide, bashing my head against a rock, losing track of the boat, or otherwise getting myself in a position of slowly succumbing to the depths.
It seems unlikely that I will catch any lobsters while in the throes of a panic attack.
But eventually I get myself under control. I try to dive down to look for bugs, but there's not enough weight on my belt and I can barely kick myself completely underwater before I have to come up for air, after which I need five minutes of gasping time before I can continue. I sit on the rocks of the jetty a few times to get my shit together, and my buddy kindly suggests that I cover the shallows while he dives down farther from the jetty.
My buddy grabs what looks like a huge lobster, shows it to me, and then lets it go because it's too small. It drifts down like a falling leaf for a second or two, then jets into the blackness at a speed you wouldn't associate with a dopey crustacean.
Later, he points out a large moray eel peeking from a little cave about three feet below us, and we bob around and watch it for a minute. I think about the scene from The Deep (not that scene, pervert) that scared the bejeezus out of me as a kid, and assume that it was a terrible misrepresentation of a creature that was probably shy and retiring. Back on the boat, he tells me that, no, a moray eel will bite the hell out of you and wrap itself around your arm while anchoring itself to the rocks if you stick your hand in its cave. Good to know.
After forty minutes or so, I am relaxed enough to actually, actively look for lobsters. I dive a few feet down, I lurk around in nooks and crannies, I scan the faces of boulders.
By the time we are almost back to the boat, I see my first bug. It's about a foot from my mask, nestled on a rock among some waving orange kelp.
IT'S A LOBSTER!
I...I SHOULD DO SOMETHING! I'M SUPPOSED TO DO...SOMETHING!
OKAY...KEEP BREATHING...GOOD. NOW, UH...LET'S SEE. What am I supposed to do? I just reach out like this, and...
And the bug scampers away. Like a cockroach. That's why they call them "bugs."
Five minutes later, I see another one. I don't hesitate this time. I reach out and put my hand on it. My hand that is only covered in a fingerless glove that the boat owner had in his tackle box. You really should have full gloves, because these critters aren't called "spiny lobsters" based on their personalities. I gingerly squeeze the bug, hoping to get a grasp on it without receiving any puncture wounds; but by that time, it's too late. The big red insect has slipped away from me and launched itself from the rock. It bounces off my mask and back toward the rock. Then I feel it skittering between my torso and the face of the boulder as it descends and escapes. I'm simultaneously exhilarated and creeped out.
And I want really badly to catch a damn lobster.
Back on the boat, we discuss all the reasons that neither of us caught any lobsters worth keeping.
There's something about overcast nights like this, the expert muses. They seem extra skittish.
We pull up the nets that our pilot has set. There's one crab and a stingray, which we spend a long time disentangling and setting free.
It's weird, the expert says, I always catch something here.
*This same impulse makes watch batteries die after just a few months on my wrist. I've thought about this a lot.