Friday, October 21, 2011

Lobster Hunt

Rinsing out a pair of underpants yesterday evening, I was reminded of what happened last Saturday night that caused the boxer briefs to turn the water in the sink into such a murky and foul-smelling brew.

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.

The water is 60 degrees.  A comfortable swimming pool is about 85 degrees.  The wetsuit and hood I wear keep me insulated from the cold, but also constrict my movement, making me feel more than a little claustrophobic.  It doesn't help that my wetsuit used to fit me pretty well about fifteen pounds ago, but now seems to prevent me from taking a deep breath.  The weightbelt that I wear counteracts the buoyancy of the wetsuit, which will be important when I want to be underwater, but as I swim toward the jetty, just seems to be hellbent on drowning me whenever I pop my head up to dump the water out of my leaky mask.

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.




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. 

Photo Credit


You are undoubtedly sick to death of me by now, but maybe you'll feel like reading this other stuff I wrote on the internet sometime later.  Bookmark it or whatever.

On Aiming Low, I wrote about purging.  Everything Must Go

On Man of the House, I wrote about power saws.  Power Tools You Need: Saws


  1. Excuse my ignorance, but I didn't think one would wear boxers under a wet suit... maybe something more body hugging or commando? I can imagine the look on wifey's face... maybe she sensed the luck you had/didn't have? Next time don't say a word to your friends- your luck may change. :-)

  2. Sorry about the lack of success! If it's any consolation, I am certain that I would have given in to the panic attack and drowned.
    On another note, I have some weird "impulse" too. Digital clocks hate me; all of the ones I spend time around lose time. Maybe it's the same fish-repelling impulse only I don't know because I don't fish. Glad I'm not the only freak who wonders about these things!

  3. @KBF--Boxer BRIEFS. New underwear technology. Very snug indeed.

    @Mel--It's no consolation to think that others would have drowned. Okay, maybe just a little. We should volunteer for some kind of study about human electronics. Or something.

  4. In your list of "What's the worst that could happen?" you forgot about suddenly finding yourself surrounded by dead bodies that some serial killer dumped in the ocean. So next time be sure to remember that one too.

  5. That other scene in The Deep - you mean it might be worth watching?

  6. This sounds...well, miserable! Cold. Dark. Limited air supply. Chance of death.
    Can't y'all just go to Red Lobster?

  7. Hahaha! I think I know exactly where you were! Our spot is called "new hope rock" in the kelp beds right out of "the point". There is a TON of lobsters waiting to be grabbed. The first time we brought a friend diving with us he startled me when he grabbed one, tore it in half to attract fish. Would you believe you can actually hear me screaming on the vid camera (sound DOES carry very well under water) when I caught him violating the poor little lobster?

    But then I was actually upset he threw away the tail, that woulda been good grillin'.

    Oh and don't even get me going on the red tide and midnight swims. Why are those swims always followed by a few cocktails?

  8. Wow. I can't remember what blog I visited from. I'm going to be a big big fan. But not in a scary way. Honest.

  9. God, does this ever bring back memories of when my kids were younger! Stay strong man, it gets better. Until the teen years at least. At that point, there is nothing you can do rights. Sorry. food lower high blood pressure

  10. I am such a lobster fan but unfortunately I can touch them alive I always had the feeling that some of them could tweak me.

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  11. I'm a midwesterner and reside in the same camp as KBF: i never thought about underwear in a wetsuit before. Speedo/swimsuit was my assumption.

    And you da man for grabbing a lobster. Period.

  12. I have the same watch issue, I can't wear one for more than a couple weeks without totally killing it, even those really expensive watches that run of your body motion...

    However it doesn't effect my fishing. When I go out, I generally catch quite a few (never been ocean fishing though... hmmm.) My key to success at fishing is to take a book, if it's something I'm really into, I'll catch so much I can't read it.


Don't hold back.


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