The calm before the storm

8 Oct

The Calm Before the Storm

All I could think of when I started my hike down was, “I’m getting too old for this shit”. The steep incline seemed to provoke every single pebble and sharp rock to start a fight with my already aching feet and the extra 23lbs of lead around my waist to counter the 7mm suit wasn’t helping my back. I wondered if I should go turn around while the going was still good…

I had checked this spot as soon as I got off work, a quick glance at the ocean as my truck went rumbling by was not promising, there was a small swell pounding the shore from the north. I hesitated briefly before checking another one of my favorite spots where pretty much I knew if condtions permitted I’d have a really good shot at a limit of lobster. This time I parked my vehicle and walked to the ocean,  I knew it was a no go, the swell was worse here and the water appeared to have surfable waves mixed in with the chocolate water. I sat there and debated what I should do for several minutes, with night rapidly approaching I headed back to the first spot and grudgingly got out and checked the conditions again.

It was definitely doable, there was some small swell poking thru but most of the time it was calm. I saw thick mats of kelp on the surface and figured it was peak low tide, not my favorite condition to dive. Still I had not been in the water for about a month now and that was killing me. I trudged back to my truck and started pulling gear out while I silently wished the other spot had calmer waters. Mentally I began to doublecheck my gear, the same way I do everytime and the same way that I did the night before. I start from my feet and visualize every part I need on the way to the top of my head. Now suited up, I started the long steep walk down the hill to the water.

By the time I made it to the shore it was already dark and I could see the water lapping the shore with an occasional crash of a bigger wave. It was still pretty small swell, the worst part was I could plainly see the sharp spikes of purple urchins littering the tidepools. Thank god I was wearing my thick soled scuba booties with my open heeled fins so it would be easier getting in and out of the surf.

I clicked on my light and started walking towards deep water while watching for bigger waves. As soon as it was safe I quickly put on both fins and down downwards. The cool water was a welcome relief from the sweat I had built up on the hike down. I pulled open my hood to flush some cold water in, the water temperature was probably close to 57 degrees, just about right for my old 7 mm suit I was wearing. When the timing was right I dropped down again and started kicking like mad to outrun the surf which might try to toss me back into the urchin bed. At first in the shallows visibility was outstanding, crystal clear water where I could see all the urchins and small algae, and crevices in the rocks where small animals hid for the night. Feather boa kelp wrapped itself around my legs and I kept pushing through. Then came a sand bed where I had seen big halibut before, but tonight visibility here was much worse as the shifting tide and swell had stirred the water up to about two feet of visibility. I was worrying that maybe the vis on the outside might suck too but I kept pushing on. Finally I worked my way to the outer reefs and was pleasantly surprised to see that the vis here was decent, about 15 feet or more. I started working my favorite spots and forgot about everything else. I was home again. I didn’t feel the cold, I didn’t think about work, I didn’t think about family or friends. I just enjoyed myself. I’d take a breath, drop down and start winding my way in and out of the reef and kelp, then head back up and start over again. The beam of my light fluttered around the various crevices and caves, it was more barren than in the summertime, bait was more scarce and I did see a few fish but nothing exciting. A big sculpin bullied his way thru the rocks and seaweed and I saw some small calicos sleepily drift through. An abalone pulled its body back under it’s shell. Here and there I’d spot a perch, some colorful nudibranch slugs and occasionally a orange lipped scallop would smile at me.

But dammit, for fifteen minutes I didn’t see a single lobster. I was thinking about what all the commercial guys say, that lobsters head for deeper water during storms and although that is true, I’ve usually done okay even in the shallows. I took another breath and kicked myself back down. I wound my way thru some kelp, dropped under ledges and…still nothing. No shorts, nothing. I was getting discouraged but under a ledge I finally saw a flash of orange striped legs and saw one fold it’s antennae back like an angry dog. I quickly reached out and nabbed a nice legal.

“Well at least I won’t go home skunked”, I thought. I kicked out to a deeper reef and as I was working the bottom thru the kelp I saw a flash of red in my light. At first I didn’t believe it, it was one of the biggest lobsters I’ve ever seen at this spot, well except for one I saw in a cave years ago that I couldn’t even get close to. Underwater it looked absolutely gigantic, like the fourteen pounder we have at work! I kept the light off to one side to not spook him. I’ve had problems trying to grab bigger lobsters with one hand, their carapaces are just too big. Grabbing the antennae often left me with just antennae unless I got it by the base, with a swirling swell I might bump him and spook it. I dropped the light and then quickly pinned him down with both hands, I was right, his carapace was way to big to grab the normal way.

In an instant he went apeshit, the tail was flapping, the antennae swinging back and forth and I especially wanted to make sure that I didn’t get my fingers between the crushing mouthpieces. I pinned him to my chest and he grabbed on, for a instant it was one of those things where you wondered who was catching who. Now I had a dilemma, if I tried to handle him with one hand he would kick away. If I handled him with both hands I’d have to let go the light and try to guide him into the bag by feel only. I chose the later and carefully pulled my Mori bag open and shoved him inside. Errr ummm at least I attempted to. Every single thorn, every single antennae and leg grabbed ahold of the bag and all I could do was get his tail in and leave his head part out. I figured I’d lose him for sure that way but eventually he got most of the way in and I figured if he got away he earned it! I silently wished I had my boat so I could throw him inside and keep hunting. But who cared, he was MINE! I’ve caught a few lobster over the years but never really had caught any over say 4 pounds. Since I was freediving from the shore in a relatively popular spot I felt expecially lucky.

I continued to check some spots, eventually I stumbled onto another legal and with some shoving was able to get him in the bag as well. Each time I expected that bag to tear open and have all my lobsters spill away but it held onto them tightly. It was a decent night although one time the swell swept thru and pulled me backwards thru two gigantic pinnacles, I thought I’d have my brains dashed out but it was more of a learning experience I guess and after the billions of bubbles passed by me I got my orientation and kicked back to the surface where I belonged. Tonight almost all of the other lobsters were hanging under ledges so I’d have to dive down inverted and make my grabs. Eventually I got one about three pounds and then another legal. By the time my count reached five I could not fit another lobster in the bag, on top of it everytime I got into the deeper water I was having problems kicking back up, the weight of the bag of bugs plus the non aerodynamic bulging shape was making it a bitch to dive altogether. I headed towards shore a happy camper.

When I got into the shallows I was alarmed to see bigger waves breaking over the reef, some large enough to surf on and all of them churning up white water. I guess the storm decided to come in a bit early. I tried to time it right and timed it all wrong, the bag of lobsters were pulling me onto the rocks and I was trying to stand up to get the hell out of the surf zone and heard a sickening sucking sound. I immediately did “the barnacle” and grabbed onto the largest boulder and sure enough felt the weight of the wave knock me off and toss me into the urchin bed. Good times! The force of the water knocked my mask off, but I quickly got the hell out of there.

The long walk back to the truck was even worse than the way down, but you could not knock the smile off my face. I guess you never know, had I canceled out I wouldn’t have had the time of my life tonight. I always say, it’s a neat thought that people are sitting home, safe in their beds, maybe enjoying a cup of hot soup and watching life while we are out there LIVING LIFE. Who in their right minds hikes down a steep hill and dives at night for a sea roach? We do!

And the lobster? Well it wasn’t that huge, it wasn’t even over ten pounds. However, the big one weighed in at 7 lbs on the digital scale, it is my biggest lobster to date and will make a fine meal for my friends and family.

As I examined my cuts and bruises I’d have to say, yeah I’m still getting too old for this shit…

Broiled Lobster Medallions in escargo butter with a side of garlic pasta…mmmmmm 🙂

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