I dripped some crab juice on my front steps the other day and my landlord called to tell me how he felt about it. I have to say, although I love the new MFN H.Q., it kind of sucks having the landlord living upstairs. Thanks to creaky old floors and thin walls there is never a single moment in this apartment when he doesn’t know where I am. It’s his building after all, and its not likely that anything we do here is going to go unnoticed... which was exactly my feeling this summer when I ran into an even more problematic landlord. As everyone keeps asking for the story again, and it looks like the print version of the MFN may never actually come to fruition, I figure I might as well post it here... so let’s see... how to begin? Sing in me oh muse and through me tell that tale of that tuba player who decided to try his hand at abalone diving... suffice it to say: it didn’t work out. Thank you but I’ll stick to rock picking, poke poling, etc. Honestly though, I had forebodings from the beginning. Just before setting out I ran into Brian, a fellow fisheries employee and native of Tomales Bay. When I told Brian my buddy JB, was taking me to Tomales Point for my first ab diving adventure, he raised his eyebrows and said: “You know… that might be a tough area for your first dive, man.” Needless to say, I did not heed his words. My buddy JB (also a fellow fisheries guy) showed up at my door bright and early the next morning, and whisked me off to the abalone grounds near Tomales Point. JB has been ab diving/sufing for 20-plus years and was confident we could pick up a few “snails” just around the corner from Bird Rock. I had been hinting to JB for a long time that I wanted to try ab diving, and with that day’s placid conditions it seemed like a no brainer. JB is a surfer and—as I said—ab diving veteran of twenty some-odd years. I am neither of these--a point I did not make sufficiently clear to him. My relationship with the ocean is (and always has been) from the vantage point of sitting on top of it, casting into it, or poking it’s inter-tidal regions with a wire hanger lashed to a bamboo stick. As I said, in all the preparations for this expedition the exact level of my inexpertise was not adequately addressed. And so, I, Lombard Of The Intertidal, went deep into the sub-tidal with borrowed equipment and a dangerous combination of abalone lust and zero experience. Despite being of an athletic disposition, (baseball, football, rugby, kayaking, raquetball, etc) I am, sadly, not much of an underwater kind of guy—this may seem incongruous with my fishy interests, marine passions, etc… but there it is, on the table; anyway, I’d rather be an open and honest idiot than a closeted and dishonest one. Again, to be clear: all of my former snorkeling experience was in the crystalline waters of Costa Rica and the bathtub-like coves of Hawaii. And I will now state from experience: all the tropical snorkeling in the world can not prepare a person for the brutal waters of Northern California.
Early Omens Ignored
We arrived at Miller Ramp. The borrowed wet suit was too tight, the weight belt too heavy. (Incredibly, in my excitement and confidence, I did not think to try them out first). We chugged to the spot in a 12 foot zodiac. JB dove in and began plucking abs. He had his first one in five minutes. I jumped in the water, and, not having dealt with a weight belt before, sank like a stone. Getting back to the surface was more cardio vascular work than I’d done in 15 years. I immediately inhaled about a pint of water. Washed that down with another quart... great start! I looked around... sea lions everywhere. I tried descending again. Wow. Much harder than it looked when JB did it. My ears exploded. Couldn’t seem to pop them like I used to in Hawaii. Then, I got wrapped in kelp. This happens sometimes when poke poling. No biggie. You relax, you work your way out. “No problem,” I thought, “I’ve freed myself from kelp dozens of times.” But then, in an instant, I was completely out of breath. My leg started to cramp, and the kelp filaments tore the mask off my face. I had been in the water for three minutes and I found myself, well, for lack of a better term... drowning. But the indignity of dying in this trite and stupid manner, wrapped in kelp, (like every weekend-warrior-abalone-diving-fatality on record) while my friend JB leisurely gathered his limit of abs 30 feet away from me was not something I could live—or I should say die—with. So with nothing left in my lungs and my head spinning, blacking out, (actually it was more like little black spots and stars dancing across my eyeballs) I forced myself to relax, go limp, and in that manner barely rolled out of the kelp and made it to the surface. My first breath was about 38 percent water. I choked gagged coughed and spat. My leg tightened into a rock-hard baseball sized knot of sheer pain—clear indication of oxygen deprivation and anxiety. Then my flippers started falling off. I was like Charlie Chaplin out there. Only I was moments away from death. I swam back to the Zodiac, climbed aboard and stared down at the sea lions—who were all looking at me like, who’s this lunatic trying to kill himself out here? JB waved at me but I really didn’t want him to see how inept I was so I just waved back, as in: Everything’s cool, I’m just readjusting my flippers, bro, and tried to get my breath. Meanwhile JB swam over and dropped his second ab in the boat. Clunk! He dove down again. “Damn it!” Thought I, “I’ve gotta get at least one!”
If You Don’t Drown At First: Try, Try Again
So despite the obvious signs that I had no business being in the water I tightened the mask, the flippers, massaged my leg and dove back in. Lunatic. JB says I looked uncomfortable out there, (Ya think?). The thought has occurred to me that maybe he was trying to kill me... he stands to pick up quite a few shifts at work if I kick the bucket! Anyway, just kidding JB—ha ha! After about five minutes (I’m a slow learner) I realized I would never see an ab. Why? Because I am near sighted. I wear glasses. I’ve worn glasses every day of my life for the last thirty years. But somehow, in preparing for this trip I forgot that I wear glasses. So, the rocky, kelpy bottom looked kind of like a Seurat painting, you know, dots. No abs. No crevices. Just dots. I fluttered around and around on the surface for a while and then, beneath me I saw some one’s ab iron like 14 feet down. Guess what? It had an orange handle, just like mine! Hey, and a familiar gauge lying next to it! What a coincidence! Yes, these sunken abalone tools were mine. I was so confused and disoriented I didn’t even notice I had dropped them. And then there was a surge of water, and I was carried off the spot. I spent the next half hour trying to find my dropped gauge and ab iron, all the while working myself into a slight panic fighting kelp and a slight roll (to a real diver this roll would have been nothing… to a novice in those waters it was slightly less than terrifying). Luckily JB was able to dive down and get the ab iron, as I had inexplicably lost the ability to hold my breath for more than 10 seconds (despite the fact that as a tuba player I can usually hold my breath for an astonishingly long time). On and On On and on it went: one near disaster after another. Quarts of salt water swallowed. Finally, I swam off a distance from the boat and tried working the shallows near Bird Rock. I had just located a decent ab—my first unaided find of the day and was gathering myself for another short dive when I noticed that all but one of the sea lions were suddenly out of the water. I also noticed that they were almost all pups—at least the ones in my vicinity. I looked around. Everything seemed wrong to me—or maybe not wrong so much as angry. I don’t know how else to explain it. The sea, the sky, the sun, even the rocks, suddenly seemed imbued with a sort of malevolence. Everything was too quiet. My ears were ringing. I felt heavy. I thought to myself, this is the kind of fear and panic that all novice divers and surfers probably feel.
The Pencil Popper
But then I grabbed onto a rock and I took a long breath and I began to contemplate all the ridiculous decisions I had made this day: 1. Lack of experience in this kind of water 2. Borrowed, untested equipment 3. Slightly competitive nature—I wanted to match JB. 4. Ignoring of obvious danger signs: leg cramps, coughing, suspicious disappearance of seal lions. Suddenly, clear as day, it dawned on me what I really was at this moment, what I had been for the last hour: I was a giant, 189 pound Pencil Popper, doing my best imitation of a wounded sea lion—gasping, thrashing, treading water spastically. And to top it off, what was the shiny ab iron I was flailing around if it wasn’t a flasher? Sensing that I was having some kind of emotional crisis JB looked over at me from the zodiac and waved. (Hey JB, next time, if you want to kill me so badly, why not save the gas and slip something in my beer!?) At this point I put my head down and did my best Michael Phelps back to the Zodiac. Setting a new world record for the weight belt-encumbered crawl. After flopping onboard, I caught my breath, kicked off my flippers and confessed to JB this was not a sport for me—at least not here, on my first day. Really, an afternoon snorkeling around a tide pool was about the level I was at. For the immediate future, I would stick to my kayak, my poke pole, my throw net, my A-frame, and my beloved Hair-raiser on Ocean Beach. I then suggested we go catch a few rockfish—something I’m actually good at. We drove the boat about two hundred yards—maybe less—to the other side of bird rock. Flat calm. 40 to 50 feet. I dropped a hex bar down to the bottom and began jigging. JB joined in. Within five minutes I felt a nice tug. Fish on. I started reeling. I looked down: the water crystal blue. I could see the shaker ling maybe twenty feet down coming up with each crank of my reel. Then JB had a fish on. Same thing: small ling. I landed mine, shook it off, JB was still reeling his. We looked down at it. From beneath JB’s undersized ling a blob began to materialize. Hitch hiker, I thought at first—a big hitch hiker chasing JB’s ling! But the water was so clear and the image of the fish so distorted and nebulous it was hard to tell if it was a small fish relatively close to the boat or a huge fish 30 feet down. Then everything got weird. I heard myself say: “What the hell is that?” The shape gained form as it ascended. And then there was a face. An eye. A large black eye, unmistakable Jack O’lantern teeth and a black hole mouth that can only be described when seen at that proximity as the gaping portal of hell itself.
Two seconds later we were looking directly into the open mouth of a 12-14 foot great white shark. It was aiming for the undersized ling that JB had at the surface alongside the zodiac—the 12 foot INFLATABLE zodiac. But moving slowly, leisurely, with its mouth wide open. After a stunned pause, JB quickly ripped the short lingcod out of the water, as the shark—which had ascended in a more or less vertical manner, like the famous poster for the movie Jaws, turned horizontal, it’s dorsal fin breaking the surface, and coming within a foot of the boat (did it actually touch us, JB?) as it passed along our port side. We were at that moment a hundred and fifty yards due west of where, for the better part of the morning, I had been impersonating a Pencil Popper. Both JB and I work with and measure fish for a living so I think we got the length pretty close. For the record I’m going to say the shark was 14 feet long. I also think, though JB disagrees, that this shark was aware of me earlier—as I was, subconsciously, of him. I realize that virtually all under-water neophytes will inevitably experience shark panic, but I felt in my soul that a super predator was nearby when I swam back to the boat. And with the flashing ab iron, the splashing, the coughing, my spastic kicking and treading water, not to mention the insane endorphins I was releasing... it would’ve had to have been the Helen Keller of sharks not to have known I was there.
Three months later:
JB sent me a link to an article a while back that confirms several brutal shark attacks inside Bird Rock only 30 yards from shore (reconfirming my earlier suspicions that he was trying to kill me so he could get more hours). Right, they don’t like shallow water, they don’t like kelp, they never come that close to shore. Uh huh. Regardless of the depth, it’s kind of hard for me to believe the landlord doesn’t know his tenants, all of his tenants—especially those who hang out in his own house. The way I see it, I lucked out... the landlord wasn’t collecting that day.
The drawing: "Kirk's Nightmare" was penned by Mark "Finesmell" Feinthel