Have you ever had a really frightening experience in the ocean—one that you learned from or that cost you a little?
Yes. It had nothing to do with sharks. It had to do with my own carelessness. It was during El Niño and I was doing a lot of yellowtailing. I seemed to be feeding half of Catalina; my life was fishing and trading the fish for vegetables.
I got very cavalier; and this one day I went out and speared a yellowtail and strung it on my boat and then I had to go back and get something. When I returned, I saw that the yellowtail was all clawed up and ripped open. I was curious, but I didn’t really add anything up. I just put the fish in the boat instead of hanging it over the side.
Then a school of yellowtail came in. I took a shot, and got two in one shot. I was working both fish at the same time and letting out a lot of line. Eventually, one got away, but I still had the other one; and I had all this line out – more than I usually let out. You shouldn’t keep line kind of hung around you because if the fish makes a run, you can be pulled down and killed.
So I was making a point to push it down current, but I was being very casual. These were small yellowtail—15-20 pounds— so I wasn’t really that concerned. Then an enormous sea lion came in, and hit the fish from the shaft and took off with it. The line half-hitched around my wrist and pulled me down. I didn’t have a breath and I went down about maybe forty feet. I couldn’t pull it out of his mouth and I couldn’t undo the knot. I don’t normally carry a knife with me; so I couldn’t cut the line.
I was on the surface, heaving breaths, almost passed-out. I was afraid he’d hit the fish again; I couldn’t unhook the knot and I had line draped all over me. I had the fish on my belly and was sort of floating on my back. Them the sea lion came up and was about three feet away, still wanting the fish. So I had to beat him off with the spear gun and try to get this big mess back in the boat.
Let’s talk a little about technology. What about scuba and its uses in hunting? Does it change the balance of things?
To me, coming from a sort of purist point of view, it’s almost like hunting elephants from a helicopter. You just wait out the fish, being able to breath; the fish will come right to you. Where’s the skill?
In blue water hunting, we’re not using high-powered guns, we’re not using scuba. We’re on a breathhold. We’ve got to get within seven or eight – maybe ten feet – of the fish. There’s a lot of strength and conditioning that goes into that. That makes it equal, and make the fish taste better when its all over.
There are certain fish that are very susceptible to straight scuba – stationary fish like cod or rock cod. Other fish, like calico bass, a scuba diver would have a very difficult time getting a big one. Free divers really hunt calico and like calico bass. They’re really the hunters who get close to them. There are as many calico bass today as there ever have been, especially because there aren’t that many free divers.
In a broader sense, what’s your feeling about scuba – apart from hunting? When it came out in the ’50s it was revolutionary, but blue water hunters never really adopted it.
When scuba came out – for me I guess it was ’53 – I went to a sporting goods store and picked one out. The guy said, “OK, this is how it works, just follow your sloe bubble up.” That was it. So I used it for maybe a year, but there was not nearly the sense of operating that I had when I was free diving. I was the observer, not the participant. It was nice that I could observe – see things close-up in deep water – but I didn’t feel a part of the system anymore. I was an outsider now. All the commotion and the weight were burdensome, isolating.
Without really thinking about it, I just said, “This has been nice, but I’ll go back to free diving.” It’s easier to be a free diver. I’m not going to get as much dome or see as much, but I can stay in the water longer. Usually I’m in for three or four hours.
That’s an interesting point. I’ve always looked at the free divers a thought they were so limited.
Free diving is no different that the sea lion or the sea otter or the harbor seal who have to get a breath every now and then. There’s an integration that doesn’t occur in scuba diving. Your focus, particularly with a snorkel, never breaks. So I’m really underwater all the time. I’m just moving up and down the ladder and seeing things from a larger panorama.
If you have a tank on and you’re working a reef, you’re kind of looking at what’s in front of you. A a free diver, I’ve got the whole perspective. I’m up high and I can see a far distance and I can dive down to a coral head; I can see actually more things going on. So, the dive is really a three-hour dive, until I get cold. I just stay in all the time, with the perspective changing. With a tank on, the perspective more or less stays the same.
We’ve really kind of overlooked free diving in the industry. There are “snorkelers,” but most snorkeling is resort tourists kicking around; and then there’s scuba diving. But there really aren’t any programs for free diving, to my knowledge.
Spearfishing is the vehicle that gets people into free diving. But they trivialize it by calling it “snorkeling,” implying that if you snorkel, you’re not really a diver. Maybe the industry has decided, “Well, there’s no money in it. The big money is in the scuba gear.”
But there are more free divers now than ever before – more people spearfishing than at any other time. It’s not because of greater population; it’s because people become bored. These divers are not photographers; they’re not wreck-divers; and they have found they can operate in a different way by spearfishing and free diving.
Throughout you books, you talk about letting your dreams guide you.
It goes back to following your bliss. It’s important to just follow the things you love to do. You meet somebody doing what they want and it seems contrary to the flow. They’re doing what’s right, coming from here [gesture to his heart]. Most people have lost that sense. They just follow along. They don’t understand life.
Having the perspective that I have has put me on the peripheries of civilization and society. I didn’t see it in the same way [as other] simply because I wasn’t reared that way; then when I did come into civilization, I went into myself. I acquired a vast internal world in which I could entertain myself. I didn’t really need society.
But it did make me an outsider. In a very young person, it’s difficult to be an outsider. You can’t really understand the value of it until you’re older. Fortunately, I’ve been able to take that and make it valuable. I enjoy my perspective now. Before it was a burden; now it’s a source of life.
You’ve created a metaphor in you writing which in many ways reminds me of Carlos Castenada. Are you a fan of his?
I was fascinated when his books first came out, though it still hasn’t been determined whether his work is fiction or non-fiction. But I don’t think it matters. He filled a need we all had, a sense that something else was going on out there.
I see that in nature. There’s a mystery, a hiddenness that we can’t put our finger on. Everybody wants to name an unnamed thing. And we will never name it.
Trying to get closer to that unnamed thing in life and in adventure and in the water – that’s what life is all about. Trying to touch the untouchable; trying to name the unnamed – knowing as we go into it that we can’t do it; nevertheless, trying to do it anyway.
All we have is our ability to act, to put ourselves out there on the edge.
I think adventurers per se have shorter liver simply because they stick it out there. No matter what happens, they’re going to get caught in something, somewhere. When I was in Fiji, I contracted Ciguatera and almost died. These insidious things that are just part of travel catch up to you. Life becomes precious; you treat every day with more respect than those who just sit home and watch TV. Your perspective of mortality changes; the threat of death doesn’t jar you a whole lot.
I may not make a lot of money in this lifetime. That’s not important. I may not do a lot of things that I see other people doing, but I’m doing the things that I need to do for me. And that keeps me content. I believe if you just do what you do – put it out there – that takes everything takes care of itself. I’ve been living that way now for 10 years. I get what I need and I’m content with that.
The ocean will provide?
Life provides. It simply goes back to following what you love to do and letting it take care of you.