Jacques-Yves Cousteau, of all people, made a mistake of major proportions in his book The Silent World, an exciting account of His and others’ successful efforts to develop the first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (scuba), the “aqualung.” The mistake was in the book’s title. The underwater world is most definitely not silent. One of the first surprises a new diver notices are the unceasing cracks, pops, hisses, and concussive bumps that envelop him underwater.
One of the oddest of these noises, an irregular bumping sound heard frequently in the rocks and ridges off the beaches from the La Jolla Caves south to Bird Rock, had been a disconcerting mystery to me for fifteen years. Then about three weeks ago, while free-diving (without the aid of compressed-air tanks) near the Children’s Pool off La Jolla, this little mystery began to unravel. Dropping fifteen feet down to a ridge fringed with eel grass, I noticed that the startling bumping sound seemed to be coming from inside the ridge, as if a bowling ball were being knocked around a cavity in the rocks. But the sound only occurred when large garibaldi were nearby. These poppy-colored fish, protected in California waters, claim proprietary rights to the crevices and grottos in the coastal shallows, and they inspect divers with wary contempt. Knowing that the ridges and boulders on the bottom could not possibly be hollow, I wondered if the garibaldi themselves were somehow making this strange sound.
A week later near the same spot, the flat swells and early evening light of La Jolla again beckoned. The summer water required no encumbering wet suit, and the gentle surge stroked the eel grass first shoreward, then seaward, alternately revealing and obscuring crevices on the bottom twenty feet down. Reaching the eel grass and then using it as a handhold, I peered beneath a ledge. There among the perforated gray sponges was a bright orange juvenile garibaldi, its improbable electric blue spots still mesmerizing, even though I’d seen such common fish for years. Beside it was a mature garibaldi, as big as a football, looking directly at me. I reached out for it and saw its thick orange lips purse in reaction, then blow. That mysterious bumping sound! It was these pesky fish trying to scare off the gangly intruder all this time.
It’s likely that ichthyologists discovered this about garibaldi long ago; it could probably be learned from a book. But diving’s allure lies in its capacity for discovery. If all you want is information, why get wet and cold. Book knowledge is one thing, but gut knowledge is something else entirely, and over time, divers fill up with personal discoveries that have practically no use on land. Diving is like dreaming: they both take place amid a vast encircling emptiness, are both governed by their own strange and immutable laws, and are intensely personal. How can I get such satisfaction out of knowing that garibaldi are noisy curmudgeons, when almost nobody else on the planet can possibly give a damn. Because I discovered it alone, anew. The ocean and I share many such secrets.
Every dive around San Diego, whether it be to the austere depths below fifty feet or just free-diving in the lush shallows, yields discovery. It can be as small as the play of light against the rubbery red skin of a sea slug or as big as a dead dolphin lying on the bottom outside La Jolla Cove, blood the color of green (due to light-filtering changes resulting from water depth) whorling from its mouth but no physical injuries apparent. I once thought that if I were ever fortunate enough to dive the warm water tropics, San Diego diving would lose all its appeal. Now, having plumbed sunken Hawaiian volcanos, Caribbean coral reefs, and island fringes in the Sea of Cortez, my appreciation of the local waters has actually deepened. Yes, the tropics hold spectacular underwater wonders, variegated walls of sponge and coral plummeting straight down into nothingness, and dazzling varieties of fish. Sometimes the water is gin clear, making it possible to look up and see clouds in the sky from a depth of ninety feet. Diving in eighty-degree Caribbean water is like glutting oneself on candy and ice cream. The beauty becomes overwhelming, and the diver is lost within it. But off San Diego, the beauty is more modest, even bashful. It has to be sought and earned. In the end, warm-water diving is rich, but diving here is more savory.
Take the time we found that dead dolphin outside the cove. A diver’s logbook that I kept for about a year notes that it was on September 14, 1974. A buddy and I submerged at 11:03 a.m. off Alligator Head west of La Jolla Cove in twenty-five feet of water on a sunny and flat day. As we swam around the point toward the small rock reefs off Boomer Beach, we spotted a large gray shape about 300 yards offshore bobbing along the bottom in the light surge. Anything large underwater galvanizes a diver; we approached slowly and saw that it was a dead dolphin. Green fluid oozed from the end of its snout, but nothing other than old scars was visible on its skin. Though I had seen many dead fish, even killed dozens myself, to behold a big dead mammal on the ocean bottom was very sobering. All the playfulness vanished from our dive as we looked into each other’s eyes for ideas about what we should do.
When you come across a dead fish underwater, which happens occasionally, you look it over and keep moving. But it was impossible to kick on past the dolphin. This was an air breather, playful, a communicator, a sexual being, and it wore the most disconcerting, fixed smile. One of us decided that we had to bring the carcass over to a nearby buoy line. We grabbed its tail fluke and pushed it, finding that the body glided like a paper airplane, and then we tied it to the buoy line with a piece of kelp. We surfaced and decided to inform the lifeguards about it when we went back in; then we continued on with a rather somber dive. The dolphin was still there when we checked it on the way in, and the lifeguards weren’t overly interested when we told them about it. Why should anyone be interested in dead sea life? It was like reporting that there had been an earthquake on the moon.
5 October ’74
Location: Off Pt. Loma, New Hope Rock
Depth: 50 feet, reefs at 30 feet
Water visibility: 15-20 feet
Purpose of dive: Game: 1 sargo, I female sheepshead, 3 red abalone, 5 rock scallops.
Remarks: Fantastic day! Bill and I came up 500 yards from the boat on the other side of a kelp carpet. I was completely out of air. We buddy-breathed under it on his last 500 lbs. A real trip.
Yes, I committed the cardinal sin of surfacing with an empty tank, so sue me. But the experience of swimming ten feet beneath the surface through a kelp forest on a sunny day is worth vilification by dogmatists. Grasping a trusted buddy, trading off breathing from the same mouthpiece, we moved through a secret, undulating world. Light shafting down through the giant kelp turns tawny, and the sharp rays spotlight stationary bass, waiting for lunch. Schools of brown and magenta señoritas followed our bubbles, and the surge offered little resistance. Moving in three dimensions through such benevolent beauty is comparable to nothing possible on land, save dreams. We were laughing crazily by the time we reached the boat.
7 November ’74
Location: La Jolla Cove, Boomer Beach
Depth: 15-35 feet
Submersion times, down: 0515
Purpose of dive: Lobster, sunrise
Remarks: First night dive of lobster season. Bagged two bugs apiece. The sunrise is incredible from underwater. A very exciting, satisfying dive.
Bill and I wanted to know what it was like to be in the water as the sun came up, so we moved along the bottom with our underwater lights turned off most of the time. This can be tremendously spooky, as it was a couple of years earlier in navy divers’ school at the Thirty-second Street Naval Station. As part of our training, the instructors made us conduct a search on the bottom of San Diego Bay at night without lights. That was a night with no moon, and we crawled along the bottom muck in total darkness. But in those wee hours off La Jolla, there was a slice of moon, and once our eyes adjusted to the darkness, the ocean bottom faintly glowed. Rocks and reefs stood out in relief, and sparks flew around us as we stirred up the bioluminescence.
Some nights a diver moves through the water trailing thick streams of fire. On other nights, you have to agitate the water furiously to activate the bioluminescence. On this night, the tiniest motion set off explosions of silver-blue pinpoints. We got separated for much of the dive, and as the sun approached the horizon and the light trails pouring off my wet suit faded, the reefs started to take a surreal form. I stopped moving and lay back in a small spit of sand between two dark ridges. The black water began to fill slowly with color, the faintest movement apparent in the glimmering distance. Fish started to move about slowly, their presence still sensed more than seen. A ways off, a kelp stalk became visible, forming gradually in the murk like a photograph immersed in developing fluid. The rippled sand around me seemed to soak up light as the sunrise progressed, and then suddenly it was daytime, even though the sun still hadn’t cleared the horizon. The noise level swelled, and the fish bustled around looking for breakfast. It was a primeval awakening. Bill found me, and we just shook our heads. It seemed that something important had been revealed to us, something that had nothing to do with the world we swam back to.
24 December 74
Location: Two miles west of Bird Rock, La Jolla
Depth: 50-60 feet
Water visibility: 20-30 feet
Purpose of dive: Game: 8 ten lb. sheepshead, 4 red abalone, 1 bug
Remarks: An untouched diving hole because it’s so far out. Largest number of fish I’ve seen in one place, and not spooked by divers. Many bugs. Dive was short because the big fish was a little difficult to land. Good thing Ron was with me because my game bag was too small.
This was the beginning of the end of my enthusiasm for killing fish. We had descended into one of those strange marine conditions in which the water is murky above a thermocline that rested like a mezzanine about ten feet off the bottom. Within that bottom layer of colder water, however, the visibility was extraordinary for San Diego, sometimes approaching forty feet. When we touched bottom, I knew almost immediately that this was a place that had probably never been glimpsed by human eyes. Rock piles were dispersed over a hard sandstone bottom, and each of these piles was a community of teeming grottos. Some of the outcroppings provided anchors for the long rope-like tendrils of bull kelp, whose huge brown leaves wafted in the current forty feet above. Large sheepshead, with their buck teeth, heavy white chins, and lumbering black and red bodies, patrolled the perimeter of our visibility. Although it was daytime, big lobsters stood in the open at the thresholds of their dens, oblivious to the dangerous intruders from another world. Abalone were everywhere. It was truly pristine.
After breaking up half a dozen red urchins with a knife, I moved away to wait for the fish to start feeding on their favorite delicacy. In the time it took to pop two large abalone from beneath a narrow ledge, the area I had chummed was alive with gluttonous fish. As usual, the big sheepshead stayed off in the distance, as if they were too proud to struggle for food with the riffraff kelp bass, buttermouth perch, and señoritas. I made a large circle and passed over some of the other rock piles, nabbing an unwary lobster from behind.
When I got back to the area I had chummed, my three-pronged pole spear was cocked and ready. The smaller fish had cleared out, and one of the biggest sheepshead I had ever seen was nibbling at the broken urchin shells. Sheepshead lose a little of their caution when they eat, and although he saw me move off the bottom to a position above him, he was in no hurry to leave. As I stretched out horizontally and nosed back down toward him, he moved off slowly, his pectoral fins waving lazily and one eye looking back at me. When I let the spear go one of the prongs pierced that eye, and the other two thudded through his head. Sometimes when you spear a fish through the head it becomes paralyzed and just quivers on the prongs. This was not one of those times.
This fish weighed close to ten pounds and may have been ten years old. It struggled furiously to swim, but I was able to force it down onto the bottom before it could wriggle itself off the spear. I held its head down with one hand and fumbled to unhook the game bag from my weight belt. It was already loaded with lobster and abalone, and my diving buddy was nowhere in sight. I had to try to get the fish into the impossibly cramped bag. This was hopeless, and the fish kept fighting. He seemed outraged and indignant at being shot, and I couldn’t blame him. At that moment, doubt and uncertainty at having destroyed this regal creature filled every one of my labored breaths.
Nitrogen narcosis, a physiological effect of breathing compressed air at depth, affects divers in odd ways. Sometimes it produces a rapturous feeling of ecstasy, which is why it is referred to as “rapture of the deep.” Other times it can create a brooding sense of doom and foreboding, as it did now. When my diving buddy came along and helped me wrestle the big fish into his bag, I was very sorry for what I had done. On the way to the surface, passing back up through the thermocline to murky water, my eyes strained hard into the distance, wanting to see my comeuppance before it ripped my throat out.
The payback came a few months later when I caught an octopus off La Jolla. I had never eaten octopus before, though I’d had the opportunity to grab them many times. I had finally decided to ignore the feeling that octopus eyes give you: that behind those expressive eyes are intelligent, even emotional beings. I had disturbed octopi before and laughed at the changes of expression in their eyes and bulbous head. They would shift color, even alter the texture of their skin, then squirt a jet of black ink before shooting off into a hole. The one I grabbed off La Jolla tried all these tricks, but he didn’t get away. Too bad for him and me both.
By this time in my diving career, I was already undergoing a change of heart about killing things, questioning just how high up the food chain I was willing to hunt. Scallops and abalone are one type of life, but fish are something else, and octopi are something else again. So when I got the octopus out of the water, I didn’t have the guts to swing it by its tentacles and smash its head into a rock, as commercial octopus divers do. I hoped he’d just die naturally from lack of water to breathe by the time I got him home. But no such luck. When I withdrew him from the game bag, he was just as feisty, and his eyes were just as acute as ever. Shit. I had to kill him.
The experience of killing — no, murdering — an octopus is definitely one to be missed. When I picked him up from a hiding place he’d managed to find under a lawn chair, he wrapped all eight of his arms around me in a death grip. I’m convinced he knew my intentions, even though I was trying to shield the knife from those eyes of his. I figured he was trying to bite me with his little beak, so I shook him off. His strength was shocking. Finally, pinning many of his arms under one of my feet, I grabbed the remaining arms with one hand and quickly cut him in half, splitting his head between the eyes. I thought that’s where his brain should be, so he’d die instantly, right?
Not right. Both halves of his body, now grotesquely disfigured, crawled around the ground with as much verve as when he was whole. What was worse, those eyes — now divided between two separate crawling creatures — kept looking at me with murderous reproach. All I could do was get down on the ground and keep cutting him as I tried to peel off his powerful suckers from my forearms. But as I cut, he continued moving, while his body became rigid in obvious fright. When all of the pieces finally quit crawling, the octopus was like a mass of hard rope at my feet. Though I cooked him in sake using a Japanese recipe, he was inedible. I felt like I had committed a horrible crime.
In 1973, six years before he was killed in a plane accident, Philippe Cousteau wrote an impassioned indictment of spearfishing that was published in Skindiver magazine. Cousteau’s major argument was based on conservation: The Mediterranean had been almost completely emptied of fish, and Cousteau claimed convincingly that one of the main causes was unbridled, mindless spearfishing. Many spearfishermen, he noted, didn’t even like to eat fish, they just shot them for sport or to prove some manly conceit. With the usual Cousteau high-mindedness, he announced, “The burden of saving the seas falls most squarely on those of us who have seen the pristine beauty.” Well, there’s a slightly different argument to be made against spearfishing: It destroys living, sentient beings.
The more I’ve observed fish and shellfish, and even mollusks like the octopus, the more I’m convinced that the line between human life and animal life is indistinct. I shot a fish one time that was obviously the mate of another fish it had been swimming with, and call it nitrogen narcosis if you want, but I swear that the second fish became distressed as it watched me bag its mate, and it continued to stare into my game bag and follow me for the rest of the dive. It seemed to be forlorn as it finally moved slowly away. Fish are not stupid automatons, but you have to convince yourself of that in order to continue killing them. Veteran divers know better.
John Donne wrote a poem called Bait, which acknowledges the sovereignty of fishes:
When thou wilt swim in that live bath,
Each fish, which every channel hath,
Will amorously to thee swim.
Gladder to catch thee, than thou him.
So I bought an underwater camera. At the time, I thought this was the end of a natural progression that divers advance through, from looking around underwater to hunting game ultimately to taking only pictures. I learned about f-stops and light meters and extension tubes and backscatter. I lugged that heavy camera equipment to the Sea of Cortez, out to the Coronados and to San Clemente Island, down to Punta Banda, into places that don’t have names on the coast of Baja, where we gorged on ten-pound lobsters plucked from the tide pools. (Then, as now, my moral qualms about killing sea life were ambivalent.) I took pictures of kelp, of every fish I could get close to, of polyps, sea fans, featherduster worms, starfish, electric rays, moray eels, diving buddies, sea lions, shipwrecks, and nudibranchs. The camera even helped me make a living for a short time.
I still don’t know if being a commercial diver was the best job I ever had or the worst. It’s the same uncertainty I have about my short stint as a cab driver. Both jobs provided glimpses into a side of life I hadn’t seen before or since.
My job as a diver entailed mostly cleaning boat bottoms in San Diego Bay and Mission Bay, as well as changing boat propellers, installing new zinc plates, and taking photographs of underwater hull damage. The bottom of San Diego Bay is not a pretty sight, and I saw it only twice. (This doesn’t count the night dive in navy diving school, but that time I didn’t actually see the bottom.) Once, when I had to retrieve a piece of equipment we dropped beside the Broadway pier while cleaning the hull of a tuna boat, and the second time at the Tenth Avenue Terminal, while cleaning another tuna boat. This second time, the bay bottom and I met on intimate terms.
Early in the day, another diver and I shot some pictures of the boat’s hull, which had sustained damage in a collision of some kind. We were working off a crowded dock, as two tuna boats were tied up beside each other, and our job was on the outside boat. For some reason, we started out in the water between the two boats, and descended in the narrow chasm separating the two steel hulls. It got dark fast on the way down. Later in the day, I descended alone, breathing from a hookah rig that pumped air to a mouthpiece, to clean off the barnacles that covered the hull’s flat bottom like little teepees. A short-handled, flat-nosed shovel seemed to work best at clearing off the barnacles.
This was only a medium sized tuna boat, but it was a big underwater job, especially for a single diver. Late in the day, as the sun dropped along with the tide, it became very dark under the flat hull bottom. But being so close to finishing the job, I decided to keep working. Soon the hull bottom was within a few feet of the bay bottom as the tide ebbed. Finally I found there was barely enough room to shimmy between the soft mud of the bay bottom and the mottled steel of the boat bottom.
Today, more than ten years later, I can still feel the immensity of the ship on top of me. Sharp pings and dull rumbles vibrated out of the steel and were amplified by the proximity of the oozy bottom. In the near blackness, about thirty feet deep, with several hundred tons of ship against my chest, it suddenly occurred to me that if this thing dipped slightly in a passing wake there would be a perfect impression of a diver’s body stamped into the bottom. Plus, some of the boring worms that I was clearing from the hull were beginning to bore through my wet suit, and they stung. Even though it was about the dirtiest place imaginable and obviously not the safest, it was still a kind of perverse fun. But shortly after surfacing I decided there must be easier ways to make a living.
There were certainly easier places to take underwater photographs. Eventually, I ended up with closetfuls of underwater pictures, and I even look at them once in a while, holding them up to the sunlight because it’s too much trouble to set up the projector. Mostly by accident, some of the pictures were pretty good, but ultimately I found underwater photography unsatisfying. Even the best professional underwater photographers can only come close to capturing the haunting beauty that a diver sees. I realized that in taking pictures, I had merely given up one kind of spearfishing for another. In a way, the camera became a barrier between the sea and me, and once I’d shot a decent picture of most of the photogenic sea creatures, diving became almost meaningless. There wasn’t much left to capture.
I interviewed David Doubilet one time, and the acclaimed underwater photographer, who has published extensively in National Geographic and other respectable magazines, noted wistfully how nice it would be to do your work with just a notebook and a pen. He was sick of schlepping hundreds of pounds of photo equipment all over the world to take pictures that I suspect were somehow unsatisfying to him. His friend and fellow underwater photographer, Chuck Nicklin of San Diego, says Doubilet sometimes gets fed up with traveling to the best diving spots in the world and shooting great pictures, “until he realizes what he’d be doing otherwise.” It beats cleaning hull bottoms, no question about it, but underwater photographs are, in the end, merely the menu. Personally, I’d rather dine than serve.
So I sold my camera gear and rediscovered diving. Things have changed underwater just in the short fifteen years since my first certification dives at the Coronado Islands, especially off Mexico, and not for the better. Mexico dumps raw sewage into the ocean, and the last time I dove at Todos Santos Island, off Ensenada, the bottom was a drab carpet of purple sea urchins. Ten years earlier, off the northeastern tip of the island, there had been a profusion of fish, shellfish, and kelp. Are they depleted now because of the Mexican diver’s penchant for taking anything, regardless of size, or because of pollution in Ensenada Bay? What will it be like in another ten years?
The Coronado Islands look about the same as always: lush in the protected areas on the leeward side, wild and barren around the exposed points. In the early 1980s, I fell in briefly with a group of free-diving spearfishermen who liked to hunt big game fish, especially yellowtail, beneath floating kelp paddies and around the Coronados in the spring. They all had big guns with three thick rubber bands, breakaway floats, hundreds of feet of line on reels, and custom tooled slip-tip spear points. They spent hours in the water, snorkeling and free-diving, waiting for schools of yellowtail to swim around places such as “Pukey Point” on the northern tip of one of the islands. It was called this because that’s what happened to a lot of people in the uncommonly rough water. They anchored the boat close to the rocks, upon which the heaving swells broke in a wash of white, and entered the water quickly, before they got sick.
Even though I had given up spearfishing years before, an old diving buddy who was part of this group had regaled me with too many stories of fighting big game underwater, so I broke down and bought a big expensive gun. I was to try it out one day at Pukey Point, just to see if I liked big-game spearfishing enough to pay one of the other divers a respectable sum of money to modify my rig with all the necessary attachments.
The day was bright, and the surface was rolling, and we could see sixty or seventy feet down. Close to shore, the bottom was sliced by alternating sand gullies and rock ridges that fell away sharply into blue wilderness. The current was light, but the surge was strong, and over the course of an hour, maybe two or three small schools of yellowtail, sleek and flashy, eased by in the deep distance. Then a group of four came into view around the point, thirty feet deep, headed right at me.
The big gun led the way down, and I leveled off in front of the fish. They spotted me and went slightly deeper, wary but unhurried. I aimed unsteadily at the closest one and fired, missing by several feet. It was the first time and the last time I ever shot that gun, which now collects dust, along with all my underwater photos.
I decided that day once and for all that I didn’t need to take anything in the way of a weapon underwater. It wasn’t so much that killing one of those magnificent fish would have subtracted something from the vast ocean, though it technically would have; it was the way they looked at me, an alien, and made room for me.
The yellowtail gave me something. Have humans reciprocated? Most of the underwater changes I’ve seen off San Diego are subtle, and hard to figure. If you’re looking for good news, you can find it: the tremendous expansion of the kelp beds prior to some early winter storms this year; the appearance in mid-July of several endangered blue whales, some of the biggest mammals that ever lived, off the Coronado Islands; the reappearance of the white sea bass, which were hunted almost out of existence here in the 1960s; the presence of large numbers of undersized abalone off La Jolla; an increase in the amount of eel grass inshore. The bad news is there too: the increasing scarcity of lobster; the increasing fogginess of the water, due to suspended particles washed from shore and the plume of treated sewage washing back in to shore; the complete disappearance of the big black sea bass; a puzzling decline in the number of starfish in both shallow and deep waters, which may or may not be attributable to the series of vicious storms that have swept the coast in the 1980s.
On a recent dive on the Point Loma sewage outfall pipe that dumps San Diego’s treated sewage only two-and-a-quarter miles offshore, it appeared from all the suspended particles that the pipe must be leaking. Chuck Nicklin, who’s been diving here for forty years, says he’d hesitate to eat fish caught off Point Loma because of the presence of the leaky outfall. The area surrounding the pipe is creepy enough, with the rhythmic thrumming of the effluent shooting through it and all the rocks piled artificially around it. I wouldn’t rush back to dive it again.
No matter what happens offshore in the next few decades, whether decline or enhancement, divers will play the crucial role of forward observers. In the end, when you’ve realized that the irresistible sense of mystery just outside the visibility range can’t be speared or photographed, you can only surrender to it. Free-diving off La Jolla’s Casa Beach two weeks ago, I chased bat rays and was pummeled by little depth charges pitched by garibaldi. The eel grass danced and swayed in the lively surge, and octopi darted furtively from crevice to grotto. A small kelp bed seemed to be thriving, giving safe harbor to a few sizable kelp bass. The following day, a spill of raw sewage into the ocean closed Casa Beach.