Big Bugs

CopyRight @ 1997

There I was. Had to dive.

Aloha Dive Shop had chartered the Golden Dabloon for a trip to San Nicholas Island. It's the place to look for big bugs. This was a longer trip than was usual, in November of 1974. Very few dive boats went the 60 mile trip to this 8 mile long, hilly island. Often, the Navy landlords of the island closed big areas to civilian use. It is a chill windswept place of rolling hills, with none of the mountains and cliffs that are common to the other islands. It has a much bigger reef area than any of the other islands. The rocky reefs run in geologic bands around the island such that the divable area commonly extends off shore from 1/2 to as much as 3 miles. Call that anything under 100 feet, though there is lots of fascinating diving deeper, if you want.

It was about a 9 hour trip in the slow Golden Dabloon. Engines throttled back about 6:30 after the all night ride, but most of the perhaps 30 divers had already had breakfast and were suited. This was Nic. This was exotic. Nobody dove here. Plus, the only reason that the Golden Dabloon could even make it here was that the ocean was glassy calm with the kelp showing a lack of current. There was a heavy mid level fog, but things looked real good.

Roddy and Anita were doing the divemaster thing. I was known as a successful hunter, so two divers had asked to go with me. Larry was older and had some experience. Chris was about 14, with fire in his veins, but not many dives behind him. I will never guess why someone would want to do that. I don't leave much behind if I can help it. Anyway, we jumped off in 85 feet off of the west end of the island. Remember, no BC's, no pressure gauges, just steel 72's with pull handles to reserve valves.

The visibility was tremendous. Shortly after descending, we saw the bottom. That said that it was an easy 50 or 60 feet of vis. There were flat rock areas, boulder areas and house sized boulders. we were immediately moving fast. I went over a beautiful field of golden laminareas growing about 2 feet high on areas of flat rock. Even with the fog and early dive time, there was plenty of light in the clear water. When I got to the rocks, the first crack I looked in had a small lobster, but it looked like the hole behind it extended to the center of the island. It moved back some and I ignored it. Hey, but when opportunity knocks... there was a large Red Abalone in the entrance of the crack. It was over 9 inches and soon was in my bag. I did not know at the time that abalone are very uncommon on that side of the island and this was the only one taken all day. I continued swimming low and fast along a rock face, with Chris and Larry looking where ever they could. There were plenty of ledges and cracks to provide cover for anything. There were lots of fish, but we wanted bug and we had little time to gawk. Then I looked in the bottom of a vertical crack where there was a big bug. It wasn't particularly wary and I was moving fast enough to swat it and get both hands on it. Wow! Never saw a bug so big.

I was floating above the bottom, just finishing closing my goody bag on the bug, when I saw Chris and Larry about 25 feet away near a large rock pile. Chris obviously was going for something. It was another big bug in a shallow hole. When grabbed at, a lobster in a shallow hole is very likely to flap its tail to rocket into the hole and then bounce out flying. Sure enough, Chris missed his grab and out came the bug right into his chest. He actually did a back flip under water. The bug bounced off and headed the opposite way with Larry and I in pursuit. Bugs on the run, tend to go about 60 to 80 feet. Big ones tend to go a shorter distance than small ones. They are going at the speed of a fast fish. A diver cannot even stay close, but if you have really good vis, like this, sometimes you can see about where they are going. Larry was swimming fast, but I had gone the low road and was swimming and pulling my way along through the Laminareas. I got to the bug a bit ahead of him and it was in the bag.

This uses air. We had been the first off the boat and we were the first back, me in the lead. Roddy was at the swim step and asked how we did. I said 'ok' and handed up the bag. The bugs were 10 and 11 1/2 pounds. It was the bag of the day. These things are much bigger than their weight makes them sound. Even on me, they hung from my mid chest to my knees.

I talked to Larry years later. He was actually not wearing gloves at the time. I had not noticed. If he had grabbed that bug, he would have gotten ripped up on the spines. He said that he thought that I had waved him off. I laughed at him.

Nic - 74

We did 4 tanks that day. People were picking up lobsters, some pretty big, but not like what I had found. I was moving along a crack when I saw some antennas on the other side of a rock. I settled to the bottom beside the rock and positioned my hand for a grab. (You're supposed to grab, not position to grab.) The bug actually moved out of his hole a bit. Hmmm... I had heard that a bug may challenge you. OK. I wiggled my fingers some and he moved out more. Enough of this silly stuff. I nailed him. Nice 2 pounder.

There was a funny to this. Later on the boat, Chris had not gotten any bugs that day. He asked if I would sell him the small one that I had gotten. He wanted to bring some game home. Ugh. Very against tradition and technically illegal. You might give away some you get over limit, but that was a rare thing. I sort of knew what my answer would be so I said to ask me again later. Well here I am at the hoary old age of 18. I could easily remember the helpfulness of parents when I was trying to dive at 15 and 16. A little game smoothes things over nicely and makes it seem more worth while. So when he asked me about it later, I gave it to him.

What I didn't know was that Anita was watching this. She and two other people did super cool favors for me in the next year including taking me on a dive trip, because she had mentioned the incident. Cool, instant Karma.

The diving at San Nic was pristine and spectacular. I was still a new enough diver to not be at all jaded. Everything I saw was colorful and fascinating. The fish were incredible. Not many divers went there and conditions there are rarely this good.

I guess I give away my state of mind about hunting. Lobsters are intertidal animals and generally will tolerate being out of water for 24 hours really well, if they are damp. It was a cool day, but they were dead before we headed home. I am physically quite strong and was really into handball. Basically, I guess I sort of killed them when I grabbed. I do grab pretty hard when excited.

At about 12:30, we headed back. It was going to be a long, but calm trip. A couple of hours out, Captain Eddy Tanaka said that he remembered why he almost never went to San Nicholas Island. He had forgotten that he barely had the range for it. We had to go the rest of the way on one engine. I went to sleep in my bunk. The day had already been a dream.

This was a time when diving with the Aloha Dive shop was basically a social event, so I knew many of the divers on the boat. Since it was a Nic trip though, there was a group of divers that I didn't know. These were the serious hard core divers of that time, that had jumped at the opportunity of a rare boat trip to the most remote of the islands. Using luck, persistence and the manic energy of youth, I got the nicest bugs of the day. Realistically though, about half the divers were older and far wiser hunters, similar to the divers on the Peace in the 80's, when I did most of my diving at Nic. Actually, some were on the Peace as well. These guys were getting limits of bugs up to 7 pounds, using more skill than luck. These were the bug hunters of the 70's.

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