Calm winds and glassy seas made for an easy crossing of the channel. This was the first boat trip for my children; nervous laughter, hands in the air as we skipped over waves. I was concerned about how they’d do snorkeling at the island, whether or not they’d get seasick. Anchoring in over 30′ dark water and jumping overboard into a melee of seals, fish, dark shapes and kelp takes guts for little ones. As a father, many thoughts about safety and responsibility are lurking in a corner of my mind, but my fears center around sharks, primarily. If there is an abundance of seals, make no mistake, there are things that eat seals. Two months ago a sizable great white, ~20 feet, was filmed feeding on a whale carcass by fisherman only a mile or so from where we would be diving. As a parent, we’re constantly weighing risks and assessing whether or not kids should be doing certain things. In the end, of course, I wouldn’t have had them get in the water with me if I felt it was too risky.
John and I left them on the boat to acclimate and relax, spearing for about 40 minutes as they watched seals and threw saltines to the seagulls. John’s first kill was a sizable sheepshead. He hit it as it was turning away, spear points entering through the back of its skull and exiting the face and mouth, perhaps the best instant kill shot I’ve yet to see. It was hit so hard we wrestled with it for a few minutes trying to get it off the spear. Within 15 minutes, he had a second good sized sheepshead on his stringer.
I spent my first shift stalking calico bass, one of the more elusive prey. They have a mysterious way of completely vanishing. John refers to them as “men in the shadows”. I’d slip down and stalk one, following it into a crevice as silently as possible, sure that I had it cornered…only to find the crevice inexplicably empty. One led me into a thick, dark kelp forest, easily sliding between the stalks. I poked my head in after it; complete blackness that I was not about to explore. I took two shots at two separate calico, missing both, before returning to get the kids into the water with me.
The kids had trouble getting in. Suited up, it took quite a few false starts, their legs dangling over the tubes of the boat, staring into the darkness below. Occasionally a seal would race by underwater, making them jump, forcing me to start the countdown all over again. Large, dark forms of kelp sat wavering in the tides, shaped descending into darkness. I could see there minds racing with doubt and fear as I tread water, trying to coax them in. Seals lay barking on the rocks 100 meter from where we are anchored, entering and exiting the water en masse. Finally taking the plunge, the shock of the cold and the first glimpses through fogged masks into the depths below sent them scurrying back for the boat. OK, we’ll relax and try again. After 15 minutes, the same thing happens, though they last a little longer. I can’t blame them. I can’t imagine what this would look and feel like to a kid. They’ve snorkeled with me many times before, but that was shore diving, gradually progressing from shallow to deep, in warmer, clearer, brighter waters. This was their first trip starting in open water with so much going on beneath them. I knew we were also really pushing the comfort limits of their wetsuits. Back on the boat, they told me to go spear while they rested a little more, trying to wrap their heads around whether they’d get in or not. It was good to see brother and sister working this out together, exchanging whispers and concerns as I head out for another spearing shift.
More calico stalking in vain. Many perch and rockfish presented themselves as easy targets, but I wanted to stick to calico. I was hunting at about twenty feet, skirting the edges of the kelp. Seals were everywhere, often scaring off the fish. At one point I was being circled by at least five, a harbor seal staring with big, dark eyes, grinning beneath me almost close enough to touch. Beautiful creatures; flipping, twisting, putting on an underwater acrobatics show as if trying to entice me to join join them, seemingly wondering what sort of creature is so slow and awkward.
Eventually giving up on stalking calico, I started to look to put some meat in the cooler with the easier fish. I shot a sizable perch in crevice about 20′ deep, a solid hit, but somehow it slipped off my spear. A ragged chunk of flesh was hanging off its side but it began quickly swimming off. Panicked about losing a wounded fish yet running out of air, in a shot of adrenaline I drew the spear, quickly chased, and managed to shoot it a second time. By the time I reached the surface, I was coughing a bit, panicked for air.
More hunting, more diving, seals now trailing close enough I was concerned they were going to try and take the twitching fish off of my stringer. I lost my knife on a previous dive into the kelp and had no way of killing it. A large seal kept trailing me, coming within a few feet. Finally shaking off the seals, I finished off the session shooting a smallish rockfish. Again, a solid hit, but it somehow got off the spear. It was dead in the water instantly, slowly spiraling to the bottom. I kept my eye on it, went up for air, then turning and diving back down to about 30 feet to get it off the floor. Finished, I went back for the kids. John now had a whopping total of four sheepshead and one just over legal calico.
Sage tried one more time, doing much better with her fear, but I could feel her shivering badly and we were only 20 meters away from the boat. Shant was with us, doing a little better. She was so cold her lips were bluish, so I had her quit. A noble effort for a little one. She got back on the boat as I took Shant for a final swim. He was shivering pretty badly too, but wanted to keep going. Approaching the rocks and kelp, he was treated to a seal show, the main experience I was hoping for. A very large pair came right under us, turning on their backs and investigating. I felt his grip tighten on me, but he was still excited. They circled and raced around us for a minute before departing. He felt victorious he got to see this, turning a struggle into a success.
John let both the kids man the helm in turns on the way home, chests puffed out in pride, a seriousness coming over them instantly. I’m grateful John is happy to have them out with us, even when his family can’t make it; it was a great experience for them. I’ll have them out in some easier snorkeling waters before we go out again, I know they’ll be more prepared next time. It’s easy to forget how things might feel to kids, how they might need a little more time, to remember to not push them too hard. Yet it’s important to get them out there, to push comfort limits, to give them real experiences in the world.
An appropriate name for a forest to contain the conversation of fathers and children.
Light shifting towards Autumn, crisp air, longer shadows- golden halos surrounding backlit rabbit brush.
The children walk; ahead, behind, lost in conversation or in their own thoughts.
Us fathers comment that it seems a victory to simply have children that would enjoy walking six miles of quiet and dusty trail in this day and age.
Make no mistake, there is nothing particularly exciting here. I’d like to believe the kids are learning how to take pleasure in simply being; breathing, walking, looking, listening- lost in thought.
Rounding a bend, a group of hunters is hauling out a deer, slung bleeding from a pole between two of them. We stop and talk. I’m glad the children see this.
Upon our exit the next day, another camp of hunters would give Adan and I cold beers, sodas for the kids. We talk about the mountains and our respective trips in a mix of English and Spanish. They tried to feed us. I’m glad the children see this too. I’m thankful there are still people in this world that would invite us into their camp for drinks. I’m thankful we’re the type of people that would accept.
The night was freezing, spent huddled around the fire in the ridiculous sort of conversation that only adolescents can bring out; no room for air, frantic gesticulating and joking for hours. Adan and I step away for some conversation of a calmer pace; laughter and screams echo from the darkness beyond. Sleeping without shelter, shivering by morning, yet still loving the experience and wanting more,we watch our kids becoming comfortable outside.
A victory for Los Padres.
(A local canyon overnight)