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Sunday, April 15, 2012

What do you say to a Barracuda at 30 ft?

Greetings fellow travelers,

It has been a long and curious couple of days with various challenges and plenty of confusion. If it wouldn't "jinx" the outcome I might say that things are getting better. Of course, that might just be me slipping farther into a delusional state to cope. Either way, I'll take it.

Next up on the weather guesser's parade will be a dry night, dipping down to 41F and then bouncing up 30 degrees plus one to reach a high of 72 Fahrenheits tomorrow, under mostly sunny skies and WSW 20 mph winds to dry things up around here again.

I had been contemplating posting this story since I released the last one and snuck in editing session between other work that had priority until I got it ready to go. I hope that y'all like it, I still get a small adrenalin rush just remembering the events of that day. Enjoy!

What do you say to a Barracuda at 30 ft?

When you grow up in South Florida, water is never very far away. We used to say that you could not walk a mile in any direction without getting your feet wet. Whether that is true or not, you get the idea, we lived in or near the water constantly. Most of the population of South Florida is located along the coastline and thus we spent much of recreational hours playing in the ocean, either surfing, body surfing or just splashing around in the shallow end while checking out the girls.

I was a fan of scuba and snorkeling because it gave me a whole new world of animal life to learn about and explore. It also added lobster to the menu when you knew how to get them. Being able to dive and return with the premier menu item made me a valued guest at most beach parties, which meant more girls in bikinis, who were happy to see me. It was me, right, not the lobster dinner that they were smiling at?

Most of the best free diving grocery shopping was to be had in the Florida Keys and with a minimum of accessories you could fill a beach party request list easily. The trouble was it was too far to go without a lot of planning. Close at hand was the reef about one quarter of a mile off of Dania beach, and you could drive out on the sand north of the Dania Pier. Of course you could get stuck like a big dog in the sugar sand too. You needed a beach buggy, or car modified to travel across the sand without sinking in. If you had a buggy, you were the party master, you could control who got invited and where the party was actually held. You wanted it to be far enough out that the cops wouldn't risk driving their cars out on the sand, but close enough that you didn't spend all of your time shuttling people from pavement to party. Funny thing about those rides, they were only one way, how you got back to your car was your problem.

There was never any shortage of people wanting to go and beer wasn't hard to get, so the parties attracted tons of kids, including all of the "beautiful people", the athletes and cheerleader types who for some reason, felt the parties were about them. It wasn't so bad to have them there, the cheerleaders loved for people to look at them and they were almost always the first to lose their tops and play volleyball. The jocks were more into getting drunk and letting the world adore them which was OK too, because it left the hot, mostly naked, bouncing babes to the rest of us.

One such party in my high school years included yours truly as fresh lobster and fish procurement guy, as well as grill master, which was OK, I was invited and had transportation issues taken care of, plus all the beer I could drink, etc., provided. They always took care of the guy who fed them. Yeah, I knew they were just using me, but I was returning the favor, I let them do all the procurement of alcohol and collection of fine ladies with no risk to me of arrest or rejection, it worked for me.

When one shops for bounty from the sea, especially when the prime selection is either swiftly passing, or shelved in overly decorative displays, you can spend a lot on accessories to assist you. You could spend the equivalent of the price of a VW Bug (at that time) for gear and outfit; scuba gear, wet suit, gas operated spear gun, etc. I said you could. I couldn't afford the air tank rental, so I used the techniques my Cuban brothers taught me.

A stop at the Army Navy store for a twenty-five cent Navy mesh laundry bag; another stop at the bait store for a three-pronged frog gig head for eighty-nine cents, (I wanted the fancy five-prong model but it was a dollar more) and then to the sundries store on Hwy 441 for a string mop for a whole dollar. Good thing that I had a nail of my own and could use a hammer at home, this was getting into my pocket, I mean, two dollars and fourteen cents gone already!

OK, you are saying, what is this idiot child going to do with his collection of bits and pieces? The string mop was almost ready for duty as is, I merely had to slide the frog gig head over the opposite end and pound the nail through, using a nail that is longer than the width of the handle and then bending it over nice and tight. Construction done, my shopping tool was ready. Now you take the laundry bag and pull it up over the mop head and secure it to the handle with the drawstrings. Why do that you ask? So I don't forget the bag of course! And I don't have to carry it separately. Make sure that you don't go crazy with fancy knots, tie simple to release knots that you can deal with in the water.

To the beach we go, the grill which is a half metal drum cut lengthwise was arriving with one of the buggy drivers, as was the hickory charcoal I had requested. Some other sucker was bringing the traditional meat items, his dad owns a meat market, so no cost to me. I had only to swim around a bit and have some fun with the creatures around the reef.

We parked my good friend Raphael's car at the end of the pavement parking lot and unloaded our "sophisticated" dive gear onto the asphalt; one car inner tube, one styrofoam cooler (hey, we didn't know it was bad then!), our swim fins, masks and snorkels, my secret weapon dinner getter, Raphael’s spear, and our Coast Guard approved personal flotation devices, although we called them life vests back then. Life vests you say, (what?), you are going diving that is absurd!

Being smartly dressed in our diving attire of raggedy cut-offs and a smile, we walked down the water's edge until adjacent to the planned party location and prepared to get wet. On with the life vest, (I'll explain), strap a dive knife onto my leg, wipe my mask with a piece of raw potato to prevent fogging, and lastly pull on my flippers. Raphael blew up that car inner tube like an air compressor, that boy had some powerful lungs! Of course... he was using a bicycle pump.

OK, styrofoam cooler safely jammed into the tube and rope tied on, we backed into the ocean. (You back in wearing flippers because it is much easier to walk that way.) Remember I said that I would explain: We were wearing the life vests to make the outbound surface swim easier, with the extra buoyancy it was basically a flipper powered float, which helps against the incoming waves. When you reach your dive location you just remove it and tie it to the inner tube, where it is available if you get too tired to tread water. It is good safety insurance.

It was an easy swim out to the reef, and then a careful transition to the seaward side where it was a bit rougher current wise, but much better for shopping. Raphael sometimes brought a small boat anchor with him inside the cooler but we lost it a couple of dives back. Alright; I lost it. You don't toss even a small boat anchor into a styrofoam cooler, even with a bunch of fish in it. So we brought a stick to jam under a rock, tied to the tube of course.

In the "supermarket" where we shopped, there are a couple of super-shopper types who can clear a checkout line faster than bad gas. We had no more tied off our vests and started down than we ran into a couple of them, a white-tip reef shark and blue shark. There are many species swimming along the beaches in south Florida and we giggled all the time about, "What IF the tourists could see the sharks...." These were small sharks, only about five feet in length and we were way too big to look like dinner to them, but always giving respect where due, we kept an eye out for them. Even little sharks can bite.

Raphael had speared a nice snapper on the way down and was on his way back up with it. We used the cooler to hold the speared fish so we didn't have blood, guts, and wiggling fish ringing the dinner bell in the water with us. As I descended I spotted a nice lobster backing into a crevice and after taking a quick peek upwards at Raphael coming down again, I focused on getting level with the spiny take out meal.

I preferred to come in towards the reef, rather than just descending along the face, and as I got about ten feet away I saw what I was guarding against. Just poking its nose out a tiny bit was a moray eel. I leveled off and kept an eye on the eel while pulling the bag off of my mop head. No, I wasn't going to bag the eel. That would be like trying to put a bobcat in a paper bag. The lobster was off to my left a couple of feet and I was happy with that distance from the eel.

One great thing about our version of lobster fishing, was the safety procedure we used. We did not stick our hands into crevices, and didn't have to get right up against the reef itself. I eased over to line up with the lobster and stuck the mop head in the crevice and twisted it a full turn and pulled the lobster out, simple as that. I kicked my flippers and started up with my catch in my hand as I untangled it from the mop head. I put it in my mesh laundry bag on the way and popped up to the surface to breathe. I didn't realize I was down so long and needed air that bad. The moray eel had captured my attention and I was being very cautious and forgot all about breathing.

The water broke next to me and a small barracuda on the end of Raphael's spear was looking me in the face. I had mentioned earlier that we had two super shoppers in the area: I introduced the sharks, well, the barracuda was the other one.

For those unaware, many of the peoples of the Caribbean islands and the Bahamas eat barracuda, but only the small ones. The islanders I know told me that anything over three feet was poison due to accumulation of toxins. I do remember doing some research and finding that to have factual basis, but I don't recall just what the toxin was. Anyway, Raphael was taking that home to his mother for her to prepare for Papa. 

His grandfather was a fisherman in Cuba and really missed his boat and former life before Fidel. Castro's men took his boat away because it was big enough to cross the ninety miles from Cuba to Key West with no problem. That and "someone" reported him as anti-Castro, so he was "interrogated" frequently. They beat him really badly and damaged his brain, but never "won" his loyalty over to Castro. Kind of like bombing for peace, you know?

Heading down again, I reversed my shopping tool and speared myself a nice red snapper as it chased a school of smaller fish. Bonus luck! They are really good grilled with some lime juice. Raphael spotted two lobsters in the open and went to the bottom like a shot, I plopped my fish into the cooler and followed him down. We now had an audience of black fin sharks hanging around the reef and I was OK with them, they were curious, not agitated.

It was a good thirty feet to the bottom here which was no problem for Raphael, that boy could hold his breath forever. I could make the dive but not stay down for long before I ran out of air. Raphael had stuck his spear into the sandy bottom so he could grab the two spiny critters, one in each hand and be ready to help bag them when I got to him. The sun was still mostly straight overhead and the water was clear so we had great visibility.

I could see Raphael's big brown eyes fairly bulging out as I brought my legs down under me and settled to the bottom. I couldn't figure out what his hurry was as he kept gesturing at me with the lobster. He was sure proud of that double catch and pointed both of them at me. I gave him the thumbs up sign and he shook his head at me.

Did you ever have that creepy crawly feeling that somebody, or something was behind you? At that moment I recognized fear in Raphael's eyes and knew I had a problem behind me. As I spun I brought my spear up to protect my face just as an automatic reflex. The "Gods of Reef Divers" must have felt kindly towards me that day, because I stuck my three pronged frog gig right into the underside of a barracuda's head. I was mask to teeth with three feet of silver death and I am not exactly sure what I said, but I would bet large dollar amounts that it shouldn't be repeated in a church.

My lungs were burning and I had to kick hard to get to the surface, but I guess I had more drive to survive than it needed. I burst through the surface like a whale and fell back nearly drowning myself all over again. Raphael popped up next to me laughing, because I still had hold of the spear with the barracuda on it thrashing around. He said, "You forgot these." He still had the lobsters in his hands. I had to take my dive knife and stab that dumb barracuda in the top of his head to make it stop snapping at me and be dead. We bagged the two nice lobsters and stuck the barracuda in the cooler head first to keep it from dripping into the water.

We were a bit nervous after that so we moved back to the shore side of the reef and dove several more times, scoring three more lobster and four more snapper. As we glanced toward the shore we saw the buggies on the beach and smoke coming from the grill so we decided to put our vests back on and take a leisurely float in with the tide and dump off the catch to make room and check how many more we were going to need.

As we were gliding along, the barracuda sticking out was tipping the cooler awkwardly with its weight, and the lobster were moving the bag towards the tilt. I asked Raphael if he was going to take that fish home too and he said no, it was too big to eat. So I said throw the blasted thing in the water, it will either wash up on the beach itself or the crabs will get it on the bottom. He had a hard time getting the fish out of the cooler without upsetting it and losing our catch so I swam over closer to help. Raphael pulled himself up onto the edge of the inner tube, gave a hard yank and the fish sailed over my head and landed in the water where I had been with a big splash.
We watched it go over and hit the water, and I swear it had no more hit the water than it separated in the middle! Raphael, (who never cusses by the way), said some very bad words, followed by a stream of Spanish as he started kicking his fins like a madman pushing his tube ahead of him like he was in a race. I had to work to catch him and stay with him until we got to the shore.

Raphael is not one to exaggerate, or even over-compensate, if he says that he saw a barracuda as long as my body, then it was there. I am glad that I didn't see it as it zipped past me and hit the dead junior member in the water. I did see the remaining front half before it sank and it looked like it had been cut with a big knife. Clean and smooth; that is definitely a barracuda bite. This was inside of the reef and in the water where our friends were playing along the shore.

I delivered the catch of the day to the party master and told him that we recommended that no one swim that afternoon and especially after sunset, when the hunters take over the shallows too. He asked me if I was going to start cooking the lobster and fish up and I told him no, we were going home. I had quite enough of fish already that day and didn't want to see another one anytime soon.

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