The Last Fish Story
By: G Wayne
© 02/14/11
Copyright © 2011 G Wayne
I inhaled the sea air, a complex scent that was redolent of where ocean meets land. It revealed a story that told of life, death, and beauty. The soft fragrance of blossoming trees and damp salt air, mixed with a subtle reek of past sea life rotting on the beach, forced me to consider mortality. At about a quarter mile offshore I surveyed the sunless sky and ominous gray clouds against an even grayer background. Alone in the dark undulant water, a tinge of fear filled me. Help would not be available; I was on my own. Back then, that was a good thing.

After rechecking my air supply, I submerged to the bottom and the underwater colors quickly faded to black and white. It was like watching an old TV with the brightness turned low. When the sun is out it is cheerier, but for me, being underwater is always a pleasure, even on low visibility days when the ocean is dank and menacing.

The chill of salt water that flooded my wetsuit was slow to warm, and the only sound was the glug glug of my exhaled air bubbling to the surface. I pushed off from the top of a submerged boulder and floated to the bottom; it was like flying.

While looking around to see what my otherworld had to offer, eel heads popped from crevices in the rocks. Each with one had a sinister grin that said, "Better leave me alone," a warning to be faithfully observed. Moray eels are truly the pit-bulls of the sea. Leave them alone and they have no problem sharing their ocean. But disturb one, and it will attack like lightning. Imagine needle-sharp inverted teeth sinking into whatever part of you is closest. Did I mention that they never let go? Cut the body from the head and it will hang on with bacteria-covered fangs nestled securely in your skin. The sea offers underwater theater, and admission is free, although some folks never get to leave.

Remain motionless for a while and the fish get curious, advancing closer. They are fun to see as they glide by. But they were more than pretty things to me, because I was a spear-fisherman. I became very efficient over the years, honing my skills until becoming, well ... quite deadly. With my Hawaiian sling spear and its three eight-inch paralyzer tines, I could spear a fish, put it in my game bag, and be ready for the next in seconds.

While on lookout for my next prey, I saw something very odd. A kelp plant that stretched from the bottom to the surface, just like so many others, was somehow different. The leaves were thicker than the other kelp, a different shape; they even sparkled. I let some air into my vest to achieve natural buoyancy and slowly moved toward the mystery plant. After long consideration, I began to actually see what I was looking at. There were fish surrounding the plant with their noses against its stalk, a whole school. It was as if they were trying to disguise themselves to look like leaves on the plant. I slowly swam within three feet of this ocean odyssey and watched. Being well within the distance for them to sense my presence, they did not move. They were asleep. It was as if they were pretending to be kelp so they were safe while they slept. Too bad they were not early risers, it was almost eleven o'clock.

I opened my game bag and carefully slid the spear back through my glove, tensioning the surgical rubber band that was connected to its back end. My first shot was right on target and I placed the fish in my game bag using its stainless steel frame to pull it from the spear's tines. To my amazement, there was no movement from the other fish. I repeated the process time after time until all but one of the fish were in my bag. It was small, only about three inches long, definitely the baby of the school. I watched it wakeup and become aware of its surroundings. It was too small to spear, so I remained motionless and waited. It quickly searched back and forth while swimming around the kelp stalk until it noticed me. It stopped, and I could feel its stare as it decided what I was. It seemed confused until noticing the game bag hanging from my side, containing the bodies of its family. The little fish froze, just looking at me, and then swam to within an inch of the glass in my mask. I could feel its bereavement as it looked directly into my eyes. It seemed to be saying, "You asshole, how could you do such a terrible thing?" There was no malice or hatred coming from the fish, just disgust at my actions and its growing sense of loss. Still watching my eyes, I could feel its emotions transform to fear. Its questioning visage asked, "What do I do now?" While gently reaching toward the fish, it swam away. The little fish did not return, neither did my sense of adventure.

Not willing to surface with a tank half full of air, I aimlessly swam along the bottom hoping to find something of interest, but to no avail. My mood continued to match that of the dark gray water. On the swim back to shore, Point Lobos passing in the distance rekindled my love for where I was, but the glowing ember soon died.

Looking ahead to the chores of diving, there was gear to stow and fish to clean. The fish needed to be in ice as soon as possible to keep them fresh. I never squandered anything I took from the sea. Scores of seagulls would gather around to have first pick of the fish guts I scattered on the beach. They all cawed loudly, trying to gain my attention. "Hey! Throw me some of those tasty stuff! No me! No me! No me!"

After everything was stowed away, I would enjoy sitting in the sand and gazing out over the ocean, into the sky. I could relax, safely out of the water with everything cleaned and put away. If only I could have cleansed that shade of guilt. It was confusing. That little fish had gotten to me, causing the line between right and wrong to blur and drift. I was a hunter gathering food. Just because most people buy meat in tidy plastic packages, does that make them less responsible for the killing than me? Surviving is our nature and eating a constant necessity. But empathy for that damn little fish unveiled a story of grief and helplessness. The experience of my journeys into the sea was always a benediction, but there was no jubilation that evening; there were no smiles for the joy provided me by my friend, the sea.

It is interesting that after reading this story, some people think I learned my lesson, while others think I lost my nerve. Which is truer, I don't know.

I still have that sling spear in the garage somewhere. Never needed it since then.