2010-09-16 / Sam Bari

A ‘welcoming committee’ from your worst nightmare

You can’t beat a system you can’t understand
By Sam Bari

Apparently, people who live in or visit New England are required to dine on fabulous seafood that is plentiful and delicious – and for which the area is famous.

The most famous of all the ocean fare is, of course, the New England lobster. And it is indeed tasty. However, as sad as it may be, I rarely ingest this world-renowned delicacy. Not because I don’t like the taste. Just looking at one conjures memories that I wish to suppress.

The tale begins in Florida, where I succumbed to peer pressure and learned the joys of scuba diving. Being of Hawaiian heritage, one would think that I would be skilled in the ways of the ocean.

That is not the case.

I enjoy sailing and fishing with a rod and reel from above the water, where I can breathe real air. Nonetheless, when I was well into adulthood, I learned to scuba dive at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Fla.

The park is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places on earth. It is all under water and encompasses 70 square miles of ocean reefs. There is no fishing or taking of any other wildlife allowed – or even so much as taking a rock from the ocean bottom. The rules are strictly enforced.

Consequently, the marine life in the park is rather tame. Schools of brilliant blue parrotfi sh all but pose for underwater photographers. They will swim up close and look into your mask with inquisitive expressions, as if to say, “Got a sandwich?”

As a diver, I never felt threatened or frightened of any of the critters that called the park their home.

After honing my skills, I decided to take a vacation and go to Hawaii to visit family, and I brought my scuba gear with me. I thought my cousins and uncles would be impressed that I could dive and join them when they went spear fishing to bring home dinner from the depths.

My uncle, who I swear has gills but doesn’t allow anyone to see them, couldn’t understand why I needed all the tanks and “fancy gear.” He can hold his breath for oh...an hour and a half or more, and doesn’t need fins to propel him through the water.

He is a hardcore Hawaiian waterman, with all the skills one would ever need to survive in, on or from the ocean. He has little patience for anyone who displays the slightest fear or apprehension when on a quest for a fresh ocean meal.

First, let me say that the Pacifi c Ocean around the Hawaiian Islands is not anything like John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Hawaiian waters were not designed for wimps. There are huge critters out there, and they will eat you.

As soon as I left the boat and swam to the bottom, I knew that God did not intend for humans to invade this territory. He would not have invented barracudas, eels the size of giant pythons, sea snakes, or sh-sh..ks if He wanted us to be there.

They were all present. It was like a welcoming committee of everything children fear in their worst nightmares.

The plan was to look for the Hawaiian lobster, which is a perfect creature. It has a huge tail and tiny pincers. It cannot harm anything. Unfortunately, they like to hang out in little caves and underneath shelves, where getting to them is difficult.

I saw the tentacles of three of the critters under a shelf beneath a small cave on the ocean floor. I thought it would be wise to look in the cave before grabbing the lobsters. Bad mistake.

As soon as my face was even with the entrance, a moray eel the size of Godzilla darted out and hit me in the mask. I shot to the surface like a missile. Once there, I proceeded to run on water to the boat, which I refused to leave until we arrived on shore.

Unfortunately, my uncle and cousins saw the entire affair and laughed so hard they almost drowned. They grabbed the lobsters, came to the surface, and I will not tell you about the humiliation they forced me to endure.

I salute New England lobstermen who know how to catch lobsters the sensible way – in traps.

Beneath the wild ocean is another part of this system I will never understand.

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