I give the climbing rope a tug, then turn and follow The Spartan down the face of the cliff to the isolated cove in Big Sur, California.
The Spartan had been a hunting guide in Montana before moving to California to become a firefighter. He loves jiu-jitsu, square-dancing, and swimming to the bottom of the sea to shoot fish in the face. The 31-year-old does not “hang out.” Rather, he goes on “missions.” The last time we were together I contracted a severe case of poison oak as we trudged through the wilderness to forage wild mushrooms. (The Spartan does not get poison oak, supposedly, because he eats it periodically). The time before that, we shot and skinned a boar together. The time before that, we drove to Mendocino to dive for abalone. When I am with The Spartan, there is a 100 percent chance I will be physically exhausted by the end of a memorable day.
“I bet there’ll be some fish past those kelp beds,” he tells me as we unpack our dive gear on the beach and look 200 meters out to sea.
Spearfishing is an uncomfortable sport from the get-go. The 7-millimeter-thick dive suits require lubricant to get into. I douse the inside of my suit with some “seaweed sludge” (a mixture of water and pulverized kelp) and slither into the neoprene. Equipped with a knife, weight-belt, stringer, mask, snorkel, fins, and gun, I wade into the water and kick out through the choppy waves.
Mariners warn that when the swell amplitude and interval are equal, it’s a recipe for seasickness. Today is six feet at six seconds of northwest wind swell. As soon as I reach the kelp and stare into the abyss, I feel queasy.
The Spartan is already braining a rockfish with his knife by the time I take my first drop. Although the visibility is poor when I dive down about 25-feet, I spot at least a dozen rockfish and wait for one to get in range. With the bands on my gun cocked, I lurk behind a pinnacle and stay as still as possible. No fish come within range, and I have to swim up for air. I take five or six drops before a small rockfish swims right up to the tip of my gun. I fire. The fish thrashes for a moment then opens its mouth and goes limp. I feed the fish back through the tip of my spear and tie it to the stringer around my waste. The process of fiddling with the fish in the choppy conditions, however, has left me feeling even more queasy. I surface, then remove my mask and snorkel and take a few deep breaths to ease the nausea. In one poetic moment 200 meters off the coast of Big Sur, with a bloody skirt of fish around my waist, I vomit into the sky.
I signal to The Spartan that I’m heading in. As soon as I reach the beach, I drink the beer I stuffed into my dive bag to wash down the sour puke taste in my mouth.
That night, in a redwood grove up the hill, we meet friends and cook the best fish tacos of my life. We tell jokes that will never leave the campsite. As I close my eyes in my tent, exhausted, I conclude that I do not like spearfishing, I do, however, like having spearfished.
Editor’s Note: Kyle Thiermann has a glorious podcast where he speaks with other humans on a wide range of topics. Listen to it here.