Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Abalone Quest

My Chinese-kiwi friend and me on the Wellington Coastline
When my mother dropped me off at the airport, she gave me her order: Bring home abalone. And every boy wants to be a hero in the hearts of their mothers.

In Auckland, I found a flight on my miles from Auckland to Wellington. It was more miles than I wanted to spend, but at last minute - such flights were horrendously dear. And Wellington was calling. I had to go.

I had no problems at the airport this time. When I landed in Wellington, my Chinese-Kiwi friend, Andre, picked me up. It's been over four years since I saw him.

We stopped by his house for only five minutes, and we were already off to the coastline with the free diving gear I brought home with me. I haven't used my dive gear since I left New Zealand over ten years ago. Imagine flying into the airport - only to be whisked away on a free dive excursion immediately.

It was summer in New Zealand and the weather was good. The sun was shining. From the capital city of Windy Wellington, we had to drive a good forty five minutes to an hour to our dive spot. We drove through the hills and the farmland to arrive at the rocky coastline. From the car park, we put on our wetsuits. I had to carry my fins and hoodie and my gloves and my boots and my mask and snorkel.

Do you see the seal?
New Zealand water is cold; it's 15C or 59 F. It's only 3 or 4 hours to Antartica from New Zealand. So you can imagine how cold that water is.

So I brought 7 mm wetsuit. My friend has a 5 mm one. You definitely need a hoodie, or your head starts to hurt in the icy water. First it's cold; then, you get a headache. Then it starts pounding in your head, and finally, you get numb.  Eventually, the chills and shivers run through your body. For me, it almost always starts at the feet.

With our gear, we had to walk about another 3 miles (5 km) to the spot. While walking, we talked about our times together, when we dove New Zealand's South Island waters to catch abalone and crayfish.

I remember Andre and I caught so much abalone together in the South Island. My brother was with us. So, I sent it home for my brother to bring home to Mom.

My mother was so happy. That was ages ago, though. And she needed to be happy again.

Back then, Andre flew in on a small airplane to the South Island. I met him at the airstrip.

We drove through the top of the South Island. We all took a fishing boat out there, and Andre reminded me of how he got sea sick. I gave up my spot on the boat; so he could lie down. But I was sea sick too in those choppy water. To be honest, I didn't even remember the whole incident, until he reminded me.

Andre's an impressive swimmer and free diver. He was a champion swimmer for New Zealand. He helped me improve my swim strokes while I lived in New Zealand. I don't know if I remember though my lessons; it's been so long.

One time, Andre dove down and found a lobster and grabbed it with his bare hands. He had no fear. The spiny lobster shell ended up tore up his hand as it flickered its body through his bare hands, but he was determined to get it.

I cooked it up for dinner for us that night. Those were good times. We were young and privileged and free and had only one concern then. That was to enjoy life.

Abalone's important to our family. My mother always alleged that it made one healthy to eat. It's also a delicacy in Asian cultures - especially the Korean and Chinese ones. Because of the overfishing of it, many species are extinct or close to it - like the white abalone in Los Angeles.

A good size abalone costs $50 USD. Some people don't seem to understand the value of them, but usually, because they haven't had it properly prepared. I've had it prepared in so many different ways from raw to steak to fritters to soup. Mom knows best; she always makes it in a soup.

I've had so much experience cooking abalone, I feel like nobody knows how to prepare abalone better than me. Over my lifetime, I've caught hundreds of abalone and had the luck of learning how to cook it in all types of ways from French to Chinese to Korean to Kiwi.

Abalone grows really slowly. But for some reason, it grows much larger in cold water. The same species of Haliotis Iris grows much larger in the South of New Zealand than in the warmer waters North. Even though abalone is being farmed these days, the farming can't keep up with the demand from Asian countries.

We finally arrived at our dive spot, where we saw a few New Zealand brown fur seals. And in distance, we saw the fins of either dolphins or killer whales out there. We assumed they were killer whales, because the seals were swimming back to shore frantically.

We put on our wetsuits. My wetsuit was tighter at the chest. I reckon my shoulders muscles are larger from the boxing than when I had the suit tailored.

My friend gave me a screwdriver to get the abalone. But immediately upon entering the water, I dropped it. I don't know what happened.

So my friend came back and found in the seaweed and gave it back to me. Andre told me, "You're useless - aye?" I felt that way This wasn't going to be easy. I was rusty; I haven't dove for abalone in over four years.

We walked into the icy water. And then I swam out. I started diving in the waters and saw the abalone hidden between rocks and seaweed. But there was a problem, I didn't have enough weight. I didn't bring a weight belt. And because of it, I kept popping up too quickly - not giving me a chance to stay down long enough to pry off the abalone.

It reminded me to a time where my Marine Biology mentor and professor, William Hamner took us to the aquarium. There was a huge Pacific Cod in the tank. It's funny what I saw and what he saw. It was the difference between what a novice and an expert sees.

I saw a big fish. He then told me, "Look, Paul - how big that fish is and its incredibly buoyant. It's a mystery how they regulate their buoyancy. For you to be as buoyant would take a careful calibration of lead weights, and even then, you couldn't achieve what that fish was doing." Some lessons, for whatever reason, stay with you for life. And I wasn't buoyant, because I didn't have my weight belt. I kept floating like a log in water.

On top of that, there was a strong swell. A swell is where the water swishes back and forth. And the great force of it, was dragging me around the water like a rag doll. I was feeling really sea sick.

I would try to grab onto the rocks, but the swell was so strong it knocked me off and bumped my knee against a rock. This was going terribly for me. And because I couldn't focus, I lost Andre's screwdriver. It was gone. Now I wasn't going to get any abalone now.

But something inside of me said that I wasn't ready to give up. And I managed to still pry three abalone off with my own barehands. You have to do it fast, or they'll suck onto the rock. Then they're glued on there, and it's impossible to pull them off with your bare hands.

Being swished around in the water like that, made me wonder if the leviathan lived in those New Zealand waters. It would suck in the water and spit it out and create a whirlpool to get caught in. The Maori people believe that guardian spirits or monsters live in those waters. They call it the Tangiwha (T-ang-i-fa). In the West we call it the leviathan.

Even the Bible speaks of the leviathan. In Job, God tells Job that the leviathan scales are stronger than any armor and that human weapons, like spears, cannot pierce it's skin. While diving in the water, I had a vision of the Leviathan calling to me.

The Leviathan dragged me into his cave. (Why all these monsters live in caves, like dragons, or Grendel, Grendel's mother, or cockatrices or  lamaias, who knows?) He had black scales and looked like a massive dragon. He raised his long neck and head out of his water, then lowered his head to make eye contact with me. His eyes were like ice blue sapphires, and inside, there was a burning fire sparking inside. He bore his teeth, and his incisors had the look of viper fangs. He was a ferocious. And many have died of fright just by making eye contact with him.

According to one legend, he asks three difficult questions. If he doesn't like the answer - he kills you. If he likes all three, he grants you your wish. Each question is supposed to be harder than the last one.

And through psychic powers, he talked to me in my mind.

He asked me, Why are you here?

And I answered him, Because, it is who I am.

 I was here when the earth was laid. What can you possibly have to tell me?

All life is just a progression toward, and then a recession from, one phrase — "I love you."

He growled, while hearing the answer. Then he asked, Where did you learn that from?

It doesn't matter, because the person who taught me stole it from someone else.

Son of Adam, what do you request?

To finish my quest. That's why I'm here.

Your request is granted.

And with that, I popped up to the surface for air and the sky was above of me. I was useless without my screwdriver or a weight belt. And I felt stupid and shameful and dumb. Here was this Kiwi champion swimmer, and the fact that I only have three abalone made me look like the proud but know-nothing American.

I started free diving in search of the screw driver. And I saw a sudden neon lime green handle. I dove for it, and behold, hidden in the seaweed, I found a diver's knife! It was rusty, but it would do. And a few feet away, I found the black case for the diver's knife. What luck!

Andre came back full of abalone in his catch bag. He asked me why I didn't have more; I said - because I need a weight belt.

Andre emptied out his catch bag, which attached to the waist. He measured my three abalone - which were all undersized; so, we tossed them back. That sucked. Then we filled up the catch bag with rocks, and I went diving again.

This time, over an hour, hovering near the sea floor, I was able to get my catch with my new dive blade. I called her Red Rust. It was like flipping a steak off.

The trick with catching abalone is first spotting large ones. Then, you come back up for air. Then you go back down, hold onto a rock nearby, because the water is pulling you in a direction. Then when you have a chance, you quickly flip it. That way, it doesn't suck onto the rock. And if you have to fight the abalone, you waste more oxygen fighting with it. And that you don't want to do.

I got sea sick in that water. I felt queasy and threw up my lunch. The particles of brown and red floated through the water. A grouper came by me and started eating my slurry lunch. I had to keep going though. I needed to catch my share - or it'd be shameful. And my mom wanted her abalone. Some years, she rewarded the relatives that made her happy and withheld them from people that upset her that year. It was a currency of influence she enjoyed to have in the family.

That day, I caught 7 abalone. 10 is the limit per day. Given all the challenges, I did well. And I could hang my head up high that the American didn't disappoint. Had I caught nothing, I knew Andre would remind me later about how I caught nothing and had to take his catch to Los Angeles. But that didn't happen today.

I persevered, even when the odds were against me, even when I lost my tool. It was a good lesson in improvisation too.

The problem was we had to walk back 3 miles carrying heavy abalone. We took turns carrying the heavy bucket. It was like carrying rocks back. No wonder why they call it black gold. At times, it felt like my arms were going to fall off from carrying the weight.

But on our way, we chatted about life - while the sun was setting. The hills were behind us. They looked like the same ones in King Kong - where the monsters come crawling down the hills - ready to attack humans.

At one point, I realized, I lost the dive knife walking. I had to walk back for it, and I found it on the ground again. Why is this whole knife thing such a problem for me?

Andre was at the carpark, talking to his friends - who were envious that we had so much abalone. They tried to tell me I couldn't bring it home to the United States, but that annoyed me, because I already knew the law allowed it.

Then, they asked Andre if they could go out with him next time. That bothered me, because I felt like they were using him. But that's how greedy people could be to get their abalone. Andre told me they were an envious kind of people that lied a lot to impress others. They must of had a bad catch, but I think Andre enjoyed his reputation of being an impressive free diver.

Andre bought me Indian food for dinner. That was kind of him. I bought myself some red wine at the market. It wasn't the best, though We brought the food home, and we ate and drank.

Andre shucked and cleaned the abalone. I took a hot shower. Then he took a hot shower. The hot water running through my hair and head felt so good from the cold freeze from icy New Zealand's water.

After, we played a game of Uno with his daughter.

Andre's an early sleeper. So we all went to bed early. I was going to have lunch with friends tomorrow, and then, we were going to go back to dive for more abalone.

Andre bought me Indian food for dinner. That was kind of him. I bought myself some red wine at the market. We brought the food home, and we ate and drank.

Andre shucked and cleaned the abalone.

I took a hot shower. Then he took a hot shower. The hot water running through my hair and head felt so good from the cold freeze from icy New Zealand's water.

After, we played a game of Uno with his daughter.

Andre's an early sleeper. So we all went to bed early. I was going to have lunch with friends tomorrow, and then, we were going to go back to dive for more abalone.

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