Part 2: The Sifnos Monster and Other Tales
How did I get this passion for spear-fishing? I don't know if you can really call it a passion just as you wouldn't call watching TV every night a passion. Drinking ouzo and eating octopus is a passion, but I can't spend all day doing that. There are certain rules regarding passions and one of them is that if you do it all the time it's not a passion but a compulsion or mental illness.
So what do I do with my days until the time that is acceptable for drinking ouzo? I go hunting for mezedes. What could be finer then a few fresh, crispy fried fish with a bit of lemon to go with my ouzo. Who cares if I spend three hours filling a plate the size of a saucer? It's not what the hunter brings back, but how much he has enjoyed the hunt. Some days I will catch a few morsels and some days I will provide an entire meal for my family.
I suppose becoming a spear-fisherman was a by-product of my maturation. What does one do when island night life has lost it's appeal? When the girls are so young and naive that chasing them is not a fair sport, even if they were interested in fat, balding middle-aged men. When the music they play in the bar sounds redundant, insipid, shallow, phony or just plain bad, and everyone around me is mouthing the words and tapping their feet, it is time to say good-bye to old habits, throw away my contraceptives, and head for the open sea. Instead of chasing women I'm chasing fish. It can be a lot more rewarding and I've never woken up with a fish I didn't like.
Fish are not known for their intelligence, having an IQ a few decimal points above most of your favorite vegetables, however it takes a certain amount of intelligence to get close enough to shoot one. Any fish worth shooting has probably survived numerous attempts on its life and does not have a man with a spear on its list of creatures with friendly motives. In other words, with most species of fish, if he sees you first you may as well forget it. He'll go under some big rock or into a cave that you can enter at your own risk. But when your air supply consists of whatever you have managed to suck into your lungs while in hot pursuit, then your underwater time is limited. It's a great equalization process. Sure, you are a big smart powerful human with a gun, but the fish still holds the advantage in his element. You can take away his advantage one of two ways. You can make him play on your turf, chasing him on dry land which is much less challenging and I doubt could even be considered as a sport, besides looking totally ridiculous. Or you can spend a couple thousand dollars for all sorts of tanks and valves and weights, staying submerged for hours at a time, thus leveling the playing field or making it easy for you to not only win but dominate. But I'm not much into equipment. I have a mask, a snorkel, a flipper for each foot, a menacing looking knife for the kind of emergencies I'm too afraid to even think about, a bag to keep my catch that I wear around my waist which enables me to travel long distances and not have to go back to shore every time I catch a fish, and a speargun.
The first thing that one realizes is that everything looks bigger underwater. A meal for two turns out to be a treat for a cat and the giant octopus you battled for hours is best eaten quickly before anyone sees it and ridicules you. The good news is that nothing is too small to eat if fried crispy enough.
Though the expression is "curiosity killed the cat", in the magic undersea kingdom it could just as easily apply to fish. Certain species, either more intelligent or less intelligent, sit still and stare in wonder as you get close enough so that missing them is impossible. These fish are usually small and unless you catch many, not worth the feelings of guilt that overcome you for killing such a trusting innocent creature. The sad fact is that most of the fish you see in these waters are cute and with the exception of the smyrna (moray eel), not very threatening. In fact except for the smyrna and an occasional maniac on jet skis I am the most dangerous thing in the sea.
At the top of the list of cute fish is the octopus, followed closely by the soupia(cuttle fish). Both creatures bear an amazing resemblance to Groucho Marks. If my heart is hardened and my animal instinct takes over I shoot first and ask questions later. But if I hesitate or miss the first shot it sets off an inner battle that leads me to question my right to take a life, the flaws in my personality, my lack of compassion and eventually my entire existence. I try to avoid these moments by making a clean quick kill. As Robert Deniro said in The Deer Hunter, You have to take a deer with "One Shot". What applies on land to deer could easily apply to octopodi or soupia. I've had unfortunate experiences with both.
I was about to leave the water after three hours of fishing one morning but as is often the case, I wanted to take one last shot. I swam a few yards beyond where I had left my clothes on the rocks and noticed a commotion in a small cove. There were a lot of little fish darting back and forth harassing this strange gray creature. Suddenly I realized I was face to face with a soupia with his back to the rocky shore. As any diver worth his salt knows, there are few things more dangerous then a cornered cuttlefish. I could see him staring at me in disbelief as I took my aim. It was only a matter of who would strike first.
The number one rule of engagement with a soupia is "Don't let him stare you down." Besides the deadly ink his only other defense is his previously mentioned resemblance to Groucho, and he's not afraid to use it to his advantage. My hands were beginning to shake as I fought the feelings of conscience that were trying to break through to my animal self. I knew it was now or never. I fired just as the soupia let out a stream of black ink that temporarily blinded me. But it was too late as my spear found it's mark. Suddenly in a burst of super effort the soupia freed himself and fired another blast of the dangerous ink. I dug in and prepared myself for a fight to the finish. I knew the creature was wounded, perhaps mortally and so had nothing to lose.
In my fear and confusion I loaded my spear backwards. The little darting fish were now taking a keen interest in this battle. Strange how just a few minutes before they were fighting with the soupia. They were now actively rooting for him. "Like nations", I thought to myself as I readied for one final shot. The battle was taking its toll on me as I waited for the ink to clear. I kept hearing De Niro..."One shot...one shot", over and over again in my brain. OK. I blew it. Did I have to pay for it with my life? Then as the ink cleared I realized I would get another chance. The soupia was hugging the ocean floor hoping to catch me off guard. I got him in my sights and fired again. A direct hit! He died without further struggle and I put him in my pouch with the other fish I had caught that morning.
When I got to shore I examined my fallen opponent. He measured a full seven inches from head to tentacle tip and though I felt a certain amount of pride in the outcome of the battle I still had to ask my self that eternal question. "How could I shoot and kill anything so cute?" I attributed it to some genetic Neolithic hunting instinct and tried to imagine my ancestor in philosophical turmoil over the cute-ness of the woolly mammoth he had just brought down.
Regardless of my deep angst he was delicious, kind of a cross between filet mignon and an inner-tube.
The octopus story was a little more tragic. I was with my brother David, a fierce and noble hunter, in Vathy, when he spotted an octopus under a rock. Over and over he went down and resurfaced for air, until he returned with a little baby octopus that he had shot by accident while going after its mother. I looked at the poor little mutilated creature and tears filled my eyes. I continued to cry when David returned with its mother. Then he told me that since he had shot them, it was my job to beat them to death on the rocks, standard procedure for tenderizing octopus. I was weeping as I smashed the octopi family to soften them up for us to eat, even though we could just as easily iodide them in a restaurant. It seemed pointless.
After that it was a long time before I shot an octopus myself, though I captured many, held and played with them before letting them go. In fact among certain octopus circles I am a sort of a Saint Paul of Octopi, having persecuted them and then seen the error of my ways. Even so, I never gave up eating them.
David also shot a huge eel right off the rocks in Kamares. It took half an hour to get the spear out of it and the animal was so powerful you could not hold the spear while he wriggled trying to extricate himself so he could leap upon us and fasten his tiny teeth around out necks. That night, after eating it, David developed a respiratory infection and almost died. We discovered that eels are very intelligent creatures with a highly evolved system of justice. After that we left them alone.
We invented a slightly unorthodox method of spearfishing. First we find an undersea area with lots of stones and archinos(sea urchins). When we turn the stones over we expose a fantastic collection of strange creatures and colorful lichens. This attracts lots of fish who come to eat the now accessible food that was under the stones. Then we smash a couple sea urchins to attract even more fish. Suddenly we find ourselves in a multicolored underwater garden surrounded by hundreds of beautiful fish. Then we open-fire.
But something more beautiful and meaningful happened to me one day towards the end of last summer. I was swimming in a very well known spot in Kamares bay when I saw the biggest, most colorful grouper I had ever seen. It was almost as large as I was and it swam into a cave where I was able to watch it swim back and forth like a tiger pacing its cage. I suddenly felt very stupid with my little spear-gun as I looked in awe at this creature that might have been twice as old as I was. Even if my puny spear-gun had enough power to take this magnificent fish I didn't feel I had the right to. What I felt was a sort of fear and respect for this creature of God and also a sadness because I knew that sooner or later someone is going to get it. I wondered if they would feel the same awe and respect when they do.
I told Michali about the fish after he promised not to hunt it but only to visit it. I don't know if he ever saw it. It was after this incident that I 'lost heart' as they say in snorkeling circles. Spearfishing seemed like a really pointless and stupid sport. Luckily with the approach of fall and winter I didn't have to suffer too much mental anguish about it. When I am sitting in my house in North Carolina watching the occasional snow fall, the last thing on my mind is that big fish. By the time the next summer came I was back beneath the waves, terrorizing my brothers of the deep.