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The Helldivers' RodeoA Deadly, Extreme, Spear Fishing Adventure Amid the Offshore Oil Platforms in the Murky Waters of the Gulf of Mexico
By Humberto Fontova
M. Evans and CompanyCopyright © 2003 Humberto Fontova
All right reserved.
Down and Tangled
"The WAY-AY-ting is the HARD-est part," squawks Tom Petty from his hit record. But he doesn't know the half of it. Aboard their twenty-eight-foot Wellcraft, Mark and Jimmy had been waiting for their dive mates to surface--and it was getting hard indeed. Rig-dives don't usually take this long.
Thirty minutes ago Ronnie and Steve had plunged through the surface murk with their six-foot spear guns and aimed for the bottom 400 feet below. Not that they'd reach it--voluntarily or alive, anyway. They'd probably turn around at 230 feet or so if nothing big showed up. Why push it?
Some would say they were already pushing it. Dive manuals say the nitrogen (80 percent of what you're breathing) buzz starts at 100 feet. "Rapture of the deep" Cousteau called it fifty years ago. "Deep-sea intoxication" according to his contemporary, Hans Haas. "Death catches the diver in a butterfly net whose mesh is so soft it closes in on him unnoticed ... one loses all misgivings andinhibitions and then, suddenly, comes the end."
"Martini's Law" we call it nowadays--every fifty feet of depth equals the effects of one dry martini on the human brain. Bad enough by itself, but they also say that the oxygen (the remaining twenty percent of what's in the tank) becomes toxic to the human central nervous system at 218 feet--blackouts, hysteria, derangement, convulsions, seizures. Grim things if you're in your living room; much grimmer 200 feet under the Gulf. These authorities advise recreational divers to haul back at 130 feet.
Ronnie and Steve were on a hunt, a hunt where you close to within feet of the prey before slapping the trigger. So if something big did show up down deep during the dive--and Ronnie or Steve stuck him ... and the fish got a couple of loops of spear gun cable around them ... well, that's what I meant by voluntarily and alive.
Swells get big out here, and each one jerked the boat violently against its mooring. The boat was twenty miles off the Louisiana coast tethered by a rope and "rig hook" to an oil production platform. This steel monstrosity had a deck towering a hundred feet above them and a three-acre maze of legs and crossbeams that plunged four hundred feet to the Gulf's floor. Below that, pipes poke down for two miles and suck out the oil like huge straws. The whole thing gives "eco" types the willies. But Mother Nature--that bumbler--has yet to design a reef even half as prolific.
Ronnie and Steve were both thirty-one years old. They'd been diving together for years, as a team. They'd both go down with guns but whoever shot first would expect the other to come lend a hand during the ensuing melee. Jimmy and Mark had a similar set-up. All on the trip that morning were experienced rig divers in peak physical condition. Ronnie himself was a dive instructor.
So his dive mates suspected trouble. Something had to be wrong. Steve and Ronnie should have surfaced ten minutes ago.
* * *
This "rig-hopping" or "bounce-diving," as we call it, doesn't take long. You hunt your way down through the steel labyrinth as massive schools of spadefish, bluefish, and assorted jacks part grudgingly to make way. Covered with barnacles, sponges, coral, and anemones, this metal maze seems a world apart form the unsightly structure above. You forget they're connected. Fish surround you the entire dive. But you ignore them. You're after the huge ones--the one-to-three-hundred-pound monstrosities that lumber through the murky gloom that forms on the muddy floor of the Gulf. You're not a voyeur down here either; you're a full-fledged participant in nature's relentless cycle of fang and claw. If you find a big fish, you stalk him and spear him. Then the fun really starts--depending, of course, on the size of the fish and the accuracy of the shot.
If the six-foot shaft doesn't kill or paralyze the fish by hitting the spine or cranium, you've got to get to him somehow, then straddle and paralyze him. Rodeo cowboys make good rig divers. You stick your arms through the spear gun bands, run it up on your shoulder and start yanking him in, as you fin towards him. Then you either reach in with a gloved hand and start ripping out his gills or grab your ice-pick and go to work on his head.
We used to employ dive knives for the coup de grace. But that takes to long and involves too much effort. Any economizing on bottom time and exertion figures big when you're 200 feet under the Gulf, immersed in the murk and buffeted by a three-knot current. And, oh, there's that two-hundred-pound fish on the end of your spear gun--the brute dragging you around and battering you against the beams, and he shows no signs of fatigue.
Done right, the ice-pick plunges into the cranium on the first or second jab. You twist it around and jab again, then again and hopefully the beast stops lunging and starts quivering. Now it's time to start up--but not too fast. Remember, you're at two hundred fifty feet now.
But not too slow either. You've only got five hundred pounds of air left. And it's getting damned hard to suck it out this deep. It'll get easier on the way up. So if you can't straddle and paralyze the fish, there's no choice but to eventually let go of the gun--unless you're not thinking clearly because the fish went on a rampage through the rig and bounced you into the barnacled beams like a human pinball (back in the '50s the guys wore football helmets for this type of rollicking fun). But even without a rig-pummeling, your brain's hopelessly fogged--"narked out" as we say. There's no escaping nitrogen narcosis at this depth.
So if nothing big--big enough, I should say--showed up down there, Ronnie and Steve should have ascended. Five minutes on the way down, three minutes looking around, another five minutes coming up. Nothing to it. There's not much bottom time at these depths, five minutes tops; therefore: Steve and Ronnie should have surfaced ten minutes ago.
* * *
These "rigs," as locals call the offshore oil platforms that dot the Gulf off Louisiana's coast, claim several divers each year--not the rig itself, of course, but the waters under them. And these particular ones always claimed a disproportionate share, three divers in the summer of '99 alone.
Not all accidents occur in the depths. A few years back a diver watched his buddy stick a smallish (thirty pound) cobia at some rigs a few miles west of here. Cobia favor the top portion of the water column in the summer. The diver speared this one at around 30-foot depths-- nothing to it. "A breeze," figured his buddies as they watched him tussling with the fish. They were running low on air and saw that the fish seemed under control, so they gave the "O.K." signal, saw it returned, and made for the surface. They clambered aboard the boat where another buddy was waiting and fishing.
Twenty minutes later, their buddy hadn't surfaced. Worse, no bubbles seemed to be rising from the depths. They both suited back up, plunged in and quickly spotted him, casually sitting on a beam no more than thirty feet down, the fish still darting around him. What the ...? No bubbles rose from his regulator and he seemed to be in an awkward position, ensnared in spear gun cable.
They swam over, and while one struggled with the flesh-shot fish the other began the grim task of unraveling the steel cable from around the diver's neck, where it had crushed his trachea and strangled him as efficiently as the garrote of medieval torture chambers. And that was a small fish. Even a thirty-pound fish can pull a diver around.
It's best not to dwell on these things. "Stay calm" is the cardinal rule of diving--rig-diving especially. But when your buddies have been down thirty minutes and no bubbles seem to be ascending through the murky water ... aha--there's some! But that could be anything--some pipe on the rig breaking wind, some air pocket let loose by one of these monstrous swells.
The water's deep out here. The current's vicious, and the murk layer (silty freshwater floating over the heavier saltwater) is always around. Sometimes it's thin, often thick, and occasionally impenetrable, depending on river levels. The visibility can range from the hundred feet of Belize to the ten inches of Mississippi river on the same dive. But the fish are plentiful and huge. Most of Louisiana's spear fishing records (which are also the nation's) are wrestled to the surface and winched aboard around these rigs.
* * *
Still no bubbles seemed to be rising and Jimmy watched as a glum Mark, the only one with bottom time left, started suiting back up for another 200-foot plunge, this time without his gun. There was nothing on Mark's face to reflect the giddy thrill in his gut that accompanied his first dive an hour ago. He'd be hunting again, but for his buddies this time, afraid of what he'd find. They'd been too deep too long.
Then Steve suddenly popped to the surface, unadvertised by any bubbles, just as Mark was buckling his weight belt.
"Steve!" Jimmy yelled as he leaned on the gunwhale, then, turning to Mark, "There he is!" They were jubilant--until they noticed that Steve wasn't moving. He was bobbing in the swells face down.
Steve was unconscious. He'd been unconscious for several seconds--very crucial seconds as it turned out--the seconds when he was ascending the last hundred feet to the surface. Because of the change in pressure, the volume of gas in a scuba diver's lungs quadruples from 90 feet to the surface. Something has to give. When a diver exhales, the extra air is released through the windpipe. If he's holding his breath, what gives is lung tissue, which ruptures, or releases bubbles into the blood. The danger of an arterial gas embolism--a bubble forced out of the lung tissue by the decreasing pressure--is greatest here. The bubble travels through the arteries till it lodges in the heart, triggering a heart attack, or in the brain, triggering a fatal stroke.
Steve was still unconscious when they hauled him aboard, but he came to quickly and started coughing up blood. Not a good sign. "Ronnie's still down there," he gasped. "He's tangled with a huge grouper. I couldn't help him ... I ran out of air."
Mark plunged in and descended 200 feet, his gut in an icy knot, his brain partly numb, partly aflame with ghastly visions. He reached the murk, but found nothing. No Ronnie. No huge grouper. He ascended a bit and started circling the rig, looking for bubbles--praying, pleading, straining to detect that tell-tale little line of silver globules that meant his friend was still breathing somewhere down there. But there was nothing but a murky void below him, with fish finning lazily around. How can they be so damn calm? Mark thought to himself, when I'm sucking air like a maniac and my goggles are filling with tears! Don't they realize what's going on? It seemed strange. Everything seemed strange at that point. Finally his own air ran low and he finned up.
The next day the New Orleans Times Picayune ran the headline: SCUBA DIVER SPEARS 300-POUND FISH, DISAPPEARS.
Oddly, Steve's passing out is credited by some with saving him. This opened his glottis and allowed air to escape from his expanding lungs as he ascended, preventing a pulmonary barotrauma, or a ruptured lung--preventing a fatal one anyway. He coughed up blood for weeks.
He'd seen Ronnie spear the 300-pound fish below him and headed down to help. The shaft had missed the big grouper's spine and brain, so the fish was going crazy. It already had the cable wrapped around Ronnie a couple of times. Steve plunged into the melee, grabbing cable, spear, fish, whatever, and got himself wrapped in the process. In the madness and confusion the regulator was somehow yanked from his mouth. He was reaching frantically for it when another hard yank from the fish actually cut his regulator hose and bubbles started spewing everywhere. Now he's 200 feet underwater, wrapped in the cable, with no air. He fumbled for the hose thinking to stick it in his mouth but soon it expired. Somehow he untangled himself and started up. Somewhere on the way up--his dive mates estimate about halfway--he blacked out from lack of oxygen. That's all he remembers until he was in the boat.
He recovered completely and moved to Belize for a year ... had to get away.
* * *
The Helldivers' Rodeo lands on the first week of June. Too early, say some divers--the ones more into the aesthetics than the hunting. The Mississippi is usually still high in early June. This makes for a guaranteed murk layer. It also makes for excellent spear fishing. Fish feel safer in the murk. There are more of them around and they let you get closer. But that doesn't make you feel safer, that's for sure.
The first Helldivers' Rodeos were actually snorkeling affairs held off the seawall in Lake Pontchartrain--almost in downtown New Orleans. The lake's maximum depth is about eight feet. River murk wasn't an issue then. Much has changed.
The very first was in 1963, according to Helldiver club historian Terry "Poppa Smurf" Migaud. "We'd always go for picnics at the lakefront," he says, "a bunch of families, and we started snorkeling along the lakefront seawall out there, spearing sheepshead then bringing 'em up and barbecuing them. Can't get much fresher than that. Well, the wives started measuring to see who had the biggest--the biggest sheepshead that is! Yeah, the biggest fish. Then they started giving awards, presents (I won't say what) for the biggest one. This went on for a couple summers. Well, one thing led to another and in 1963, we formalized the thing and called it the 'Helldivers' Sheepshead Spear Fishing Rodeo.'"
"A few years later we expanded it to include the Gulf and the rigs. A few of us had already started into that. Plenty dive clubs had started up by then. So we started competing against the guys who'd been diving the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo for years. Things really got interesting then."
Call it coincidence, but the first book on scuba diving, The Silent World by Jacques Cousteau; came out, the first underwater film, Red Sea Adventure by Hans Hass, came out; and the first off shore oil platforms went up off Grand Isle Louisiana, all practically simultaneously.
"It all seemed to happen at once," says New Orleanian Johnny Bonck, now 72. "These guys like Cousteau and Hass--to us they were like Lindbergh, Lewis and Clark, Columbus, Cortez, Buffalo Bill, all rolled into one. They were pioneers, adventurers, explorers--and most importantly--hunters."
The year was 1953. "Hell man," Johnny snorts. "You'd never know it from the stuff they were saying thirty years later, but half of Cousteau's book and Hass' film were about spearing fish! To us it seemed like the only reason for going diving. Here in New Orleans and south Louisiana we were all hunters and fishermen, grew up that way. Now we had a sport that seemed to combine the best of both. And even better, we had unexplored territory to go hunting in. Nobody had been down there yet. We couldn't wait to get down there ... see what the hell it looked like ... see what the hell was down there. From fishing we had a pretty good idea though."
The first offshore oil platform actually went up in 1947, twelve miles off the Louisiana coast near Morgan City (thirty miles west of Grand Isle). Hollywood dramatized the event with the 1953 movie Thunder Bay starring Jimmy Stewart.
Jimmy played the wildcatter engineer who designed and installed the first offshore platform. An inspiring story for any red-blooded American. Here's Jimmy as the pioneering oil engineer, the innovator, the trail-blazer, the risk-taking hero, putting it all on the line--his capital, his reputation--for the future of the internal-combustion engine.
The thing went up, and say what you want about these numbskull, unlettered Cajuns; they saw the light immediately. They discovered more fish than ever. They found work on the platforms themselves, paying in two months what they'd earn in a year's fishing. They started renting their fishing boats out to ferry supplies for the oil companies--again, earning in one trip what ten fishing trips cleared. They caught on.
Fishing boats started hooking up to the new platforms almost immediately. And almost immediately their fears vanished. Sometimes it took as long as ten seconds though; the ten seconds the bait was traveling to the botto. Then wham! Hang on! Grunt, crank ... groan ... crank ... and finally a huge snapper or grouper or jack surfaced.
But about half the time the fish wouldn't come up. Indeed, the fishermen might go overboard and down himself--unless the line mercifully snapped.
"We knew some monster fish lurked down there," Johnny recalls.
Johnny's father was a founding member of the nation's first fishing rodeo, the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo, which kicked off in 1929. By 1953 most entrants were fishing around the oil platforms that had sprouted just offshore of this Louisiana barrier island. "You wanted to come into the weigh-in with the mostest and the biggest." Johnny says. "So you fished next to a platform. Simple as that."
"We'd hook some monstrosities alright." Johnny laughs. "But couldn't get the damn things on board! Remember, this was way before catch 'n release became trendy. We'd hook something that felt like a freight train. If the line held we might finally haul him up--some monster jewfish, or jack, or shark. Okay? Now what?"
Easy. This was Louisiana. They were all hunters. So ... "Blam--blam--blam! We shot the damn thing! We'd carry shotguns, rifles, and handguns out there and blast the hell outta them. Then winch 'em aboard."
But a sporting and conservationist ethic prevailed even then. "You couldn't shoot tarpon, tuna or marlin." Johnny clarifies, "only jewfish, sharks, and manta rays."
Manta rays? Come on Johnny! Manta rays are plankton eaters, like whales for heavens sake! You'd never catch one on bait. These are beautiful harmless creatures. Women and kids ride on their backs. They're the main attraction at dive sites across the temperate seas.
"Oh no," He answers. "You're right. We couldn't catch the things. They never bit on anything. You'd see them gliding along close to the surface and we'd pull alongside and cast everything we had at them. They wouldn't touch a thing. They were driving us crazy. So we had no choice. We had to harpoon them."
The movie version of Moby Dick showed the rollicking thrill of a "Nantucket Sleighride" which is what they called it after a whale was harpooned and rode off with the boat in tow. A "Cajun sleighride" wasn't quite as long or fast. But what the hell. It was a social thing down here like everything else. The wives, girlfirends, aunts, and mothers didn't want a roller-coaster ride anyway. A 15 foot manta ray with a homemade harppon in his back and a thick nylong rope as a leash provided more genteel entertainment. Mantas rarely caused the on-board barbeque pit to be spilled during the cruise. "We had a ball," says Johnny, "drinking, laughing, saving fuel. Hell I remember a big manta pulling around a thirty foot boat around for two hours once."
"Sure, by today's standards it's awful", says Johnny. "But these were the early fifties. People didn't look at it as wasteful or bad or anything. You were spearing an ugly deep-sea monster, that's all. A 'devilfish.' When he tired out you blasted him in the head--wherever that was, we finally found it--and towed him to shore and to the scales. Everyone crowded around, ooh-ing and aah-ing and taking pictures. The guy who harpooned it got a trophy and his picture in every paper in Louisiana, usually standing between two rodeo beauties in swimsuits, smiling away."
So blasting hooked or harpooned fish at boat-side was approved by the Rules Committee of the Rodeo. "Okay fine," says Johnny. "So I tell my Dad, 'hey, if you can shoot fish to bring them aboard, how 'bout letting us shoot them underwater with spear guns and enter them in the rodeo?'"
And thus the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo introduced its spear fishing division in 1953. Almost immediately they started getting divers from all over the world. Spear fishing tournaments were already being held off California, in Europe in the Mediterranean, and in Australia. So when word got out--only took one year--they started getting the top divers from all these places in Grand Isle. When outsiders first went down and saw what was under those platforms, they couldn't believe it ... and here's guys who were diving the Great Barrier Reef and the like. They'd hit the surface just gasping and jabbering away. All night long over dinner and drinks that's all they talked about. They'd never seen so many fish, and so many huge ones, in one place in their lives.
At least these guys had dived before. No one had in Louisiana prior to 1952. Our coast wasn't right for it. Too muddy. No reefs. The platforms solved the reef problem. Even better, located well offshore, the water around them was clear Gulf water.
Johnny recalls that the first rig dive was by himself and friends Roy Smith and Roland Riviere. Roland owned a local sporting goods store on Canal Street in downtown New Orleans named, imaginatively, Roland's. And he'd just received a shipment of some underwater breathing contraptions called "aqualungs." the first in the state.
"We think maybe the first in America," says Johnny. "Among the very first, anyway. We couldn't wait to try them out."
And so they did. It was in June of 1952. They went out in a twenty-foot boat and hooked up to a--by today's standards--shallow rig. The platform stood in 60 feet of water and was located six miles off Grand Isle. The water was pretty clear that day. No BC, no wetsuits, none of that stuff. They were dressed in old cotton jumpsuits, double hose regulators. They just grabbed their spear guns and jumped in. Sure, they were a little scared--sharks and all.
The water was a little murky near the surface, but fish surrounded them immediately. Sheepshead, spadefish, jacks. Further down it got clear, then even clearer as they descended. Then they saw them ... they kept blinking and refocusing, didn't seem possible ... they all huddled close to each other down there, still a little nervous, while pointing and looking at each other, their eyes and gestures asking, "Can you believe this shit?"
Call me melodramatic, but I see Johnny, Roy, Roland, and their chums in the same role as the first men who crossed the Bering Land Bridge and found virgin hunting lands teeming with unsuspecting prey on a new continent. Like our Paleolithic ancestors, these New Orleanians were all compulsive, instinctive, fanatical hunters. They were seized by the same rush that buzzed Alley Oop, when he topped the ridge over the Rockies and beheld that herd of giant bison.
"Looked like a herd of cows," Johnny says. "Didn't seem possible. Musta been twenty or thirty huge jewfish--all well over three hundred pounds--just herded up on the bottom, right above the bottom murk, in fact, half obscured by it. That's why I say they looked like a herd of cows. You saw those big dark lumps over the bottom haze--incredible. I'll never forget it--not as long as I live. Not after logging hundreds of dives over the next forty years. What a sight!"
It sounded fishy to me too, when interviewing Johnny. "Don't believe me hunh?" He asked. "Okay." Then he pulled out an old underwater film--and I mean old. Remember, Hans Hass's Red Sea Adventure dates from 1953. Johnny's was taken in 1955. "No underwater cameras back then, Hom-boy-da ["Humberto" in New Orleanian]. This was a regular home movie camera of the time and I made a waterproof casing for it." The film shows Johnny under a rig with seven jewfish around him, each well over three hundred pounds. He was waving a five-pound mangrove snapper in front of one. The snapper was impaled on a huge shark hook, which was attached to a heavy nylon rope, which was tied around the rig's beam. Johnny wiggles it in front of a monster jewfish, who looms out of the murk and edges closer to him ... closer, closer, the damn thing could have easily swallowed the 5'7" Johnny. He senses it too. So Johnny lets go of the hook and holds the rope about six feet over the bait, waving it, jerking it ... the jewfish lunges out--whoom! Inhales the mangrove, turns to lunge back and--aack! He starts battling the rig.
The Encyclopedia Britannica lists jewfish as "any of several large fishes of the sea bass family (Serranidae), especially Epinephelus itajara, found on the Atlantic coast of tropical America. This species sometimes attains a length of 2.5 metres (8 feet) and a weight of about 320 kilograms (700 pounds). The adult is dull olive-brown with faint spots and bands."
Slowly Johnny and his dive mates eased down towards them and shot one--whoom, off it went, snapping his spear gun cord like thread. Roland shot one, same thing. Roy, same thing. They were using the only spear guns available then. They were from France and came with a little nylon cord on the shaft. Fine for those Mediterranean fish, but no one at the time had a gun that could hold the size fish they had under the rigs, because no other diving site in the world had such fish.
It took them a while to get the hang of the thing. But where could they turn? Who else was doing this type of diving? No one, of course. They were on their own. So they replaced the nylon cord with steel cable, bought new shafts and went back down a few days later. Sure enough, there was another huge school of jewfish down there, or maybe the same one. Wham! Johnny hit one right behind the head and it zoomed off--taking the spear gun with it.
Hey, they were making progress. No longer losing just the shafts and the cord, they were now losing the whole gun! Finally, they asked themselves, "Why does the shaft have to stay attached to the gun?" So they attached the shaft to a heavy nylon rope and the rope to an inflatable life preserver. The plan was for one of them to shoot the jewfish, then all three would straddle the life preserver and either have a tug of war with the fish or go for a ride, then finally wrestle him up. It sounded like a cinch.
The following weekend they went back down, feeling like old pros by now. Soon another jewfish loomed from the bottom murk. Roland whacked him, the rest grabbed the life preserver, and off they went, plowing through the bottom murk, the rope between their legs. It was a blast! Now, a jewfish is a bottom fish. So he heads down, no stopping him. And all the platforms at that time had a main crossbeam, about five feet from the bottom. Unfortunately, they didn't know that at the time. The beams were hidden in the bottom murk, and they wouldn't have been able to see down there. But they sure felt it--BONG!
The jewfish zoomed under it and they got their bells rung. Don't ask me how they didn't get killed. Banged up, cut, shredded, bruised--yes--all that. But nothing serious.
So, the following week, they showed up at the dock on Grand Isle with football helmets and shoulder pads. Everybody who saw them thought they looked nuts but, to make a long story short, the padding helped, and finally they boated a couple.
Johnny will never forget the day they boated the first one because it was also the first day that he and the others had ever seen women in a new bathing suit called a "bikini." It was Roland, Dick Alba, and Johnny diving that day. They were hooked up to the rig with the monster jewfish hanging at the side of the boat--so actually they hadn't quite boated it. But they had landed him, anyway. The thing was huge--that much they knew. But they had nothing to compare it against. Nobody had ever boated one around there. They were excited, jubilant--they had finally done it! So they started celebrating, with booze, of course.
As they were getting into it, screaming, whooping (nobody high-fived back then), carrying on, taking pictures, they saw this big yacht pulling up to the rig, to fish. They had seen it at the marina on Grand Isle the night before. It hooked up to the rig, and some women got out on the bow to sunbathe--"and man!" Johnny recalls. "We like to go nuts! They were wearing these two-piece bathing suits! And it was unbelievable--their navels were showing. To us it almost seemed like they were naked. Remember this was 1952. No playboy or anything."
After they recovered, Johnny and the boys started waving, whistling, showing off. Soon they were diving off the bow of their boat, like Johnny Weismuller from the Brooklyn Bridge. They were carrying on--and, of course, still dipping into the booze. Roland got up on the bow and began waving at the girls. Then he stuck his huge dive-knife in his mouth crossways, biting it, just like Tarzan when he's diving in to fight a crocodile. He made a big show, waving around to the rest, back to the girls. Then he wound up like an Olympic diver and plunged in.
The girls cheered and clapped. Dick and Johnny couldn't let Roland get all the attention! So they grabbed their dive knives, bit them, and followed Roland, the women cheering and clapping away.
Johnny hit the water--and knew he was in trouble. "Owww! I had a double-edged knife." Johnny remembers. "When I hit that wawda--that sucker sliced into the corners of my mouth and almost to my gums." He came up, the water red all around him. Then Roland surfaced, grabbing his mouth, which was pouring blood too. Dick was the only one intact. His knife had a dull shide. And he'd bitten it right.
Their mouths and lips had swollen hideously by now. They could barely talk, mumbling and slobbering bloody drool all over the deck. Only one cure for this dreadful affliction: more whiskey. And there was plenty more on deck. Ah yes. Their mood brightened. Now they had no choice. The bikini-broads were still looking over attentively. They'd have to redeem themselves.
So Roland went out, suited up, grabbed a speargun and started waving to the broads again. He'd be the first down and the first up, with a big fish to impress them.
But his boat had drifted close to the rig now and there was a crossbeam maybe ten feet underwater. Johnny had noticed it on the way down during the first dive. "That thing was covered with sea urchins!" he recalls. "Big black spiny things--I mean covered with 'em."
Roland had just finished spitting into his mask. He was on the dge of the bow, right over that crossbeam. "Hey Rol!" Johnny shrieked but splish--too late. There goes Roland. He'd jumped in with arms spread, still waving at the girls--and landed on his butt.
Johnny rushed to the rail only to see a roiling mass of bubbles, more bubbles, and more. Then Roland surfaced. "Sure enough" Johnny laughs, "that crazy sucker had landed on that mass of urchins, butt first. And he was hurtin' for certain." Johnny and Roy hauled the howling, thrashing Roland aboard.
The bikini broads knew something was wrong so they pulled their boat alongside. Turns out, one was a nurse. She came on board, bent down and gave the diagnosis. The urchin spines had to come out, she said. If not, they'd keep burrowing and cause infection, like porcupine quills.
They carried Roland onto the girls' boat for the procedure. "Man, I'll never forget that" Johnny chuckles. That gorgeous woman--still in her bikini--was down there, poking around with her fingers, rubbing, inspecting, and yanking them out. Shoot man, I almost went and jumped on those urchins myself!
Yes, they'd boated a big jewfish--finally. But they were still losing three or four for every one they boated, and were battered mercilessly in the process. There had to be a better way.
And, the cry was heard. "We had a spear fishing clinic at Roland's store by an expert at fish slaughter." Johnny recalls. "It was 1957, I think."
"Zee trick," the man who ran the workshop said, "eez to aim for zee brain and kill zee fish instantly. Zees is how: you form an equilateral triangle from eye to eye and then to a point above and between zee eyes. Zhat's vere you aim. Zee spear sinks into his brain right there and he eez stunned, immediately immobilized."
This expert fish assassin spoke with a thick French accent because he was a skinny frog named Jacques Cousteau. His aqualungs had proven to be a big hit down here in New Orleans. It was time for a promotional visit to Roland's, his major distributor, in this most French of American cities.
"We'd taken him to lunch to A&G Cafeteria," remembers Johnny. "Can you believe that? A Frenchman! An' here we're in New Orleans, America's culinary capitol!"
Turns out, he loved it. He had meat loaf or Salisbury steak with macaroni and cheese or something like that. They laughed at that, but he'd snorked it up. He was great."
The issue was killing huge fish, however. And Costeau got right down to business. He gave a demonstration--a clinic, of sorts,--to a bunch of local divers on how to kill these monstrous jewfish. He showed where to aim to smack the brain, same lesson big-game hunters get from the white hunter on their first elephant hunt.
And it worked. They started aiming for the brain and stoning them. Flunk! and they'd keel over dead. Then the divers would just swim up to the boat with them.
"Yep, we learned to kill jewfish from Jacques Cousteau," Johnny says. "Then they started getting scarce."
Then they almost disappeared. Shit happens. Happened to the mammoths, mastodons, and giant sloths of North America when some predators holding spears moved in from Asia and shoved the sabertooths and cave bears off their apex perch.
"Move over tiger, you chump," said these scrawny, upright creatures. "Step aside bear ... now watch how real predators work."
Some scientists say that was the end for the late Pleistocene's mammals in North America. Johnny and his diving chums found the same thing under the Gulf in 1952. Big, stupid game, subject--for the first time in their history--to the human predatory instinct.
And the jewfish looked fated to share the fate of the mammoth. But who knew?--except the divers themselves, that is. This relative handful of people were the only ones who saw what was going on down there. They saw jewfish disappearing, so they stopped shooting them. Yes, amazingly, well before the State or the Feds moved to protect jewfish, the Louisiana Council of Dive Clubs had removed them from all competitive diving. Now, they're back.
Excerpted from The Helldivers' Rodeo by Humberto Fontova Copyright © 2003 by Humberto Fontova. Excerpted by permission.
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