COASTAL ADVENTURES WITH FIN & FORAGE
I tap my phone screen. 6:30am. I could sleep another half hour but it’s probably better to get the morning started. I only wake up before my alarm when I’m nervous or excited. Today is a mixture of both. Careful not to let a draft of chilly air creep into my sleeping bag, I roll over and flip on the van’s heater. As it spools up, I peer out the window taking in the expanse of fog. The coastline is totally socked in and if I hadn’t seen the Pacific churning away at the bottom of the cliff yesterday, I wouldn’t even know it was there. I guess this is par for the course in Big Sur. There’s a strange calmness about staring into fog. I know there’s nothing to see, but it doesn’t stop me from straining my eyes a moment longer. Suddenly a dark blotch manifests in the whiteness and slowly grows. The figure comes into form, a pelican floats right by the van’s window before disappearing back into the fog. It’s probably headed out for some morning fishing.
Fishing. I remember that’s what brought me out here and was the reason I couldn’t sleep. There’s this notion I’ve been intrigued by in recent years. It’s about rekindling a connection with both the natural world and the food we eat. While it borders on cliché, I figure there must be a reason that so many people, myself included, feel it’s an important but lacking element of modern life. It’s been my experience that if you didn’t grow up surrounded by those who practiced farming, hunting, trapping, foraging, fishing, or other self-reliant methods to feed a family, then the entry points into these activities can be very elusive. It also seems that the required knowledge, more deep than broad, is best transmitted from person to person rather than from books or videos. This is why I’m in my van perched on top of a foggy California bluff.
I started looking into spearfishing a few months ago after hearing about a friend’s experience. This got the gears turning and I thought to myself, now that sounds like an adventure. After a few hours of Google research and I came across Fin and Forage. Eric Keener, founder, spearfishing guide, and chef, exemplifies the growing appreciation for having a connection to our food. He speaks my language. I reached out to him and we had a great exchange over common ideas.
Two or three sips of ice cold water bring me to life, and that’s good because Eric should be here in a few minutes. I open the passenger slider and step out toward the cliff’s edge overlooking the bay we’ll be diving in. The fog has lifted enough to see the ocean below. Tangles of green seaweed swirl atop the dark water as waves bash against rocks with a thundering volume I feel rattle in my chest.
Just as I’m seriously questioning what the Hell I’ve gotten myself into, I hear the wheels of Eric’s truck pulling up behind my van. There’s no backing out now. Eric jumps out of the truck with a big smile that puts me at ease. “Morning! You ready to do this? The conditions are great.” I choke on my water at this last remark. “Yeah, great conditions… that’s what I was thinking too.” He laughs and, sensing my nervousness, assures me that we’re going to have an awesome dive.
We don’t waste any time. Eric tosses me a heavy 7mm wetsuit and I get busy wrestling the thing on. I’m pretty sure the wetsuit is winning because I’m sweating by the time I squeeze the hood over my head. Regardless, with the suit on, I now feel like some sort of oceanic Stormtrooper and much more confident about getting into the water. Eric approves the fit of the wetsuit and starts outfitting me with all the other technical items: a weight belt (for negative buoyancy allowing me to submerge faster), fins, mask, and of course, the speargun. He then starts explaining breathing methods and breath holding techniques. All at once, I’m painfully aware of how challenging this is going to be.
Finally, it’s time to descend the cliffs into the bay which could be considered its own adventure. We shuffle our way down until we’re standing on rocks just above the water’s surface. We slide on our fins, weight belt, and mask. Eric shouts over the crashing waves, “Okay! So, I’ll bring your speargun out for you, but listen, timing is key here! We’re going to wait for the water to come in and then let it carry us out! Stay calm and don’t try to fight it or you could end up on the rocks.”
I feel my throat dry up and clench making speech too hard so I just nod.
“Cool. Follow my lead!”
Eric jumps into the water confidently, swims a little way out, and then motions for me to join him. I hesitate briefly, but fearing I’ll botch the timing if I wait longer, flop into the water with the grace of a rhinoceros. Like he said, the current carries us away from the shoreline with little effort. Once we’re beyond the breaking waves it’s actually quite peaceful. Eric hands me a speargun as he shares a last minute tip. “Move slowly – stalk the fish and get settled before taking your shot. This is going to be fun!”
An hour passes quickly and though I’m exhausted I am indeed having a lot of fun. Equalizing my ears has been more challenging than expected and I’m pretty sure no fish in its right mind will let me get closer than ten feet. As I’m about to throw in the towel, I notice a sluggish rockfish below me. I take a breath and dive slowly. I feel the pressure in my ears and hold and blow my nose just as Eric has explained. This time they squeak and the pressure disappears. Success! I can hardly believe it, but I’m now hovering just behind the rockfish. Feeling my heartbeat increase, I raise the speargun. I place the sight in front of the fish’s trajectory. Everything is quiet and my entire world could fit into this precise moment. I don’t remember squeezing the trigger, but a muffled thud and the erratic jostling of the rockfish bring me back from my trance. I got him. I GOT HIM. Excitement quickly fades as the burning sensation in my chest reminds me that my body needs fresh oxygen. Immediately I swim for the surface trailing the rockfish behind me.
On the surface, Eric swims up to me laughing and smiling broadly. “That’s what I’m talking about! Nicely done!”
High fives are exchanged and I ask him if it’s going to be enough for dinner. He laughs again and holds up his gun. Four fish, all larger than mine, dangle on the stringer below. “We’re not going hungry tonight! Plus, we still have some mussels to forage. Let’s get back to shore.”
I find exiting the water to be slightly more dubious than the entry. A rogue wave catches me unaware and I slam into the rocks. Clutching for solid ground with my last reserves of adrenaline, I manage to get my footing and stay ashore as the wave recedes. Eric helps me get my gear stashed above the water line and we spend the next half hour plucking mussels from the rocks with his dive knife. Having learned my lesson earlier, I keep a wary eye on the ocean as we traverse the shoreline.
Back at the van with five fish and mesh bag, full to the brim with mussels, it’s time to reap the benefit of our toils. I busy myself slicing limes and chopping garlic. Eric tends to the camp stove. The sunset casts golden rays through the salt air and a light breeze carries aromas of fresh salsa and blackened rockfish. It’s the type of afternoon that feels the way a postcard looks.
That evening as we sat on the cliffs overlooking the bay, dining on our locally foraged dinner, I couldn’t remember a time in recent history I had felt more satisfied. I reflected on the dive: the doubt I had felt this morning, the adrenaline that had pumped through my blood as we plunged into the dark water, and finally the sense of total presence as I hovered feet behind that rockfish. Fin and Forage had shown exactly what I’d been looking for, a deeper connection to the wild world and the food on my plate. A sense of profound gratitude washed over me and as if he had read my mind, Eric slapped me on the back smiling, “That, my friend, was a meal of sweat equity. The more we put into the process, the more we get back.”