Monday, August 9, 2010

Wolf Eels

Wolf Eels!

I don’t know exactly what it is, but something about a Wolf Eel just makes me shudder all over.

As many of you know, I do commercial refrigeration. My crew and I installed all of the refrigeration and air-conditioning in the major Super Market in Garberville if you want to check out my work. Hint: There is only one. I also do heating and air-conditioning. That part of my work puts me under houses and in tight little dark spaces filled with spiders and creepy-crawlies. My first survey, when entering a foundation space, is to thoroughly check for (shudder) snakes!

After I am completely satisfied that there are no snakes, I go to work. I’ve only had to remove a few snakes through the years and I’ve never encountered a Rattlesnake. I once worked under the major store in Alderpoint, and noticed that there were Rattlesnake tracks under the building. Rattlesnake tracks are very distinctive. They make wide tracks that push the dust widely to the side. A regular snake follows the same track. After working in the woods for a while you learn to recognize the difference.

I already know that there are thousands of spiders under a building, but they seem to want to hide and leave me alone. Damp foundation spaces seem to harbor Black Widow spiders. They have very strong silk, so you know that they are there, even if you can’t see them. Knocking all of the spider webs down seems to subdue them and keep them at bay.

My cousin “Oregon” and I are critter opposites. He hates spiders and I hate snakes. No matter how brave I tell myself that I am, the first sight of a slither will stop my heart for three beats, then it starts pounding. The sight of a spider won’t even make me blink. Once that I see the snake, I can handle it, but that ingrained visceral fear is always there. No matter how calm I might seem outwardly, my guts are screaming: RUUUUNNNNN!

So all this rhetoric is leading up to talking about Wolf Eels. I’ve seen Wolf Eels eat Sea Urchins-- shells, spines and all. I’ve seen them eat Dungeness Crab like a tuna sandwich. I’ve heard that they can bite an oak oar in two! Spooky critters… Plus, they kinda’ look like a snake. A big, spooky, underwater, snake!

As a young man I did a lot of Abalone diving. I first started diving in the early 60’s when wet-suit type diving suits first came available to the public. Abalone was everywhere that there was rock and kelp. You could often find Abalone even on top of the rocks. Later as the Abalone started getting more scarce, they could only be found in the cracks, crevices, and deep under the edges of rocks.

I was already used to reaching way back under rocks and feeling for Abalone from rock-picking along the shoreline. When we started wearing suits and goggles we were often reaching under rocks and feeling for Abalone, only the new dimension of being deep under water was added. Often the water was murky and you had to feel for them because of poor visibility. Once you have done it for a while it becomes quite easy. They feel just like Abalone under a rock. You have to feel carefully, because they will suck themselves tightly to the rock if you scare them. They are easier to catch if they don’t know that you are there. You can slide your picking iron between them and their rock and they just fall of easily. Once they are sucked onto their rock, you often can’t pry them loose. If you try, they will sometimes come out of their shell. If they do come out of their shell, you can’t keep them. So it’s best to be sneaky.

When we first started diving, I had a dive mask with a bright shiny stainless steel exhalation valve over the nose area. Picking Abalone puts blood and scent into the water that attracts rock fish. Usually there is a swarm (School?) of fish around you when you are diving. The fish, thinking that I had a shiny fish in my mouth, started biting at my exhalation valve while trying to take it from me. It is a bit disconcerting to see a mouth full of teeth biting at your face. After taping up the shiny parts of my dive mask with black tape the fish left my mask alone.

We soon started getting braver and moved far out into the ocean and started diving very deep, thinking that the abalone would be bigger out there. We found that the Seals like to play with your mind. They swim up and look into your mask like they are asking you to come out and play with them. They never bit me but they do cute little things like steal your fins. They seem to know that they come off. The seals don’t physically hurt you, but if they steal all of your diving equipment, it makes it tough to get back on shore. I’ve had seals play with me, but I’ve never personally had any problem with them, however, I know many that have. As to the Abalone getting bigger out there?… they don’t, they get smaller. The biggest Abalone are found in the easiest dives.

Sharks are always on your mind when you are out too far, so when a shadow swims by it makes you a little flinchy. I’ve never seen a shark while diving, but murky water always makes everything look like a shark. I really don’t know, maybe some of those shadows were sharks, but I’ve always felt that if it was a shark I would know. When you see a snake, it sometime looks like a Rattlesnake. Gopher Snakes are often mistaken as Rattlesnakes, but Rattlesnakes are hardly ever mistaken as any thing else, a Rattlesnake is a Rattlesnake. Somehow a person just KNOWS that at Rattlesnake is a Rattlesnake. So, I always thought that I would know if I saw a shark.

When we went diving, we went with the attitude that no matter how rough it was, we would get our limit of Abalone. One time I think that it was a little too rough. Three of us went out off Howard Creek, the ocean was rough and the wind was blowing, but we already knew where the abalone could be found, so we went out with our dive tubes anyway. When we got out to our reef, it was all that we could do to stay there. When a wave came, we would let it break over us, then the backside had foam so deep that you had to wait for it to clear before you could breathe. The current was swift and it was hard to stay on our reef. We eventually had to let two of the dive tubes blow to shore. All three of us held onto one tube, we all put our abalone in one tube. We expected that the game warden was going to catch us, but he didn’t. It is not legal to mix your takes in the same place, but we didn’t want to leave without Abalone after all that trouble. After we got out and were on our way home, we decided “Well that was stupid”, but we consoled ourselves with the thought that we were probably the only divers on the whole coast that got abalone that day.

One day a friend of mine, who was a well known and outstanding abalone diver, asked me if I wanted to go diving with him at Bear Harbor. This was before it was a state park, and the rancher out there had given him keys to the gate. I said “heeeeck yess”. I had a Jeep then, and the road was four wheel drive only. I think that might have had something to do with the invitation, but I’ve never had much pride anyway, especially when it comes to good invitations, I never question those.

Bear Harbor has a reputation of having large abalone. We got out there and it had been storming. The water was muddy close to shore. He told me to go out there. He told me a few points to line up with. He said to just dive down, that there were big abalone all over. The water was pitch black after about two feet. I estimate that we were diving about fifteen feet, which is a pretty gentle dive.

When the water is murky, I put my forearm in front of my mask so it doesn’t get knocked off by a passing, unseen rock. I put my Abalone iron out in front of me to feel for the bottom coming up. When I felt a rock, I would creep around the edge and feel under the rock find an abalone and pick it. Then head back up.

Knowing that he was a good diver I was afraid that I would be holding him up, so I would feel around for as big an abalone as I could find quickly, and just pick it. I wasn’t trophy diving. I got my five abalone, that was the limit back then. We were diving pretty close together, and keeping an eye on each other as you do when you are diving. I’d seen him with a abalone in his hand, so I was worried about hurrying to get my limit, because I didn’t want to look too bad.

Back in the good old days, if you went out together, you came back with a limit together. We soon found that a lot of our friends liked to go diving with us. I always thought that if a guy was willing to suit up and swim out into the ocean and dive around the rocks he, or she, deserved a limit. Especially if that “she” was my wife. So, we didn’t think much of helping somebody find their limit by diving and pointing out Abalone. I’m not sure that’s legal, but anybody can have an “off day’. We never took more than our limits, a guy’s got to have some principles!

After I got my limit, I assumed that he was just waiting for me. I asked him if he was ready to go in. He said “No, I need two more”. I was a little puzzled because I dove with this guy before, he always had the biggest and first limit. I thought about diving down and showing him an Abalone, just to hurry it up, but it was too dark to do that.

I asked my friend if he was alright. He said “yeah, I’m fine but this darn water is pitch black, and the last time that I dove here there were Wolf Eels all over the place”. NOW he tells me! (shudder)

Neat video of Wolf Eel eating:

Not so neat video of Eel bitting off divers thumb: Hint: don't feed eels!



J2Bad said...

murky water always makes everything look like a shark. I really don’t know, maybe some of those shadows were sharks, but I’ve always felt that if it was a shark I would know.

When I first starting diving off of Malibu,I'd look for them, thinking that I'd be able to see them coming. Not so easy when 15 foot visibility is a good day. I thought I'd have a better chance of spotting them in clearer water, but after a couple of shark dives in the tropics, I know better. Sharks don't approach; they materialize out of nothing when they want you to see them, and then when they're done, they dematerialize. I once watched a medium-sized reef shark shred a small fish right in front of me in crystal clear water; I kept my eyes glued to him so I'd be able to see where he went, but once the fish was gone, so was he. Didn't move off slowly, just vanished. Poof.

Ernie Branscomb said...

My cousin Oregon correctly pointed out that it was a Morray Eel in the second video. The Moray is the shy gentle cousin of the Wolf Eel. It probaly wouldn't make much difference what kind of and eel it was if you stick your had in their hole. They don't like that.

Anonymous said...

I might also add Ernie that moray eel is a female. Not sure if that makes a difference in the personality though.


olmanriver said...

Now I am one of those people who will never scuba dive, so it is fun to get "swum" through the experience of ab diving.
Dontcha love friends who don't tell you important safety warnings.
You are on another roll with some great posts Ernie!

Uh, Oregon, how do you tell the gender of an Eel?

Anonymous said...

Oldmanriver, you grab a hold of the eel real tight then turn it over.
Just kidding,LOL It was on the discovery channel last night and it even told what the eels name was. That guy fed that eel for a long time. The guy was not having luck getting the wieners out of the sack that day and the bitch bit him.
And by the way, when you are diving for abalone in Northern Calif. you free dive, no scuba gear.


Ernie Branscomb said...

Except for the guys that come in to the reef at night. They use tanks and they strip the reefs of Abalone. I'm not quite sure what kind of a person would do that, or what kind of a person would buy the abalone, but I love it when they get caught.

Chris Crawford said...

True, Ernie, these critters are almost prehistoric in their looks. But it also proves the old adage that the uglier the fish, the better the taste (witness the delicious sturgeon).

Sushi chefs would kill for fresh anago or unagi.

Ernie Branscomb said...

My Nephew caught an eel fishing from the rocks in San Francisco. He made jerky out of it. He gave me some and it was addictively good.

Anonymous said...

I used to watch "Sea Hunt" in the late 50"s. made me want to "snorkel' under the Briceland bridge towards the North end. there was a "deep" hole there!!!

Anonymous said...

anon, that hole was 27' deep one year. Ernie had a depth gauge and I dove to the bottom with it. At least 3 layers of water temperature as I remember.


Ernie Branscomb said...

that was AFTER the '55 flood. I was told by some that it was much deeper before the flood.

Anonymous said...

Your right Ernie, it was after the 55 flood but it was not much after that. It seems like I heard that hole was 63' at one time.


Ernie Branscomb said...

Looking back at it, I have to chuckle a little bit about how many people tried to dive to the bottom of the hole. I even know of a few people with air tanks that dove to the bottom, but none of us thoght to tie a string to a rock and sound it.

Anonymous said...

Somebody must have thrown a rock on a string into the hole before the 55 flood. That would be the only way they would know how deep it was. But they could have been guessing too and lied to us. Darn Okies anyway!


spyrock said...

real good story about abolone diving. i spent 10 years in the ocean surfing every day so i know what a waterman is. not everyone would go looking for abalone either. i told the story about butch bringing all those abalone down our way for a great feed. but i didn't say that he got them back in unexplored point reyes years before they made it a park.

Ross Sherburn said...

HA!HA!HA! ,I've been away for a few days.Didn't know you guys "got off" about the swimmin' hole on the north side of the bridge.LOL!!!

Sometimes i remain "anon" when I think I'm being Foolish???