Swim with the Fishes

A diver discovers unearthly—and inhuman—delights beneath the sea.

By Langdon Cook December 28, 2008 Published in the July 2008 issue of Seattle Met

DAVE TAUGHT ME EVERYTHING I KNOW about trying to free myself from the earth’s grip. We met in the UW English department where I was getting my master’s degree and he was working on his doctoral dissertation, a complicated theory called “The Inhuman,” grappling with man’s need to become more than just a mortal, earth-bound animal. When he wasn’t studying the great poets and philosophers, he was trying to defy his own air-breathing heritage in a sort of reverse-evolutionary return to the primordial bath. He showed me the art of the free dive: how to pinch my nose and fill my ears with air to equalize my terrestrial head, how to kick down into the cool embrace of Puget Sound and forget what’s happening on land for a while.

Free diving is an elegant way to give gravity the finger. Forget oxygen tanks and regulators. All you need is a wet suit, flippers, and mask—and a desire to push yourself below the surface. The water, cool and glimmering in the daylight, stretches around you like a rubbery membrane before snapping and letting you go. Schools of flashing baitfish break apart and reform like balls of mercury. Beyond a certain depth the buoyancy of the wet suit and flippers surrenders to the lead weights on your diving belt and you go down as if loosed from the land for good. This is the feeling that propels the free diver: the ability to move through the world without hindrance.

When we dive for lingcod we each carry what’s known as a Hawaiian sling, a simple tool that would have delighted Paleolithic man. Five feet long and tipped with a steel trident, the sling is powered by a loop of surgical tubing—an advanced form of rubber-band projectile. The distance of your shot is the length of your outstretched arm plus the length of the shaft. To strike successfully, you need to get within a few feet of your prey—especially lings.

Long and mean-looking, with a large mouthful of caninelike teeth, the lingcod is built to seize other fish in its powerful jaws. Sometimes they behave like eels, bursting out of holes to grab their prey; other times they wait in the open like alligators, on top of rocks or in the weeds, motionless and expertly camouflaged. Only when it’s sure it blends in with its surroundings will a ling allow a potential enemy to approach. Most lings will get spooked as you near, retreating into their rocky redoubts, though occasionally you find a ling that stands its ground, certain of its invisibility. These are the fish you look for, the confident ones.

A few years ago a seemingly dead three-foot ling tried to take my hand off while I gutted it in the kitchen sink, but carnivorous teeth are the least of the dangers. Urban fish are loaded with nasty contaminants. In Chesapeake Bay, where my dive partner spent his formative years, the striped bass are filled with so many hormones from fertilizers, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals that it’s common to see males loaded with eggs. “Well, that’s progress, isn’t it?” Dave bitterly notes. “Men having babies. The dream is finally realized.”

Soon I was climbing up a tree with the tire under my arm. Then I leapt into the void.

I met up with Dave once again this spring in the Shilshole marina parking lot, where he was already naked behind the open door of his truck, hopping on one foot as he pulled on a royal-blue neoprene booty. I suited up quickly, then we slipped over a fence with a “No Diving” sign and flapped our way down the rusty, barnacle-encrusted ladder in our flippers—technically, we weren’t _diving_—and swam out past the boat docks to the jetty. Half an hour later Dave pointed frantically. A prize lingcod lurked below.

This was my fish; Dave already had one in the bag. Spear cocked, I took a breath and forced myself headfirst beneath the surface, scissor-kicking to get down. Silvery perch scattered. At 10 feet the water darkened and I eased my furious kicking. Fifteen feet. Twenty. Now I slid effortlessly across the seabed, rising above rock ledges and skimming the sand. The ling—mottled brown, toothy mouth slightly agape—lay motionless in the gloom, except for one bulging eyeball that turned toward me. A frenzy of bubbles interrupted the near perfect stillness as spear met fish. I needed air. Dave greeted me at the surface with an excited shout, but there was no time for celebration. I gasped for a breath, pulled the thrashing ling into my arms, and guided the spear points further home.

That night, feeling invincible, I grilled up the tender fillets without a second thought to their toxicity. I had ventured into an alien environment, braved the elements, and returned with snaggletoothed booty. Dave, distressed at how much the Sound has deteriorated, threatens to give up spearing, but I’m not convinced. We talk about exploring other places, mostly pristine coves in BC, though for now he’s plenty occupied with fatherhood and its attendant concerns—like should he allow his young son to eat polluted fish?

South of Shilshole on a hillside that’s slowly slipping into the Sound is a greenbelt where local kids have strung up an old tire from a stout madrona. It’s the sort of patch where homeless people weather the rain in ratty sleeping bags and teenagers drink at night. Chanting “Rope swing!” at the top of his lungs, Dave led a group of us there one night after a raucous dinner of ling and chips. Something about a fish fry brings out the Huck Finn in us all. Soon I was climbing up a tree with the tire under my arm. Then I leapt into the void.
The arc of the swing took me out over the hillside—a cliff, really—until I was 50 or 60 feet off the ground. Before me lay the flickering city: new downtown high-rises, the Space Needle, commercial piers and loading docks, upscale marina boats rocking gently in the breeze. The whole city glimmered beautifully in the night, lights warbling on the water like a visual representation of an echo. I careened back into the woods where someone gave me another push and I sailed out once more, spinning wildly, watching the lights dancing as Dave’s voice carried out across the expanse: “The inhuman!”