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The Wandering Spear-fisher: A Crimean Tale

Date: Sat, 2 Jul 2011
From: Sergei Roy <SergeiRoy@yandex.ru> [former editor, Moscow News]
Subject: Re: memoir on spearfishing in Crimea

Russian winters, as I suspect winters elsewhere, are much like love affairs. They start with crisp, stunning sunny mornings, with the earth luxuriating in its sparkling new, snowy furs and promising fabulous delights the thought of which makes your head swim. They end in sated boredom and disgust with sooty piles of snow that once were fluffy, diamond-studded expanses of pure white but are now oozing grimy slush and sickening memories. As you lie awake at night, listening to early spring rain machine-gun your window panes, tantalizing visions come to plague you ­ of hot bodies on hot sand, of deep blue skies and deeper blue sea, and your heart is filled with fresh yearnings. That distant year the winter was especially hard on me. No, not because of some particularly debilitating romantic involvement, nothing like that. I simply had some major surgery done on my left knee which had come out rather the worse for wear after a misunderstanding with an elm-tree while skiing. I mean, it had been me skiing, not the elm, which just stood there serenely and didn't get out of my way promptly enough.

When the cast came off six weeks later, I didn't recognize my left leg. That bit of skin and bones would have been quite right on an Auschwitz inmate, but it looked utterly incongruous on my muscular self. It took a couple of months, endless hours of exercise and a few liters of sweat and tears to restore it to a semblance of normalcy. By that time it was early June, and I was feeling a bit like a broken-winged bird left behind by its mates heading for the tundra. Very much in the grip of the wanderlust fever, you know. It was an annual attack, and I always reasoned, why not give in, if you can afford it? I mostly did ­ though seldom could.

I went to consult Professor Movsovic, the surgeon who had done that miraculous job on my knee. What about me doing a spot of rock-climbing in the Caucasus, I asked. The guy went pale and waved his hands, nearly dislocating his shoulder. I didn't blame him: visions of that beautiful piece of surgery being undone by another stupid fall seemed unbearable to him. Me too, in fact. Right, how about some sailing on the Caspian? Another flurry of hands and a string of interjections. Not to be thought of. Definitely not. Out of the question. I recalled an episode involving a bit of capsizing in that crazy sea and silently concurred. Some whitewater rafting? Ditto. I gave up. A month at the seaside? The professor was all smiles. Sure, yes, of course, most certainly. Just the ticket.

We shook hands on that imprimatur, and I went away, grinning rather viciously. The professor's idea of a month at the seaside clearly included a well-appointed hotel or sanatorium, five hefty meals a day, a few hours on the beach, dipping at regular intervals in the brine and ogling sparsely clad beauties in between, pictures or a game of cards at night or, for the more daring, a circumspect affaire de cœur. I have nothing against affaires de cœur, circumspect or otherwise, but, for sheer adrenalin-filled excitement, spear-fishing beats them hollow. Thus I thought as I packed my Estonian-made Tehur dry suit (so-called, as it turned into a wet suit whenever I dived), a pair of flippers, a couple of masks, a spare snorkel and, most importantly, my short, powerful spear-gun, the kind in which you pump air into the barrel and it works like a spring, with a kick of up to 50 kg, if you pump hard enough.

My plane landed at Simferopol airport early in the morning, and half an hour later I was already riding toward seaside Alushta on a trolleybus; the longest trolleybus route in the world, they told me. Longest, perhaps; but certainly one of the most beautiful, the road passing through the mountains that fringe the Crimean southern coast, shielding it from northern winds. Mountains, any mountains, always look beautiful to me.

In Alushta, I went straight to the beach. I mean, I had to assume there was a beach somewhere there. To me, it looked more like a mammoth rally in bathing trunks ­ and sometimes without. Standing room only. I tried to compute in my mind the amount of urine discharged in the water daily by the bathers, but the mind boggled. I turned my back on so much concentrated imbecility and took a bus east, to one of the outlying villages called Malorechenskaya, or Malorechka for short.

The moment I stepped off the bus, I was attacked ­ practically assaulted ­ by various elderly ladies and gentlemen eager to provide lodgings for me, and eventually became the prize of a buccaneer-type crone in a spotlessly white skipper's cap with a prehistoric cockade. It must have been the cap and the grip of steel that made me succumb to her blandishments.

I threw my rucksack in the corner of a closet-like room that was to be my dwelling, paid a week's rent up front, pulled out flippers, snorkel and mask from the rucksack and went at an impatient trot to meet my ancient friend, the Black Sea.

We'd been friendly ever since my youthful mountaineering days, when we ended each summer's stint in the mountains by going down to the Caucasian coast somewhere around Sukhumi, from where we headed northwest, toward the Crimea, and sometimes ended up as far away as Moldavia, where a glass of sparkling red wine then cost forty kopecks ­ at a rough estimate, a zillionth of a cent, in today's prices, after all the devaluations. We hitch-hiked, walked along pebbly beaches, rode in commuter trains or on braking platforms of freight cars, or, most cheaply and delightfully, sailed as deck passengers on tiny, dirty launches that scuttled, often wallowing most perilously in the rough seas, from one fishing village to another. From time to time we'd make camp in a particularly bewitching corner, and it was there that I observed the first few spear-fishers, with their pitiful 1950s equipment and handheld tridents, do their stuff. I've been a spear-fishing aficionado ever since.

That first day in Malorechka I didn't bother to take the spear-gun with me. I just wanted to feel the touch of sea water on my body and see if I could really do some skin-diving with my peg leg. Compared to Alushta, the beach was practically deserted. I quickly found a rock all to myself ­ it was a rocky, pebbly sort of beach ­ and was soon cavorting in the water. For one terrible moment I thought my leg would snap at the knee, feeling a funny looseness there. After a while, though, I got used to the sensation and soon all but forgot about it. So I swam out farther and farther, diving to the bottom from time to time.

No, I shouldn't have worried. The water was almost as wet as in the days of my youth, and the underwater scenery nearly as gorgeous as I remembered it.

Over several decades, I'd spear-fished in four other seas and countless rivers and lakes, but nowhere is the scenery as beautiful as in the good old Black Sea, with its sparkling, parti-colored pebbles and rocks and seaweed and gloomy grottoes and that special tinge to the iodine-filled water scintillating in the sunlight, not to mention its living occupants of all shapes, sizes and coloring. The Baltic is drabness itself compared to this; poor spear-fishing, too. The Aral was once a bit like the Black Sea in some places, but what's the use remembering it ­ the two rivers feeding that inland sea have long been siphoned off for irrigation, and it's long dead now, half of it desert, the other half salty, poisonous swamp, a disaster area that graphically shows what man can achieve in a couple of decades if he really puts his energy (I nearly wrote "mind") to it. I must be among the few humans left on this earth who remember that the world champion sheatfish was caught in the Aral Sea, and it weighed more than half a metric ton ­ five hundred odd kilos. Say amen for that Leviathan.

The Caspian, my loved and lovely Caspian that I have sailed, paddled, walked, and spear-fished all around except for the Iranian coast, is headed for the same fate, too, fish-wise, with all the drilling for oil and predatory poaching that has gone on there unchecked since the fall of the bad old Empire. Scientists confidently predict that the Caspian sturgeon will go into an irreversible decline in some three to five years. In my view, scientists are as supremely optimistic and otherworldly as ever: the decline has long set in.

So what remains is the Azov and the Black Sea, which actually form an uninterrupted sea coast. The Abkhaz shores used to be a favorite spear-fishing haunt of mine for years, but these days you'd need an APC to travel there, with the stupid Abkhaz-Georgian strife showing no signs of ever ending. The Crimea is not so bad in this respect, if you forget the bribe-loving Ukrainian police and other officials prepared to skin you on the slightest pretext, and all too often without.

As I dived deeper and deeper on that first day in Malorechka, the sea seemed practically empty to me, compared to the abundance of fish in the '50s and '60s. Where there used to be thick clouds of zelenukhi "greenniks," totally unafraid of man and feeding on whatever they feed on around any seaweed-covered rock rising from the sea bed, there were now only groups of shy individuals floating about like bits of rainbow. I like their proper English name, peacock wrasse, better than zelenukhi, because, though bright-green may be their predominant color, there's blue there, too, with red and yellow spots in intricate, confusing patterns, not to mention their white bellies and dark backs. As sunrays hit their bodies, they look more like Christmas tree baubles than fish. They have funny thick lips and even funnier protruding canine teeth with which they crush small shells, to get at their inhabitants. Cute-looking predators, that's what they are best described as.

I also chased a few rockfish, which were much shyer than wrasse and just as delightful to watch, being in the same rainbow category, only with more striking stripes. No gray mullet in sight at all that day, and it used to be such a staple. Practically ubiquitous.

Quite a number of tiny stone crabs merrily chasing each other around, with no grown-ups to chide them ­ all of these must have been caught already. I wondered about the next generation of crabs. Would there be one?

I found very few gobies where there used to be swarms of them, at the depth of two-three meters; and those I did observe were obviously psychologically traumatized. I grinned as I looked at them remembering our youthful hikes in these parts: when our funds ran really low, we practically subsisted on gobies. You could always catch plenty of them with a few feet of line and a bare hook or one with a bit of red thread tied to it. You just stood on a rock with the end of the line wound round your index finger and dangled the bare hook in front of the gobies' noses. Their nerves can't stand it, and one of them is sure to bite. Greed is indeed a deadly sin.

In fact, gobies are delicious, fried or roasted on spits, even if there's so little meat on them. Daghestani poachers had once told me that they took the sturgeon they caught home to their wives, but greedily ate the gobies on the beach all to themselves. Time was I thought I'd never be able to look at another goby, after a week-long steady diet of these. Now it seemed that incautious thought of mine was becoming grim reality: soon gobies might indeed survive only in pictures. Small wonder: overfishing aside, gobies stick globules of their spawn to the underside of stones; a bather steps on and overturns a rock, he kills hundreds of future gobies. Say amen for them, too...

A couple of hundred yards from the beach, water near the bottom was numbingly chilly. Shivering, I reluctantly headed for shore.

That night I'm sure I fell asleep with a blissful smile on my face. I jumped up at about six o'clock the next morning, had a hasty cup of tea, packed my spear-fishing gear in my rucksack and went to find a better place for hunting. I had to walk about an hour along the beach before I got out of sight of most bathers. Eventually I hit on a cozy, rocky cove, where I spent the whole day, mostly in the sea but sometimes crawling out onto the rocks, teeth chattering, to warm myself, lying in the sun as motionless as a lizard but feeling about a thousand times more pleased with the world than a lizard with a succulent fly in its mouth. After a few misses, old skills began to come back, and I shot a few wrasse and perch. Most of the day, though, I spent hunting for gray mullet.

Gray mullet, and especially the kind called bully mullet or, in Russian, lobany "thick-headed ones," are a particularly precious, sporting prize. For one thing, they are pretty big, weighing up to three kilos and more. For another, they are incredibly fast. Other fish, like perch or crucian or ruff, make painfully obvious efforts to get away from you, their whole bodies vibrating with the strain. Scare a mullet, and it disappears from sight without making the slightest visible effort. And they scare right easily.

Mullet feed in small schools, but without any apparent organization, each fish obviously fending for itself. The best tactic is to spot such a school, swim as near it as you can, barely moving the fins, hyperventilate and dive. Once near the bottom, usually at the depth of fifteen to eighteen feet, pretend you are a curiously configured piece of rock or a dead dolphin or anything similarly inanimate, and wait until your lungs burst or the school, moving as it feeds, gets within shooting range.

By the way, the "thick-headed ones" justify their name not only anatomically but in the other sense as well. They are incurably curious, and if you lie about long enough and inertly enough, they will swim within touching distance of your mask and your heart will go out to them, but you have to shoot, for what else can you do...

With mullet, the best or rather the only shot is close to the spine, for if you shoot them in the belly, you may count the fish for lost: these creatures have powerful but tender-muscled bodies, and the combination is lethal ­ for the fish. If you don't hit them right, they thrash and literally tear their own bodies apart against the spear or the harpoon line, and disappear to die under some rock, to the delight of a bunch of gourmet, carrion-eating crabs and to your everlasting chagrin. I hate this sort of thing, though I know for a scientific fact that fish don't feel pain. However, a young Italian lady with powerful ecological leanings once retorting to this bit of scientific wisdom, "Have you ever been a fish?" I hadn't, so I preferred to find cowardly refuge in agnosticism ­ and to shoot straight.

My catch that day wasn't much, just half a dozen wrasse, a couple of perch and a couple of medium-size gray mullet. Still, it delighted my skipper/landlady no end. She roasted the lot, and we spent a delightful evening together, washing it down with plenty of cheap, homemade wine.

Thus we lived in perfect harmony for two more days, but then I got the itch to move on, just as I had thought I would, though I had sworn not to. The curious thing about most spear-fishers I know is, their lives are spent searching for a spear-fisher's El Dorado, where water is crystal clear and warm enough for skin-diving, underwater scenery out of this world, and fish so plentiful that you don't have to feel like the worst son of a bitch each time you spear something remarkable.

So that third night I packed my stuff and in the morning, after wishing my sorrow-stricken skipper the best enjoyment of the balance of my rent, I started rolling. I mostly hitch-hiked or walked in the general direction of Koktebel and Mount Karadag where, according to my youthful memories, the local El Dorado was to be found. Whenever I spotted a particularly promising corner, with plenty of rock and few people around, I would stop and pitch my tent ­ figuratively speaking, because I didn't have a tent, just an inflatable rubber mattress, a light sleeping bag and a bit of plastic sheeting to protect me against rain, only there was no rain.

I mostly spent my days in the sea, not just for the sake of fish-watching or enjoying the mermaid scenery but because I had to eat something, and all I could carry in my rucksack was a kilo or so of ship's biscuits, the same amount of lump sugar, and a packet of tea. All my proteins came from the sea. I was still not averse to bagging a few wrasse or perch but mostly set my sights much higher or, if you wish, deeper. Perhaps the most cherished prize in these waters is croaker (Russian gorbyl "the humpbacked one"), a beautiful golden-black fish up to 70 cm in length and weighing several kilos.

To get at those corpulent fish, I had to dive real deep, sometimes thirty feet or more. At that depth, I had no more than a few brief seconds to make out their ponderous shadows within a grotto's darker recesses, aim, shoot, and scramble back to the surface for a shuddering gulp of unbelievably sweet air, with the fish, if I happened to hit one, madly fighting me every inch of the way.

Sometimes the water sloshing about in my mask turned dark red. That was just my blood, the smaller blood vessels up my nose bursting, unable to stand the pressure. Weak blood vessels were ever my curse, but I couldn't withstand the lure of the deep and often stayed under longer than was wise, forgetful of the need to stock up on fresh air: such was the magic that the underwater world worked on me. My heart just melted away amid so much beauty, and I plain disliked the idea of going back to our ordinary, humdrum world.

Frankly, I wouldn't recommend practicing this sport solo, or at all, to anyone unless they have had plenty of experience or possess an exceptionally level head. All sorts of things may and do happen. On one occasion I missed my croaker, and my harpoon got stuck in a crevice among rocks. The harpoon was tied to the gun, the gun to my belt, and the belt was firmly buckled round my waist. I wasted a few precious seconds trying to wrench the spear free, pulling with all my might, my feet planted on either side of the crevice. Seeing at last that it was no go, I had the sense to twirl the spear in my hands counter-clockwise, the screw-on spearhead detached itself, and that was the only thing I lost that day, if you don't count a good deal of cockiness. And don't ask me why I hadn't cut the harpoon-line, because I plain forgot all about the knife. Or maybe didn't even have it on me; I often don't.

Another day my body made a crazy, corkscrew movement as I chased a croaker among some rocks, and one of my flippers came off. That was when I learned the hard way that you needed both flippers to get back to civilization from that depth: I nearly started breathing before I had surfaced, especially as it was my game leg that had to take me up. I breathed hard awhile, then dived again, found the errant flipper, put it on and scrambled back to light, much chastened.

The worst trouble about these frolics is that, starved of oxygen, the brain switches off without warning. On one such occasion I was just incredibly lucky: I collapsed in a dead faint when I'd already taken a couple of steps on the beach, away from the water's edge. On coming to, I couldn't make head or tail of what had happened and why I was lying on the sand in that curious, inelegant posture, my nose practically in the water. That was a truly unpleasant lesson in brain physiology.

To avoid other unpleasant medical facts, I learned from bitter experience not to touch anything prickly or spiked, for the poisonous scorpion fish packs a strike more painful than anything the Gestapo ever invented, as I had discovered many years previously. But, speaking of dangers, I had also found out that, say, the Black Sea's only shark, called katran or dogfish, was an innocuous scavenger, even if it might look like something out of Jaws. If ever you read, as you may, about fights to the death with Black Sea sharks, try to trace down the author and accurately spit in his eye.

Stingrays are a bit worse, for some of them are pretty big and carry a sharp, murderous spike at the end of a long tail, which can give you nasty gashes. Just don't shoot him out of spite if he gives you a scare or something. Stingrays are lousy as food and innocent of any murderous designs on humans. The worst a stingray once gave me was a near heart attack, as he rose majestically from the sandy bottom, where he had been hiding, directly under my belly when I was peacefully swimming toward the shore. He was huge, the size of man's raincoat all spread out, so no wonder I found myself on the beach before he could even think of what to do about me.

On that trip, I eventually got as far as Koktebel, the coveted spear-fishing El Dorado of my youth, and had to turn back in disgust: it proved a replica of the Alushta scene. To think that once this was the most deserted corner of the Crimea, mostly famous for the fact that the poet Maximilian Voloshin built himself a house there and was visited by bunches of literati and glitterati. The day I got there, the streets looked more like parade grounds for several underdressed, two-gender regiments, some marching in the direction of the beach, others away from it, all raising clouds of dust.

And yet, after varied adventures, too numerous to describe in this space, I did find a spear-fisher's paradise ­ under the weirdest circumstances. I was wandering back west along the beach, approaching Cape Meganom, when I noticed that there were no bathers, swimmers, fishermen, no humans of any description in sight, though the place looked terrific: a good pebbly beach and plenty of rocks, exactly right for spear-fishing. I quickly donned my "dry" suit and splashed into the sea. Once submerged, I thought I was going mad, or dreaming, or having sunstroke, or something: the place was teeming with fish of every kind, and the bottom was literally crawling with dozens of crabs, my favorite dish. Everything was like in the good old, antediluvian days. I cheerfully went chasing bully mullet, but deep down didn't feel chirpy at all. I felt something must be terribly wrong.

Well, something most certainly was. Lost in thought, I had wandered onto the territory of a naval base, oblivious to all the prominently displayed, scary signs. The general idea was that they could shoot me on sight, as a midshipman and a couple of very able seamen patrolling the place later carefully explained to me. I could well believe them, as it was very much in the spirit of the times, the late 1970s.

However, the atmosphere miraculously cleared when I promised the midshipman to leave my shopworn dry/wet suit to him, if he let me stay there a few days. It appeared that the best spear-fishing on that bit of coast was in late October and in November, when the sea turned cold enough for deep-water fish, especially the delicious mackerel and flounder, to come in huge masses to feed near the shore. Certainly you couldn't do much spear-fishing without a suit then. The midshipman grew so emotional over my generous gesture that he used to bring me bags of fresh fruit ­ including peaches. My goodness, how delicious they tasted after many delirious hours spent diving...

So if anyone asks me again if I have ever been a fish, I can say, in all honesty: almost, at one time. In a spear-fisher's paradise, within a naval base perimeter.

Alas, that paradise is now lost ­ along with the Navy.

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