The Moonwalk & The Fish That Got Away


I just watched an aquatic episode of Monster Quest on the History Channel. It reminded me of how I, like 600 or 700 million Chinese, missed the first walk on the moon. Yes, “Monster Quest.” Let he who has never sinned cast the first stone! And, yes, I know, that show has painted itself into a corner. It will pretty much have to produce a live sasquatch, or at least the carcass of one soon, or go off the air. But, don't worry, eventually this, my story, is going to turn into a fishing story, and also into a sex story.

The documentary examined a possible giant grouper attack on a child in Florida. It included good underwater footage of several Goliath groupers at close range. In the old days, some Goliath groupers were weighed in at over 500 pounds. Big fish! No need to lie if you hooked one of those.

I was about 26 and I was spending a whole summer on a small Mexican island off the Caribbean coast. I had only one purpose: to enact repeatedly a typical, recurrent fantasy of my French youth. I was there to spear sea creatures during the day and to cook and eat them during the warm tropical night. That was it. France is far to the north of most of North America, if you look at a map attentively. Paris, where I was raised, is even north of Montreal. It's also far from the ocean, but city people in France have deeply-anchored thalassotropism, an unreasoned attraction to the sea. Many spend summer at the seaside, where they learn to swim well. Even way back then, some people, like me, learned in their early teens to be comfortable underwater and to spear fish. French boys especially fantasized about tropical seas in the days when travel was expensive and it seemed there was little chance you would ever go there. Their dreams were purposeful and competent. They wanted to do something about them if the occasion arose, by some miracle. Well, the miracle happened for me. I emigrated to California, next door to Mexico.

In Mexico, I spent most daylight hours in the clear, clear sea, free-diving. That means up and down and up and down, holding your breath — no effeminate breathing apparatus (no scuba). With good training, under favorable conditions, if you are in shape, you can do that for hours on end. I never got bored, because I wasn't there for the sights; I was spearing fish right and left and I was also catching rock lobsters. (That's the red lobster with small claws, also called “spiny lobster.”) I don't wish to explain how I was catching the lobsters; I have a persistent fear of the Mexican constabulary, and I don't know what's the statute of limitation. The water was so much more transparent and so much warmer than the English Channel, where I had learned, that it was almost like moving to another planet.

For French spear-fishermen of that era, one kind of fish had legendary and mythical status: groupers. There were none in the Channel, and none in the Atlantic at those latitudes. There were only a few in the Mediterranean. Groupers were said to be elusive, secretive, and almost impossible to spear. Diving magazines reproduced endlessly the same photograph of the same champion of France posing with the same two foot-long grouper. I could not imagine, then, any change in my life's circumstances that would bring me within distance of such a trophy. To complete the picture, groupers were said to be excellent eating fish — not a small detail for the French, then or now.

The water was so much more transparent and so much warmer than the Channel that it was almost like moving to another planet.

Fast-forwarding my life story: that summer, I was right there on prime grouper territory. Once I had caught my three rock lobsters or my small barracuda for dinner, I would explore the reef cavities slowly, deliberately. I discovered that there were many groupers around but that they hid inside deep holes in the daytime. I devised a method to draw some of them out (the stupid ones, no doubt) where I could take a clear shot at them with my modest-sized rubber band spear gun. (I am sorry but I will not reveal the method until I am on my deathbed; it's like my secret chanterelles patch.)

Well, fishing is a lot like sex: If you try it four or five times a day and if you enjoy it, plus you have stamina, you can only become better at it. So I caught groupers worth catching several times and early on in my stay. And yes, the flesh was delicious, surprisingly refined in flavor and with a firm texture.

Meanwhile, the forthcoming American expedition to the moon had been the subject of a barrage of news, quasi-news, and speculations even in that remote part of Mexico. The night before the event, the locals were buying beer, and the few gringo tourists were right behind them. Some old women were even preparing Christmas tamales, way out of season. It was obvious there was not going to be any work done the next day, the planned date for the moonwalk.

We did not have access to a TV but my American girlfriend and I were going to join the festivities around a transistor radio with several other Americans. We were going to listen to commentators give the blow-by-blow. Incidentally, Mexican commentators of anything are better, more lively, more animated than their American counterparts. But grouper was on my mind. So, earlier than usual on the morning of the landing, I went into the water, close to town, with the modest objective of just doing a little exploration for later. Almost right away, I spotted a flat reef of old, smooth coral, shaped like a table, with many good-size perforations on its top.

Fishing is a lot like sex: If you try it four or five times a day and if you enjoy it, plus you have stamina, you can only become better at it.

Soon, the sun was at such an angle that I could see inside each hole right from the surface. I noticed something moving inside a hole and thought it might be a darting lobster. I dived down to investigate and immediately realized I was looking at the marbled skin of a large grouper with its head right under the opening. The atavistic assassin's reflex took over. Coolly, I told myself I would never have a better chance to shoot a large grouper in the head, where it counts, and at close range. One fatal shot, drag it to the surface, hang it on a string, and bring it home in plenty of time for the moon landing.

I shot as planned, right in the skull, and pulled on the line connecting the gun to the shaft in the fish, to bring it to the surface. There was resistance. I went down to investigate and found that the grouper was not dead, that it had inflated its body and braced itself inside the hole with its spiny dorsal fin. I dived about 15 or 20 times, and I was unable to budge it at all. Finally, I located a horizontal hole under the flat surface of the reef from which I could gain access to the struggling fish from a different angle.

I wrestled with the grouper for more than two hours, becoming prey to what economists know as the “sunk cost fallacy.” I had already invested so much time in that fish, I couldn't really let it go. In addition, one of my precious few shafts was embedded in its head and I would have to abandon it too.

Finally, the fish gave up or expired; it stopped resisting. I reached into the hole and grabbed it by the eye cavities, thumb in one eye, index finger in the other. I floated the fish up to the surface with no trouble and walked to town in the hot sun carrying on my shoulder a grouper the size of which I would not have even dared imagine ten years earlier, when I was still only a French spear-fisherman. I cannot tell you exactly how big that fish was, because there was no opportunity to weigh it, or even to measure it. Besides, fishermen are routinely accused of lying about measurements — because so many do, in fact, lie. I can say, however, that the next day, it fed eight young adults easily.

One fatal shot, drag it to the surface, hang it on a string, and bring it home in plenty of time for the moon landing.

By the time I arrived, the lunar show was over, the two guys had taken their little walk on the moon, everyone assured me, and the celebration was well under way. My girlfriend was miffed, but when she saw the grouper, she kind of understood my glee, although she was not a diver, and not even a woman of the sea. (She was just intelligent, and very hot!) At any rate, the moonwalk has always had a slight sense of unreality for me, because I did not watch it or even hear a description of the event in real time. As I mentioned, I am a little like the red Chinese who found out for sure only many years later. You might say, I was absent from an important instance of the 20th century because I was following my underwater bliss.

There is a sequel to this story. The brain learns things it does not even know it knows. Every good fisherman will tell you he does not understand all his successes. So, the moonwalk fish subtly encouraged me to keep looking for grouper.

I explored a big pile of boulders, in shallow water, right across the narrow beach from the concrete cubicle where I lived. The top boulders almost broke the surface at low tide; the white sand on which they rested may have been 25 feet down, not much for an experienced free-diver with good, recent local training. Soon, I found a narrow space at the base of the boulders. With lots of air in my lungs, I did not hesitate to crawl inside. I ended up underneath the pile of rocks with just the tips of my flippers emerging.

I wasn't worried about wounding myself against the rocks, because I was wearing a light wetsuit. (I always wear a wetsuit when diving, even and especially in warm water. Warm water has coral. Any contact with most corals will inflict a thousand small cuts that will not heal if you submerge yourself in the salty sea repeatedly. And if you perspire even a little in the tropical night, the cuts hurt like hell.) I let my eyes become accustomed to the darkness and discovered a black, glistening surface a couple of feet away from my face that did not look like rock.

I was absent from an important instance of the 20th century because I was following my underwater bliss.

I came up for air and went down again to the same spot, through the narrow passage, which gave me exactly the same orientation to the light. The mysterious surface had changed color. After a dozen times going up and down and into the hole, my face suddenly confronted another face, right at the bottom. The other face had big thick lips and globular eyes. In spite of that striking description, it took my brain a few seconds to register what I was seeing, because of its sheer size. The face was several times larger than mine. The hole was nearly filled by a giant grouper.

That the fish did not scoot at my approach was not surprising. First, the narrow passage in which I had crawled may have been the only exit route. Second, large groupers have few predators. They are well known to hole up when in doubt, so much so that shooting them is sometimes akin to murder.

When I understood what was so close to me, my heart did not beat faster. I felt very calm and collected. I dived repeatedly to reassure myself that I was not dreaming. Several times I saw the characteristic lips and the round eyes; I observed that the dark skin was shiny; I saw parts of fins bigger than my legs.

Grouper are well known to hole up when in doubt, so much so that shooting them is sometimes akin to murder.

Remember that I had my little spear gun with me. Spearing the giant point-blank would have been child's play. Yet, I did not press the trigger. I wasn't afraid just then but something in my unconscious mind stopped me. I can't begin to say how big the grouper was because I never saw the whole thing. It was bigger than me. It might have been the biggest grouper anyone had ever speared. Certainly, it would have been the biggest grouper a French-born person had ever caught free-diving — or at any rate, any Parisian.

I went up and down for an hour, thinking, calculating from what angle to shoot, and then how to retrieve it out of its hole. As I was in shallow water, it seemed feasible. There was a very good chance I would be able to drag the fish out swimming backward in the narrow passage, if it were dead.

Soon, it became like solving an engineering problem. I got out of the water and walked back to my place to have lunch and do some more thinking. I was confident the giant would be there when I returned. I thought the boulders were its permanent dwelling.

But back at the grouper's cave, after 45 minutes or so, my disposition had changed slightly. I took yet another look at the fish. It dawned on me then that there was some real danger in attacking at close quarters, from a narrow space where I could not turn around, an animal bigger than myself, with sharp teeth, that could breathe in water. Then, another part of my brain began to feel that something was wrong about eating such a magnificent and, no doubt, old creature. Then, I told myself that having spent so much time in such close proximity with such a big grouper was enough of a trophy for a Paris boy. Besides, my hot girlfriend had been waiting for me with her imagination running on high rpm. She had, torrid, unspeakable plans for the rest of my afternoon. I abandoned the endeavor and went home with a light heart.

Many years later, the giant grouper that I spared, not speared, visits me in my dreams, but only when I am in a good mood, or when I am subconsciously plotting a small vacation to an exotic place. Fishermen will want to know if I ever felt fisherman's regrets over that huge catch I did not catch. The answer is that I do feel regrets, but I am sure I would have felt fisherman's remorse if I had taken the giant grouper and butchered it in the sun. There is a subtle issue of choice between two unequal ills here. Remorse will follow you forever although you can pretend you have forgotten its cause or causes. Regrets are, in principle, temporary. The goal you did not reach, the apple you did not pick may fall in your lap at any time before you check out for good; you never know. Even the one with whom you were pointlessly in lust when you were a junior in high school might go for you at the 20-year reunion. It's not what it could have been but still!

Postscript: Yes, I was diving alone. It's supposed to be dangerous. I am not recommending that divers who use scuba do the same. I am not even recommending the practice to other free-divers. It was just the right thing for me, at that time. The safe alternative is to have a diving companion who is a short fat woman who thrashes noisily in the water and swims too clumsily to escape anything.

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Lori Heine

I'm afraid I was less than enthralled by the whole moon thing, myself. I was six years old that summer, and I was totally P.O.'ed that "Dark Shadows" had been preempted.

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