Blaine man recalls decades spent under the sea

Published on Wed, Sep 9, 2009 by Jack Kintner

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Every once in a while a book about the sea comes out that’s so captivating it almost smells like salt water.
The Patrick O’Brian stories are like that and so is part-time Blaine resident Cal Smith’s “When Devil Fish Come Out to Play.” It’s a memoir of his years spent harvesting shellfish in the years when “skin diving” was in its infancy, and is so steeped in marine experience and opinion it ought to come with its own towel.

Smith, who shares time between his Burnaby residence and an apartment on D Street, actually covers a lot more than just his career as a professional abalone diver.

He begins with an idyllic but austere childhood in North Bay, Ontario, leads the reader through a complex web of sea stories, diving experiences and personal observations and concludes with ominous warnings about species extinctions happening so fast he’s seen a lot of it himself: “[No one] in the ‘50s and ‘60s [could] have even dreamed that 51 percent of all reptiles, 52 percent of all known insects, 73 percent of all flowering plants and 25 percent of all antelope species would become threatened within 50 or 60 years.”

Smith has plenty of personal experiences that attest to the loss  of important animals. He writes of visiting Courtenay, B.C., in 1957, and while checking into a motel remarking that “the children must be playing hard from all that racket coming from the river.”

He was told by the desk clerk that he was hearing salmon migrating up the channel which was more than a city block away. That’s now a thing of the past, of course, as are the populations of harmless but enormous basking sharks that once were common along the west side of Vancouver Island until the B.C. government encouraged their slaughter in the ‘50s and ‘60s by fishers upset at how the slow-moving giant animals ripped apart their nets.

He also talks about how our culture has gotten used to using the sea as a dump, using the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” north of Hawaii as an example.

Due to circular currents in the mid-Pacific, tiny bits of plastic debris end up concentrated within an oblong-shaped zone hundreds of miles across about midway between Japan and the West Coast of the United States, according to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. They sent a research vessel out to investigate it last week with a team of 30 scientists on board.

The term devil fish has often referred to the Giant Pacific Octopus, a cephalopod (related to snails and slugs) that Smith says is about as dangerous as a bunny rabbit. A diver since the ‘50s, Smith learned early to reach into their caves and touch them, which will bring them out. They can even be played with, much like a curious cat.
While laying on the bottom on one dive, watching a wolf eel, he was ensnared by a huge curious female: “Its four-inch diameter arms wrapped around one of my ankles and another started to creep up my leg. Out of the water it would probably weigh 300 pounds and span 20 feet.

“I tried to pull my leg free but it just held on tighter...[Eventually] I twisted sideways...and poked her with my finger. I swear she almost seemed offended. We stared at each other for a moment, then I resumed my face-down position on the rocks and relaxed. A second later the octopus’s arms loosened and she crawled away.”

Smith says a big danger right now are swarms of predatory jellyfish, a threat that is hard for some to take seriously but which wiped out at least one Atlantic Salmon fish farm in Ireland. The gatherings are so dense they block boat traffic.

“But they’re not all bad,” he said, “and can actually be pretty good to eat. My next book will have some recipes from Japan.”

Smith writes with the experienced hand of someone who has lived the life he writes about, including a lot of accidents and mis-adventures, such as nearly getting crushed to death by his own boat when a deck hand ran it aground on top of him on a reef in the Queen Charlotte Islands.

“Adventure is seldom the result of bravery. It is most often the product of bad judgment, miscalculation, lack of preparation and foolishness.

Likewise, bravery does not derive from adventure but from misadventure,” Smith said. His maxims come from his own experience, and have the same ring of authenticity that a cowboy has when talking about rounding up steers.

This book is a good read, a well-traveled description of commercial shellfish harvesting along the coast as well as many personal vignettes from diving, something he began doing in the 50’s.

It’s available locally at Blackberry Cafe and Books, 321 H Street in Blaine or on request from the Blaine Library. Smith’s website is calsbooks.com.