Spring Collecting Trip #4: Heartbreak and the Art of Fish Collecting

I'm enduring an emotional low right now after coming back from a dive with an empty catch bag. (Unlike the success of my first dive.) Even though all of us on the trip are working towards the same goal, there's definitely a sense of pride about personally having a successful dive. Afterward, you find yourself walking around asking people what they caught in hopes that they'll ask you the same question, although sometimes they don't, and then you tell them anyway. Coming up empty-handed can be hard, though, and the fish don’t make it easy on us.

What am I doing wrong?

We have a very specific list of fish that we're looking for on this trip, which means that to get them, we have to actually dive down and find them. This is difficult because 1) we need to memorize what lots of different fish look like, and 2) fish are much better at swimming than we are. This second fact is actually one reason that scuba diving is so much fun: the fish are well aware that they're great swimmers, so they let us get really close to them without worrying about it too much, since they know that they'll be able to scoot off in a second if they need to. It's relatively easy to see cool fish for this reason—catching them, though, can be really hard.

Some of the participants on this trip are very experienced divers (one, named Steve, has been diving for 50 years—I picture him walking on the ocean floor wearing one of those big spherical brass helmets, while two guys on a boat pump air down to him with a bellows). Many of them, though, have never collected fish before, so on the first night, Sherrie and Don (who's an experienced participant and an Aquarium volunteer, he recently gave an interesting talk on lionfish to budding teen Aquarium divers) gave us a demonstration. These pictures take place in the boat’s salon, where we do most of our meeting.

Each diver goes down with two nets. Mesh can hurt the fishes' skin, so we use big plastic nets that are gentler on them. Carrying these underwater is kind of like trying to swim while holding two open parachutes, so we need to fold them up against our bodies as we go:

Once we've found a fish that we're interested in, the goal is basically to surround him with our nets without spooking him so much that he swims away. This requires a lot of communication and teamwork, which can be hard underwater. We basically need to move really, really slowly, until the edges of our nets are touching each other and the fish is boxed in.

I was surprised to find out that it doesn't occur to the average fish to just swim upward and away in a situation like this, so they'll usually swim into one of our nets once they've been surrounded. It might sound simple enough, but it takes a lot of practice and finesse. Some people are amazing at it—the ship's cook, Matt, is not only an excellent cook, but also one of the best collectors. He also does all of his diving in jean shorts, which is awesome.

There's a whole other process that needs to take place once the fish have been caught, which I'll talk about tomorrow. Here's what Sherrie was sneakily doing to me as I was typing the previous paragraph, oblivious.

Here’s how she felt about it.




  1. Keep your head up — you'll have a good dive soon!

  2. Tim, next lesson: capturing a fish and sherrie telling you "throw 'em back, jack". You got to suffer to sing the blues, brother. "diving diving, diving, bad dive"; to the tune of Rawhide. John & Lou sang the song on stage at the Turtle Kralls, in Key West. Will send you the lyrics & get Lou & John sing it again. Told you to let Lou be your "yoda" Follow him, and be shown the way to "poke" and capture.

  3. That's a lovely shade on you. Maybe if you dangle your toe around in the water now you'll lure in some unsuspecting fish to catch.

  4. Can you tell us how many fish you bring up on each dive? And what is the "batting average" of WF so far? Is he pulling his own weight?


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