The Gulf of Love
A Rick Beck Story
Editor: Jerry W.
Fishing & Diving
The reef we'd found was twenty-five minutes from the mouth of the cove. That was at a reasonable speed. I only did the rooster tail for Dylan's benefit these days. My need for speed had been replaced by a need for knowledge once I got where I was going.
Speed definitely had its place but if I went too fast I missed a lot. Gradually going fast had lost its luster. I'd done the speed thing. I guess it was inevitable I'd grow up one day and learn to appreciate the things I encountered along the way.
It was two days after discovering the new reef I did my next dive on that reef. The floor of the Gulf was fifty feet below the surface. There were deeper places five miles off shore but fifty feet wasn't unusual along the coast.
I couldn't tell what kind of ship sank to provide the base for the reef but it sank a long time ago. The reef had spread far beyond its origins. I calculated the ship sank before 1800 for the reef to grow this substantial. Its development had taken it to within ten feet of the surface. At the rate most reefs grew, it gave me a clue to its age.
The life on the reef was as diverse as any reef I'd seen. On the first day I found a recently dead sea horse with so rich with color I immediately put it in my net holding bag and took it to the surface. It was beautifully sculptured and the most perfect specimen of that kind I'd collected. I treated it with care and preserve it without delay.
I filled one of the specimen jars I kept on board with sea water and I put the sea horse inside for safe keeping. I held it up to study it against the afternoon sun.
I couldn't resist going back to use up the rest of my air.
The yellows, reds, oranges, and blues were a living rainbow of sea life. Less noticeable were the pastels it took a minute to separate from the more brilliantly colored fish on this coral reef.
For the first time in ages I ran out of air, failing to keep an eye on my dive watch. I didn't suspect I was on the bottom that long.
On another reef I might have been in trouble, but being so close to the surface, I could surface with the air in my lungs without ill affects. I didn't want to get into the habit of cutting corners. There was no reason to ignore caution.
I immediately pushed off the bottom. I took my time. Ignoring safety rules might be OK a hundred times before you faced the consequence for waiting too long and surfacing too fast.
And thus began two and sometimes more dives each week on the new reef. I monitored its health against the health of other reefs I shared with other divers.
I'd tell no one but Harry and Bill the location of this find.
By law I was supposed to register the shipwreck. That meant recording it, which would make it a matter of public record. I had no intention of doing that. This was my reef and it would yield a library of information over the next three years. If I was the canary in this coal mine, this reef was there to tell me about the health of the environment where it lived.
One afternoon at about the same time as we stumbled onto the new reef, I needed to go to another dive site to get some pictures of a new species of fish I'd discovered on a recent dive. This reef was closer to shore and the water wasn't as deep.
I needed to make the dive and take the pictures on a day I picked Dylan up from school. I decided to go straight from his school to the marina and take Dylan with me.
I had Pop fix up a cylinder with a glass end on it so Dylan could put it in the water and watch his father thirty feet below. The water was totally clear and even the colorful fish could be identified with that kind of setup.
Dylan hadn't seen me dive before. It just wasn't something I did with him around. He was too small for the equipment and as curious as he was, I didn't want to tempt him with something he'd instantly want to do.
Forgetting that, I loaded my SCUBA gear into Teddy's car and went to pick up my son. We went straight to the marina. I loaded my gear onto the Sea Swirl and we were off. It was convenient. I didn't need to make time for the dive when Dylan wasn't with me.
It was a big mistake.
Dylan watched me get into my gear, after I told him I'd only be fifteen minutes, and I dropped over the side into the Gulf. He had the rig Pop made to watch me. I got the pictures and I was back in ten minutes. The fish family I went to photograph was in plain view.
I kept my distance and took a roll of pictures before surfacing.
It didn't take long to realize my mistake.
“Daddy, I want SCUBA gear. I want to dive with you.”
“You're too small for the equipment, Dylan. It's a safety issue,” I said as if that would make all the difference. “When you get big enough, I'll get you SCUBA gear. For now we'll snorkel and you can see what's in the water that way. You like snorkeling.”
The conversation continued on the way home. Our first battle of wills had begun. Dylan wanted to dive with me. He bugged Mama and Pop, until they wanted to know why I wouldn't take Dylan SCUBA diving with me. I took him everywhere else with me.
“He doesn't fit the equipment. It's heavy and it's awkward to boot. In an emergency, should he run out of air or run into trouble, he isn't big enough to do what he'd need to do to keep from drowning.”
“No SCUBA gear until you're big enough,” Mama said and Pop nodded agreement.
Dylan sulked. He hadn't tried Aunt Lucy yet, but he would. I headed him off at the pass, alerting Lucy to the problem.
“Luce, Dylan is going to bug you about wanting SCUBA gear. He's too small and too young to be able to dive safely. He's determined and we've told him no.”
Lucy, being an adult, agreed with us.
“That's dirty pool, Daddy. Aunt Lucy would have bought it for me,” Dylan complained one night at bedtime.
When I got back from Washington, my biggest worry was what books to buy Dylan. By the time he was five, Dylan and I shared the reading at bedtime.
Lucy was teaching him to read at four. She introduced him to the parts of speech and taught him what a sentence was.
Outside of 'See Dick run. See Jane run,' I was in the second grade before I began reading the sports page and the comics. At seven I knew the score.
Lucy started with fairy tales, which Dylan loved. When he was five, he was reading from the Hardy Boy books.
Now, I read a page and he read a page. We read as many as ten pages before I tucked him in. He almost always fell right to sleep if he didn't want to complain about not having SCUBA gear.
I missed the books we were reading when I was a boy. I was as anxious as Dylan to find out what Frank and Joe were up to.
Now in a world of words, I enjoyed the simplicity of books about a world that wasn't going to blow up at any time.
“Daddy, is Nancy smarter than Frank and Joe?” Dylan asked in the middle of the third Nancy Drew book we read.
We'd read all the Hardy Boy mysteries I'd found and we began reading the Nancy Drew collection Lucy bought him for Christmas. Dylan had no trouble reading Nancy Drew mysteries.
Dylan thought about it for a while before asking the question.
“I don't know, Dylan. They're all smart.”
“I was thinking Nancy is more logical than Frank and Joe. They get excited a lot. Nancy thinks about what she's about to do.”
“Men approach problems differently than women,” I decided was a safe answer.
“Are women smarter than men?”
“You may be onto something, kiddo. Women know where they're going and they like to have a map to make sure they stay on track. Guys jump into the car and go. If they become lost, they don't like asking directions, which means they don't always get where they're going, but they like going.”
“Is Aunt Lucy smarter than you, Daddy?” Dylan asked, having lost track of Nancy Drew.
Dylan was working on something he hadn't gotten around to asking yet. This was one of those predictable conversations we got into. There is a bigger issue on his mind and than there's the specific question he wants answered.
“Aunt Lucy is the smartest person I know. She's always been smarter than me, but that's not hard.”
“You're smart. You're older than Aunt Lucy. How did she get smarter than you, Daddy? Are women smarter than men?”
“She was always reading, kiddo. It's one of the reasons we read to you. Words can explain the world to you. When I headed out to play, Lucy was reading a book. She didn't play that much.”
“So girls are smarter than boys? They're thinking while we're playing?”
“That's not something I can confirm or deny. Lucy is Lucy. There are a lot of girls. There are some very smart boys. It's a bad idea to say something is true of everyone.”
“Was Mama smart? My Mama, not yours.”
“Yes, she was. She was smart enough to have you.”
“Why don't I remember my mother?”
This was where we were going when he asked the first question. He had difficulty asking questions about Sunshine. Why was his family so much different than other kid's families.
“Your Mama died six weeks after you were born. You were just tiny then. You wouldn't have memories of her. We done reading, kiddo?”
“Why did Mama die?”
“She got sick, Dylan. She got weaker until she died.”
“You've always been with me, Daddy? I mean I always remember you being with me. I can't remember Mama. I want to remember her.”
“I've been with you every day since you were born. I've never spent as much time with anyone as I spend with you,” I said, hugging him close to me and hoping he'd lose interest in a past that had done him no favors.
“I don't understand the question, Dylan.”
I didn't want to think about Ivan.
“I look at that picture a lot. You spent a lot of time with my father. You were good friends. You have your arms around each other. So you were best friends?”
“We were best friends. We did everything together. We finished growing up together. That picture was taken when Ivan turned eighteen. He left the beach later that year. That's when I met your mother.”
“Oh!” Dylan said, knowing those details.
I could see his mind working. There were bigger questions he hadn't asked me yet.
My son cocked his head to give me a curious look.
It was easier to think about cookies and milk. Cookies and milk were fun and easy.
We giggled and emptied the plate of cookies Mama put on the table in front of us.
I hope she made more so every one got some.
Some of my hardest days were when Dylan wanted to talk about his missing mother and father. I tried to explain it as it happened. It wasn't an easy story to tell and he'd let me off the hook once I began to squirm.
He'd yet to utter the inevitable words, “You aren't my father” to his daddy yet. Dylan was wanted. He was loved.
He had everything he needed and much of what he wanted.
I didn't think he could live in a better home.
From time to time, in spite of what he had, he needed to know who he was and how it was he was in the conservancy house.
The first thing in the morning we got out of bed and went for a swim before breakfast.
Some mornings Dylan would say, “Let's go check on Millie.”
We raced each other up the beach, falling down a lot, until we came to the house next to the river. Then we eased up on the river so we didn't frighten Millie with an abrupt appearance.
On the days Millie wasn't there, we'd swim out to the logs and watch the crabs, frogs, and birds scatter upon our arrival. It was a convenient, ever changing, tidal environment for creatures coming out of the mouth of the river.
We always saw something new.
One morning in early June Popov was waiting for me in my office when I came to work. He was in slacks and a sports jacket.
He stood when I turned on the light.
“Popov!” I said surprised.
“Clayton,” he said.
I got a bear hug from a bear of a man.
“What can I do for you today?” I asked, taking off my jacket and hanging it on the back of my chair.
We sat facing each other.
“You were due to go out yesterday, weren't you? You've changed your schedule.”
“Clay, there are no fish. We are not half filling the holds now. We stay an extra day and have less fish than the last time. The fish warehouse is not filling its orders. I send my men home. I tell them I must see Clay. He must come with us so the fish will return to our nets.”
I stood up to look at the calendar. I'd been in Washington in the middle of April. I saw Popov right after I came back. Fishing usually dropped off some in the summer months, but April should have been one of the better months.
“So it's worse than when we talked at J.K.'s?”
“Yes. Much worse.”
I sat down as Popov watched me.
“The weather hasn't been bad,” I said, trying to figure out what to tell a man who depended on the fish for his survival and the survival of his fishing fleet.
“We need you to come with us. Find the fish, Clay. They will come to you.”
I picked up a pencil and wrote the date across my ink blotter.
I tapped the pencil's eraser on my teeth, trying to think under pressure.
“Has it ever been this bad before?” I asked. “How far back can you remember?”
“Never like this. I come fish here in 1955. Never like this.”
“You go to the same fishing grounds, move east and south, and then north and east, until you come back to the cove on the third day?” I asked, remembering the movements of the fishing fleet from when I was part of it.
“Same as you say,” Popov said, looking tired and anxious.
This had begun to wear on a bigger than life presence. I could see Dylan seated on his knee as he spun the myth about his father bringing fish to his nets.
I got up and went to the wall charts of the Gulf of Mexico.
Harry commissioned a set of maps covering the entire Gulf of Mexico. I turned to the map that showed the farthest west where Popov's fleet fished.
“Here's where we went the first time I went fishing with the fleet in 1965,” I said, pointing out the spot on the chart.
It had been eleven years since that first trip with Mr. Aleksa. I'd just turned fifteen. I would turn twenty-six in a week.
There had been more fish than any of them had ever seen. They needed a charm to explain their incredible luck. They settled on the pudgy boy from landlocked Tulsa. My legend as charmer of the fish was born.
“This is the area where the fleet goes to put the nets out? Then you move southeast to about here,” I said flipping over the next map. “Then you move north and east,” I said, turning one more map. “Then you return to the cove.”
“Yes. It's as you say. There have always been fish, Clay.”
I sat down and tapped my teeth with the eraser some more.
Bill Payne once told me, “If we continue on this path, one day there will be no fish, and one of man's chief sources for nourishment will run out.”
I cringed. I wouldn't tell Popov that.
“You chart our fishing? I didn't know you could do this,” Popov said.
“I track everything, Popov. It's what a marine biologist does. It occurred to me years ago that currents and fish went in similar directions. It doesn't mean fish will be in a particular current when you get there. It doesn't mean they won't be. Since this is the first time the fish haven't been there, it's the first time I can study it. The fish are probably somewhere. My job is to figure out where.”
“You smart man, Clay. I do not know so much about currents or why fish are there when Popov drops his net. I'm an old fisherman and I go where the fish have always been. So what does Popov do? He has sixty men who must eat with sixty families that must eat. Popov is afraid for his people.”
“I'm not quite smart enough to tell you where the fish have gone,” I said as Popov watched me.
“Come fish with us so the fish return, Clay.”
“How much money do you have, Popov?” I asked, moving onto new terrain.
“How much do you need, Clay? Popov can give you what you need,” he said, reaching for his wallet.
He waited, looking me straight in the eye as I put a plan together.
“Not for me, Popov. The money is for your men. I'm going to make a suggestion. It might work. It might not work. Giving it a try will tell us a lot about the condition of the sea and how big the problem is. I need to study the situation. I need your help. It's going to cost you two, maybe three months pay for sixty men.”
“Go on, Clay. Popov is listening,” he said without balking.
“Take a vacation. Tell the fish warehouse to close down. Have them call me. You're both on the way to bankruptcy at this rate. You keep doing what you're doing now and it'll slowly drain you dry.”
“It is Popov's worry too, Clay.”
“How many other fleets fish in the waters where you fish, Popov?” I asked.
“These are Popov's fishing grounds. No one comes to Popov's fishing grounds to fish. There is a fleet from Texas. It moves southwest of where Popov fishes. Fleets from Louisiana fish to north. A fleet from Tampa comes into our fishing grounds. Small fleet. As long as fishing is good, we don't mind so much.”
“Could you move farther south?” I asked. “Near the Florida Straits?”
“Keys are having fleets fishing there. They are not catching the fish either.”
“You talk to these other fishing fleets, Popov?”
“We talk fish. Yes.”
“You need to keep an eye on your fishing grounds. Don't fish. Let no one else fish. Use your smallest boat to keep fishing boats out of your waters. Have it circulate. Alternate crews to keep your men involved. No fishing. I'll want to talk to the other fishing fleets you talk to. I want to hear what they are saying.”
“I can do this. Can I say why this is?”
“Spread the word to other fleets. If you take two months off, and it might take three, the fish will spawn and there will be more fish by September. Maybe the situation corrects itself. What you must understand, my friend, over fishing will one eventually be a problem. Taking time off a couple of times a year will allow the fish to replenish. When you start to fish, my hope is you fill your holds.”
“This is a good plan, Clay,” Popov said. “I'm not worried so much now.”
“If we don't figure out what's wrong on the first try, we'll keep trying.”
“We're careful when we add a boat. We have same trawlers as when you fish with us. Nicky left. His grandfather built the holds on the Vilnius Two wider and deeper than most boats. We do not replace Nicky's boat. Popov is hoping to see Nicky return.”
“You are a good fisherman, Popov. You are an excellent steward of the sea,” I complimented.
“What is this steward?” Popov wanted to know.
“Guardian. You take care of your fishing grounds. You keep other fleets off your waters. It's important we get the fishing under control. I can study the result from keeping your boats at anchor.”
“Popov will do as you say,” he said. “I like this plan.”
“Again, you're quite perceptive and this attitude keeps your fleet strong. The fish are talking to you. As careful as you have been, not taking too many fish from one spot, there are international fishing fleets that will fish anywhere at any time and fish one spot until they fill their holds with millions of pounds of fish. There is no regard for how many fish they leave for other fishermen. If there are no fish the next time they come to fish, they move somewhere else, until they catch all the fish they can. They will leave the sea empty and keep other fishermen to flounder.”
“These are bad fisherman,” Popov said.
“Greedy, bad, careless, and once they catch all the fish, they too will go without. They have fishing boats the size of cargo ships. They go out for a month, two months at a time. It's no longer like your fleet. You go home every third day and take time before you go out again. Those boats are always fishing.”
“The equipment, the men, even the fish, they need to rest,” he said.
“They do, Popov. As I said, you aren't the problem. The fish stock in the Gulf may migrate a thousand, two thousand miles, and then return. Another thing we've yet to chart. You are a good custodian and take care of your fleet. That's not necessarily true at the far end of where the fish migrate.”
“They leave the Gulf?”
“Leave it, move, too far to follow. The Gulf is huge. Your fishing fleet is small. If someone along the line takes more than a fair share, you suffer. The fish don't return, after the last fish is taken, Popov. That's my concern. It's the future a small fishing fleet in our cove faces today. If the fishermen don't protect the fish, there will be no fish. It's as much your job as mine. I can only suggest actions you can take to help. You need to do the work,” I said.
Popov leaned back in his chair to think.
“How do you know so much, Clayton?”
“Logic. Common sense. It's part of what I do, Popov. I study all aspects of the sea. I've never thought of following the fish. We can do that together. First we wait. First we take a vacation. One day scientists like me will know where the fish are, where they go, and how long they stay. Today we need to look for them.”
“I do what you say, Clay.”
“You just think about your vacation for now. I'll do the rest. From now on you might want to set aside ten percent of your profits during the good times. It'll give you working capital when the fish they do not bite.”
Popov smiled, recognizing his words.
“We use nets, Clay. The fish they do not so much bite as they leap onto our decks.”
We both laughed.
This was the myth about me. There were so many fish they leaped on the deck the first day I fished with Popov's fleet.
“We'll talk in a month and I may go out with you then. This time we'll go to see what we can see. You can fish one day only. Go out to each of your fishing grounds, toss in your net, and see what we can see.”
“They will come back for you, Clay. You are the charmer of the fish.”
For one of the first times in my career, I called Harry's private number in Washington. He picked up on the second ring.
“Harry! Clayton, I've just had a meeting with Captain Popov.”
“Clay, what a surprise. How are you?”
“I'm fine. Popov, not so good. You're on the cutting edge of things and I'm here taking care of the Gulf. We have a problem. You need to be aware of it.”
“Go on,” Harry said. “I'm listening.”
“Do you have a few minutes?” I asked. “I can call back, Harry.”
“I'll make a few minutes. The problem?”
I went over my two meetings with Popov and what I came up with.
“The cove depends on the fishing fleet for survival; the fish warehouse.”
“It's a symptom, Harry. Bill has been saying for years that the seas are being depleted of fish. I didn't expect to see it in my lifetime. I've parked the fleet for two months. We'll go out in July to take a read on conditions. It might be necessary to keep the fleet parked until conditions improve.”
“The fish warehouse?”
“They'll have to close, Harry. Take the summer off. Summer is a slow season with the fewest employees. In the future it might be wise to park the fleet for a month in the winter and another month in the summer. We can protect our fishing industry from over fishing, but there's a bigger problem than the fishing fleet from the cove.”
“OK, Clay. I'll see what I can find out. We'll go with your plan for now. I'll call interested parties who'll see to it the cove stays viable. I'll have some answers by the end of the week. It goes far beyond fishing. I will be home next week. We can talk.”
“Think diversify, Harry.”
“Diversify how? A five star resort might sound nice, but we aren't exactly on the vacation circuit.”
“I don't know. I'm a marine biologist. You're the businessman. Dylan wants to surf. We can look into that. It's big in the West.”
“Surf? There's no surf in the Gulf, Clayton.”
“Not California or Australian surf, but waves big enough to surf on. During storms, which is what Dylan sees, the waves are huge. For the Gulf anyway.”
“Come drown with us doesn't sound like much of a motto,” Harry said.
“We have a bait shop at the marina. They sell rods and reels. Someone must fish nearby. Who runs the bait shop? I have to go to Palmer's to fill my SCUBA tanks. Add some surf gear, the ability to fill SCUBA tanks at the cove, and we might create commerce.”
“Food for thought, Clay,” Harry said.
“We have some incredible dive sites nearby. I could make a map of the ones I don't want to keep exclusively for study. The interest in SCUBA diving is increasing. We can look into tourists and SCUBA diving.”
“Keep on that train of thought, Clay. I've got to go to work. Let me think it over and make some calls. Popov's OK with this?”
“He'll do what I tell him,” I said.
“You do have that effect on people. What will he say if after parking his fleet, the fish don't come back?”
“He'll probably keelhaul me,” I said.
“Sounds painful. Keep me informed. I'll be home next week. Remember, the cove depends on Popov's fleet. If he's no longer viable, neither is the cove.”
The call ended. I kicked my feet off the desk and went to look at the map of the entire Gulf.
If I were a fish, where would I go for the summer?
Bill Payne hadn't spent an inordinate amount of time on doomsday scenarios. He was training us to prevent man's self destruction. I remembered him warning that the fish would be depleted one day if man didn't learn to respect resources. Between pollution and over fishing, he saw a result that was inevitable if an effort wasn't made to preserve natural resources.
It made perfect sense when Bill said it. As marine biologists we were to identify the dangers and then expect a segment of the population to come to the aid of whatever part of the environment was endangered.
It wasn't hard to believe that some men exploited resources. There were men who would grab as much of a resource as they could get.
Was Popov's dilemma local, having natural origins, or was there a culprit that went beyond nature?
I lacked the knowledge or experience to do anything but treat the symptoms, and in doing so, hope we stumbled onto a solution. My work was a continuation of my studies with Bill as his student. It was routine. It required no great intellectual accomplishment to do the obvious.
Knowing what to do if the obvious didn't work was something I'd get to if parking the fleet wasn't the answer.
For now my eyes were on the Gulf and the things in it.
Popov immigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States. Sailing out of the harbor at Murmansk, he sailed into our sleepy cove, bringing his fishing fleet with him in 1955.
The Fish Warehouse had more than doubled in size and the marina, six slips when Popov arrived, had grown up around the fishing fleet. There was a bait shop and J.K.'s Kitchen to serve people who came to the cove to work and play.
There was an ecosystem centered around the fishing fleet. Up until 1976 all systems were go. No one knew trouble had come to the cove.
The spawning cycle of fish was no secret. They reproduced quickly, if given the time to do so. Allowing them to have that time was logical.
It didn't take a marine biologist to figure that out.