Underwater gourmand Peter Russell-Clarke goes for a stroll on the seabed and barely escapes with his rubbery skin intact.
I sailed, with my father, to Queensland on his yacht Jihan. I think you may well be bored to sobs if I were to detail the trials and tribulations of your correspondent under the Bligh-like dominance of my skipper/father. Or the categorisation of the yacht’s many foibles.
Nor does it colour the yarn to tell how I wept when the old man threw the fridge overboard because the kero had run out. Or the problem with the diesel engine after it somehow sucked seawater into its bowels. The burning sugar, blown out to sea from the fires in the cane fields, which pitted our steel hull does nothing to enliven the tale of the moment when, finally arriving at the Whitsundays, I met the trochus shell diver who changed my perception of underwater adventure.
We were anchored in the shelter of a holiday resort island, which was disguising a fancy dress evening of unrestrained debauchery under the thin veil of an innocent frolic. All the yachties in the area were invited to join with the guests of the resort.
A wooden-hulled Tahitian ketch was anchored off to our port side. Its skipper rowed over to ask for assistance. “Can you help me with some make-up and such?” he smiled. “I’m a diver and have little use for fancy dress. But since there are pretty girls ashore . . . When in Rome, eh?”
He was raffishly handsome in the Douglas Fairbanks style, with an ease of movement that was sure to excite the matrons or maidens on the island. He made his living, he explained, by gathering trochus shells used for button manufacture, their mother-of-pearl earning Australia some $50 million or more each year.
My old man assured Jim, for that is how the diver introduced himself, that we weren’t carrying much by way of make-up but that his trusty number two – that’s me – had some paints that might do the trick. So we popped a spare beret on his wavy sun-bleached hair, drew a Salvador Dali moustache above his lip and told him he looked fine in his red striped matelot shirt.
Before he set off to the fleshpots, he produced some flesh of his own: trochus flesh it was, which he’d marinated after belting it with a marlin pike to make it chewable. It was like trying to masticate chewing gum – great flavour, but easier to eat a footballer’s mouthguard. Nevertheless, being polite, we tried.
The next morning Jim reappeared, red-eyed, dehydrated and not at all sure he should thank us for kitting him out for last night’s adventure. But after a few stiffeners he came around and – after a few more – offered to walk me amongst the sharks. “It’s all right,” he grinned wolfishly, “I’ll be with you.”
“Yes,” I gulped. “So will the sharks.”
He held up his right hand, which had only two fingers. “I didn’t count their eyelids, so they got me,” he laughed. “They’ve got seven eyelids, so when they circle you, count their eyelids as they close each one. Once they’re down to the last two, they mean to attack – so get out of the way.”
“But what if they’re behind me,” I whined, “and I don’t see the lids drop?” Before Jim could answer, my father interrupted by serving lunch: threadfin salmon with fresh black lip oysters he’d knocked off the rocks and splashed with limejuice and local rum. Bananas were peeled and crisped on the outside – al dente on the inside. The salad was lettuce seaweed, shredded and sprinkled with olive oil and pepper (no salt required).
After washing that lot down with a chilled bottle of red, we slept for an hour or two then came up on deck. Despite my protests I was positioned in the water, hanging onto the safety ladder while Jim lowered a huge bronze helmet over my worried head. Its weight broke my grip on the ladder and I dropped to the sea floor.
Like Dante, Jim appeared beside me in a whirling puff of bubbles. He beckoned to me to follow him as he pushed through the water to an amazing growth of coral. I bent to examine it in detail, causing water to rush up inside the helmet while I screamed, “I’ve sprung a leak!”
As I snapped my head upright the water flowed back out of the helmet, but I was too traumatised to understand that the air pumped into my helmet kept the water at a level just below my Adam’s Apple. When I bent forwards, the water level remained the same – it was just that my face was lowering into it, immersing me in seawater.
I did remember, though, that Jim had explained I could communicate with him by resting my helmet gently against his. The voice vibrations would be clearly heard and understood. All well and good. Except, in my panic, I lunged towards Jim shouting, “I’m drowning!” But I’d forgotten our heads were encased in two-foot-wide helmets. Our heads clashed with a BOINGGG! like sticking your noggin inside Big Ben at high noon.
I screamed in escalating panic and fell backwards, allowing more of the ocean to rush in. The crew topside saw the air pipes thrashing and immediately hauled me up like a fish on the end of a line. I was flopped on the deck still screaming when they yanked the helmet off.
After a very ordinary brandy, I subsided a little and quietened. While I was getting my nervous system in order, Jim was cooking a King Emperor on a BBQ that swung overboard from the bumpkin – a sensible safety measure on a wooden vessel. I noticed Jim had wrapped the fish in banana leaves to protect the flesh from the hot coals of the BBQ.
As I looked on, he unwrapped the fish and brushed olive oil over both sides of its de-scaled skin – which crisped in an instant. Whipping it off the heat, he served it beside a chilled bottle of Chablis my father had contributed. An iron pot of gaping-mouth mussels waited in a liquid of coconut milk, the mussels’ own liqueur, dry white wine and garlic juice. Roasted yams sprinkled with coriander and garlic salt had their own plate beside a salad of dehydrated and crisped seaweed.
By now my pulse rate was back to normal, with all senses – especially taste and smell – working well. Jim had previously made a pot of soup from the fish head and crustacean shells gleaned from an earlier seabed excursion. His instructions were that we spoon of food into the soup in our individual bowls and eat it from there.
I did as he suggested, although I didn’t really want anything to do with another liquid immersion adventure. I certainly admired Jim’s skill with food and he obviously knew his way around an underwater reef or two but, ever since, I’ve wondered about the eyelids and the missing fingers.