Oceans of Opportunity

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Bottom feeding, with Mercenaria mercenaria

When the going gets tough, the tough go digging clams – quahogs for we Rhode Islanders that is.

The journey of life never ceases to amaze me, and when viewed through that lens, as a journey, it’s amazing what can be taken in stride. Diving as a trade has blessed me with that outlook, and as challenging as swimming across the ebbs and flows can be at times, nature holds true in that the tide, like life itself, is cyclical.

I’ve officially been diving professionally for 21 years this spring. Aside from a very short stint bussing tables and cutting the grass at a local golf course back in high school, diving has been the ticket – through thick and thin, good times and bad, and from literally shoveling shit to exploring the edge of the planet – I am proud to say diving has been the most consistent thing throughout my life, even though diving itself comes with drastic inconsistencies…welcome to living the life aquatic.

When I first started with working dives, I was employed by a small mom and pop dive company to scrub boat bottoms, find lost keys and wallets, and change the occasional mooring chain. This was paid on the job training and was all about time in the water, which provided lessons that could never otherwise be taught. I learned how to work by feel while blind, learned how to beat long days of wet and cold in the middle of winter, learned how to discover an awareness of the underwater workspace, and learned how to make a buck in a cut throat and sometimes dangerous professional environment. A few of us acknowledged that we were really “harbor pirates”, and perhaps that was true.

I’ve viewed each phase of my dive career as a poetic stanza if you will, with much eloquent prose eventually reaching its conclusion, and then very quickly leading to the next. With every verse, new skills were learned, new tools and techniques acquired, and then yet again – on to the next…and then the challenges would increase, the demands on the person would increase, the detail would become more acute, and then on to the next yet again. When I take the time to reflect on each professional diving phase I’ve worked through, what seems to surface is that each new verse seems to have come from my own writing and looking for, perhaps even creating, my own next challenge. For better or worse, that type of drive to find new limitations and solve related problems along the way is nothing short of exhausting, but has also become a part of me, much thanks to diving.

As time has ticked by, the cycles get longer and longer, meaning preparations for the down times requires some advance strategic planning, and much like has always been the case with professional diving here in the Ocean State, you’ve got to have more than one iron in the fire at all times.

During my most recent diversion, by choice, I’ve stepped it way, way, way back. This has been, in many respects, to find a new appreciation for where I came from, and to find the time to think more carefully about where we can go.

Enter the quahog.

My first hour’s work. Mercenaria mercenaria, the Rhode Island quahog.

The guy that gave my my first chance, at age 16, was an entrepreneurial spirit who wouldn’t sit still for a second. While he had only recently acquired the dive company, his background was in diving for quahogs. Local folklore follows him around to this day, citing that he was probably single-handedly responsible for decimating the local quahog population in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s. I recall hearing countless stories of $600-1000 days from that time when regulations were much softer, and plenty of grumblings from the career fisherman that back up the claims…it seems vast expanses of hog beds were wiped out, and have taken decades to come back. The lesson I was always reminded of was that if anything ever slowed up with the dive business, he’d go back to quahogs. I took on that very same perspective, reverting back to bottom cleanings during numerous blocks of time – it was all time in the water, and even if not making a killing, costs were covered, you stayed proficient and in touch with overcoming the effort to suit up and get wet in the middle of the winter sometimes, and kept your name out there in the circles that would drum up dive work from time to time. Gaining that attitude and work ethic early on has proven priceless, and is 100% how and why I’ve managed to stay in the game as long as I have.

So, coming out of a slow winter, what have I embarked on during this next slack low tide? Yep – digging quahogs. Not glamorous by any means, but commands respect for those that do it for a living. These guys know more about the local natural history and life cycles than even the most seasoned marine scientist. This type of knowledge isn’t found in any text book, and very sadly will be lost within another generation. For me, cash aside, it’s just important to be out there immersed in the environment, honing skills, even developing new techniques, and having the solitude to keep the wheels turning – 6 or 8 hours a day alone and in the dark will do that for someone.

So, with that, back to the trenches, and back to bottom feeding…