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A sea change: for Rockies-raised author Maile Meloy, true love meant learning to love the Pacific.

I GREW UP in Helena, Montana, a town nestled against the mountains. I loved skiing and hiking and kayaking on rivers, in high, cold, clear air. Saltwater wasn't as good to me: I get seasick. So my family was understandably baffled when I decided to move to Los Angeles, a city whose single endearing quality, to Montanans picturing smoggy gridlock, is its long, shimmering sweep of blue water.


I was ready to embrace the beach when I arrived. I wanted to love it. I learned to surf a little, even though sitting on the board made me queasy, and the L.A. spot I liked best turned out to be a nursery for juvenile great white sharks, allegedly harmless but 8 feet long. Also, I'm a redhead, and have to wear a hat, a full wetsuit, and booties against the sun, while the California girls bask on their boards in string bikinis. The last time I was on a sailboat, I took NASA-strength anti-nausea drugs and still wound up huddled by the rail, with nothing left to throw up. When asked if there was anything I wanted--crackers or ginger ale?--I whispered, "A rental car. Just put me on land "

But as luck or geography would have it, in Los Angeles I met a man whose first love was the ocean. He's a diver, a sailor, a bodysurfer; he swims ocean races. He's happiest underwater, and in the past year he's become obsessed with spearfishing. I feel a bit like the Little Mermaid in reverse, with a prince who's always beneath the waves.

Here's what spearfishing involves, if you live in California: You leave your warm bed early in the morning, in the dark. You drive a long way, then pour hair conditioner inside your extra-thick wetsuit with its sticky rubber interior so you can tug it on. Then you take a kayak or a powerboat or you hike down a cliff, carrying your gun and your diving weights, and you swim to the reefs and kelp beds where the fish like to be.

The kelp is beautiful but spooky, light-blocking and arm-tangling. You carry a long gun with a spear powered by thick rubber bands, and you look for fish. You don't use tanks, because the bubbles scare your prey. So you just don't breathe--easy, right? You free dive down to 20 or 40 or 60 feet, holding your breath as your lungs shrink, and you wait in freezing water, or kick quietly through the forest of kelp.

Sometimes you see nothing. If you're lucky, you see an elusive white seabass, or a halibut, or a yellowtail. More likely you see a calico or sand bass. Then you decide, through the murky water, if it's of legal size, because you can't catch and release a fish with a spear through it. If you shoot one, it thrashes away with your spear on a line. At some spots, when you have a fish in tow, seals follow you back to the boat like muggers in Central Park. Oh, and repeated dives can make you seasick. There might be no sport I would enjoy less. BASE jumping? Bring it on.

There's also the killing, which makes me sad. I stopped fly-fishing when I got good enough to catch anything, because I couldn't stand the gasping or the thump. I know this is blinkered and inconsistent: I'm not a vegetarian, and I eat fish that have died worse deaths, through practices that are harder on the population. But a little mourning seems appropriate. I'm more conscious, when my husband brings home a fish, that a life has ended for our dinner.

It helps that they're impossibly delicious, light and delicate and fresh. Last weekend he speared a calico bass, filleted and grilled it, and made fish tacos with chopped tomatoes and guacamole. In Spanish, there's a clear distinction: Pez is a live fish, and pescado is one that's been caught. But fish that was swimming this morning is still a little bit pez and not quite pescado: You can taste the life in it.


And it makes my husband so happy. So it makes me happy too. Even when he doesn't catch anything, he can spend the whole day diving and surfacing, completely absorbed. He comes home tired but elated, lugging gear. He brings sand with him, and stories: of a giant ray, or a leopard shark.

I've made peace with being a bad sailor, too pale to be a beach rat. I like being near the ocean, for the blue vastness, the salty air, the negative ions generated by crashing surf, and for him. I don't have to be in it all the time, because the man I love brings a little of it back to me.



Maile Meloy's most recent book is her young-adult novel, The Apothecary.
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Title Annotation:First person
Author:Kuusniemi, Eili-Kaija
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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