Man Versus Lobster

 

They dove off boats, kayaks, beaches and breakwaters, looking not just for any old lobster but for the biggest lobsters they could get their hands on.

by Mark McDermott

12:40 a.m., Saturday, September 29, off the Palos Verdes Peninsula

 

It’s not hard to see how lobsters came to be known as bugs. Diver Marc Forster with his first catch of the season. Photos by Mark McDermott

The water has been dark and strangely still for 40 minutes when a blue glow suddenly appears just below the surface. Soon thereafter, a goggled head breaks through. "We’ve got buggage!" gasps the diver. A few seconds later he raises a thrashing mesh bag into the moonlight. It’s his first dive of the new lobster season, and Marc Forster already has a bag full of bugs.

At 12:01 Friday night, Forster and more than 300 other divers dove to the ocean bottom, looking for lobsters. They dove off boats, kayaks, beaches and breakwaters, looking not just for any old lobster but for the biggest lobsters they could get their hands on.

The divers were taking part in the 25th annual Lobster Mobster contest, the season kick-off sponsored by the Dive ‘N Surf shop in Redondo Beach. The biggest three lobsters brought back to the shop by 9 a.m. the next morning win prizes and, most importantly, bragging rights as the master bug hunter.

But then again, these incentives really don’t seem all that necessary for most of these divers. They just plain like diving into the cold dark and looking for big bugs that hit back.

"Man," says Forster, flopping on board the boat and fighting his catch of four lobsters out of the bag. "That was a rush."

A Bug Hunter’s Tale

Forster, who is from Redondo Beach, began bug hunting 11 years ago. Last year’s was the only mobster lobster contest he has missed since. He is an electrician by trade, and on the previous day he rose at 5 a.m. for work. This means that by the time he has finished diving, taken the boat back to Port Royal Harbor and gone back up to the shop to weigh in his biggest lobster and collect his lobster mobster T-shirt, he will have been up close to 24 hours. All for the sake of bug hunting.

"I’m from the "Sea Hunt" generation," he explains. "It’s all about Mike Nelson."

What he is referring to, of course, is the television show that ran from 1957 to 1962 starring Lloyd Bridges as underwater explorer Mike Nelson. Type in the words "Sea Hunt" into any Internet search engine, and you will see that Forster, who is 44-years-old, is not alone in his inspiration. Site after reverent site thanks the good underwater deeds of Mike Nelson for a lifetime of aquatic passion.

That much helps explain the drive to dive, but to forgo sleep in order to drop to the ocean bed and scramble after a bony nocturnal lobster with a remarkable ability for evasion certainly requires something besides a Sea Hunt notion.

"Well," says Forster. "It’s not really about the taste of the lobster for me. But God help me if I show up empty-handed in the morning. My two daughters both dive, but wouldn’t ever come out here in the middle of the night, and if I didn’t come home with some lobsters, oh man, I can hear the screams now. Mom is even worse; she’s probably at the house right now with the pot ready and her bibs on."

So it is a combination of some of the oldest motivations in the world that have a worn-out electrician out plunging into the deep tonight: a mother’s expectations, the vestigial call of the hunter-gatherer, and the eternal itch of adventure.

Some Biology and Etymology of the oddly musical Spiny Lobster

It’s not hard to see why the spiny lobster is so often called a bug. The species found off the California coast isn’t exactly the poster boy lobster of seafood fame, but it makes up for its appearance with sheer eccentricity. Begin with its scientific name, Panulirus interruptus, which indeed sounds like something that moves with irritation in the dark, but not necessarily of the crustacean persuasion. Though these lobsters lack the claws possessed by more renowned cousins such as the Maine lobster, the two sets of antennae they have instead not only give them their pronounced bug-like ugliness but also serve very important purposes: the two larger stalks serve as a highly sensitive radar, alert to the slightest movement nearby, while the smaller antennules are used to smell potential food and predators.

But here’s where these lobsters get downright weird: the antennae have a function unique in the annals of the animal kingdom. They are used like a bow rubbed across a string to produce a clicking sound that deters predators from pursuit. It’s unlike what a cricket does, because the lobster is using a method known in music as "stick and slip"; whereas a cricket scrapes hard-edged "picks" over the ridges of its exoskeleton, the spiny lobster rubs soft folds on the base of its antennae up against soft plates under its eyes. That soft fold is called a plectrum, and it sticks and slips as the lobster moves it in a single muscle contraction -- just like a violinist -- to create a pulsation of sound.

There’s yet another odd characteristic of this singularly weird bug, an elusiveness that evades even marine biologists whose work is dedicated to their study–nobody can say for sure how old any given adult is, or even make a decent guess at the average lifespan of a spiny lobster. The range of guesses in the biological literature concerning the species is astonishing in itself, with most estimating lifespans of about 30 years but a few venturing up to 50 and even 150 years.

"It’s pure speculation," says Kristine Barsky, a senior marine biologist with the Department of Fish and Game. "I can’t tell you. Easily 30 years, but who knows?"

The problem, according to Barsky, is that it’s proven nearly impossible to reliably tag spiny lobsters, because as adults they lose their exoskeleton once a year. Its fairly well documented that for an individual to reach the legally harvestable size, which is a carapace of three- and one-quarter inches, it takes at least seven years. Beyond that is mystery. As they grow older, size becomes a less reliable gauge of age, since some bugs spend many of their growth resources regenerating lost limbs.

Barsky can shed light on one aspect of bug oddity. The interuptus part of its name likely refers to grooves on its tail, which don’t quite make it all the way across the body. Or as Barsky puts it, "The groove is interrupted."

The Weigh-In

Marc Forster makes one more dive and grabs one more bug, and then decides to call it a night. He’s used up most of the air in the two tanks he brought along–"I’m kind of an air hog," he confesses at one point–and besides, he’s wiped out. For him, bug hunting is a fairly full-contact sport. "The trick is once you have the bug," he says. "you get it in the death grip. Then it never fails when you’re wrestling with the lobster a surge comes in, and you start rolling, lobster in one hand and measuring gauge in the other. You’re like a pinball between the reefs."

He’s also pretty satisfied with the night’s catch. None of the bugs are big enough to win the contest, but he has five of them, more than enough to feed mom, daughters, fiancee, and himself. Back at Dive N Surf, the weary-eyed staff is waiting up, out behind the shop, in a blacktop yard where a scale, T-shirts, and a Polaroid camera are at the ready. Forster’s biggest bug weighs in at a little over 3 pounds. He happily poses for his picture, collects his shirt, and heads home.

Only minutes later, an exuberant couple pulls into the parking lot. David and Lisa Schrock come ambling back to the scale, him with a monstrous lobster in his grip. It weighs in at 9.85 pounds, easily the biggest of the night, and though the majority of the 353 divers who have registered for the contest have yet to report back, this one looks like the winner.

A member of the staff asks Schrock what sized T-shirt he wants.

"Extra-large," he says.

"For you or for the lobster?" someone asks.

Stephen Speregen with his Mobster Lobster winning 10.18 pound bug. His dive boat is christened Hard Core I. Photo by Mark McDermott

David Schrocks with is 9.85 pound monster lobster. It earned him second place. Photo by Mark McDermott

Behind the scale is a sign that reads: No Lobster, No Shirt. A few years ago a guy came back from his dive empty-handed, so he went to an all-night grocery store and bought a Maine lobster. He got his shirt, or so the story goes.

The Schrocks are standing at their car, just about to leave, when another vehicle pulls in. David seems to know before the lobster is even unloaded from a cooler strapped on top that inside resides a danger to his leading bug. Stephen Speregen bounds out of his truck, wetsuit still on his burly body. His bounce is something just short of a swagger and seems to indicate that he has a big one. Sure enough, the cooler is opened and another whopper of a lobster is dropped on the scale. It weighs 10.18 pounds, and nobody seems much surprised. Speregen has won the contest at least six times – either out of weariness, exasperation, or just bad record keeping, nobody seems to know for sure exactly how many times. Not even Speregen.

This lobster is a fighter. Even as Speregen takes it over to the lobster mobster wall of fame for the obligatory Polaroid, it is still snapping its tail at him, fighting to get loose. Several of the divers now streaming into the yard begin discussing how long lobsters sometimes live after capture; it emerges that several have put bugs into their refrigerators only to find them still snapping their tails 24 hours later. Others remark at the wretched hissing a live lobster makes when it is dropped into a boiling pot. It’s the middle of the night, and the talk gets more gruesome by the minute.

There is also some grumbling. Some divers think its more than a matter of chance or skill that has lead Sperengen, who is from Westlake Village and not even a member of the Dive N Surf dive team, to dominate the competition for the better part of a decade. Theories abound. The most prevalent one is that he is catching lobsters beforehand, storing them in traps underwater, and then diving down and – bingo! – coming up with the winning lobster, year after year.

"You know," says one particularly disgruntled diver, "He could even be taking lobsters home, fattening them up, and then planting them out there in a trap. That could be it."

Speregen is oblivious to this talk, but not to the malice that his winning streak has inspired. Several times in recent years, he says, people have messed with his boat on the night of the contest, once even stealing his prop. Another time he was out on the water and he noticed a line attached to one of his bumpers, and when he pulled the line up a bag of undersized lobsters was at its end. But he is more anxious to talk about the lobster that got away from a friend who was diving with him. The two were diving by a submerged boat named the Palawan when his diving partner saw a huge bug hiding deep down in a crevice. "It was way bigger than mine," says Speregen. "Way bigger." His friend, determined to reach that bug, took off his tank and crawled into the crevice. He just about had it his grasp when the bug kicked, and scuttled fast away, as only a bug can do.

Biologist Kristine Barsky remarked, "Up, down, sideways, backwards. Wouldn’t you love to have a vehicle that moved like they do?"

Man Versus Lobster

What is it that allows Stephen Speregen to win the lobster mobster contest year after year? "It’s simple," he says. "I know their patterns." He says he has spent more than 10,000 hours underwater off the California coast, and he has "a keener sense of where the lobsters are at." His wife, who declined to give her name, also says it’s simple. "He’s hard core," she says. "Do you know what the name of his boat is? Hard Core I." She also points to the fact that unlike most any other diver in the contest, he goes down with two tanks strapped on, allowing him to go deeper and stay down longer than most.

Another advantage Speregen claims is that he’s from New York. "Most of the guys out here, they’re spoiled," he says. "If they don’t have 20 or 30 feet of visibility, they won’t even go."

Marc Forster, when informed a few days later of some of the questions surrounding Speregen’s victory, shrugged it off. "He’s got a formula worked out," he said. "The rest is just sour grapes."

Speregen, whatever his methods are, seems more concerned with retribution of the lobster kind. He tells the story of the first time he went down inside the Palawan, the same sunken boat he dove near on one of his three dives on the night of this lobster mobster victory.

"I put the light on, and then, bing, off the walls, and bing, right off me," he says "There’s lobsters just swarming all over the place, like a whole big herd of them."

"I thought, ‘Oh no! Revenge!’" ER