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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#406: "Leaping Lobbies"

Yes, the dreaded day will soon arrive... midnight tomorrow in fact. A number of my close friends have been fearing this day (or night if you will) even more than I have. I've spent a lot of evenings with them the last few months and can tell by their behavior that they are getting quite skittish. I still don't understand how they know. To the best of my knowledge they can't read human calendars. It must be some innate sense of timing (something I lack, especially with the ladies). Yes, lobster season is upon us. Not only do my "friends" fear it, but I do too. Opening night of "bug" season often involves accidents by the human species, and even the death of a diver or two some years. A few folks who participate haven't dived since the end of the previous season, and are a bit "rusty."

On a recent night dive in the Casino Point dive park, I noticed that my friends were very wary of my video lights. Rather than sit and pose as they would back in June, allowing me to get good video footage; they now seem to scatter whenever my video light veers off in their direction. Bugs are everywhere but in my video frame. If I'm quick enough, I do get to take footage of them jetting off back to the reef or other hiding place. On this dive I may have discovered why they are so edgy. I found two lobster carapaces (the head and thoracic region known as the cephalothorax) sans tail. I doubt that they were the remnants of a molt because the tails were nowhere to be seen. Seems like someone was jumping the gun on the season... in other words, a vile unscrupulous poacher had been present in the dive park.

Now I'm old enough to remember the days when bugs were not only plentiful, but grew to amazing sizes. The California Department of Fish and Game states they may reach in excess of 25 pounds and three feet when more of them live a full lifespan of 20 to 30 years. Of course I've heard the stories from vintage bug hunters who caught them much bigger than that... at least in their own minds! Looking back at historical dive photos from the 60s when I started diving Catalina waters, it was not uncommon to see a number of bugs in the 5 to 10 pound range in a night's catch. Today's divers are happy with a 1-2 pounder... much tastier than the big boys (and also better than a mere quarter pounder at McDonalds). Given the increasing number of people... and divers... in SoCal, the days of the big bugs being "common" are probably long over, at least until the new marine reserves are well under way.

Back in that era I still dove for bugs. I had a "sure spot" where I could always (and easily) pick out one or two for dinner. I rarely kept more than two in my freezer... just enough for that "hot date" that never materialized (then as now). For those that think the daily limit is seven, I have news for you. That magic number applies to the TOTAL number of bugs you have in your possession at one time. Yes, even the dozens you've stashed away in your freezer. No wonder bugs are getting smaller. Speaking of which, earlier this "summer" (if that's the word for what we experienced) I was seeing nothing but "shorts." As "summer" progressed, larger bugs appeared... a few of which actually appeared to be of legal size. I even saw one estimated at several pounds having difficulty moving about in a crevice in the rocks of Casino groyne (more commonly referred to as breakwater).

I stopped taking bugs back in 1975, about the same time I stopped hunting and sold my gun collection. I have no problem with others who take game topside or underwater, as long as it is done with respect for the laws. I'm glad I have dive buddies who do take... and will share an occasional "bug" with me when they do. I love the taste of "bugs..." just not the fried giant water bugs, scorpions and other fare I was offered on the streets of Bangkok nine years ago. It's interesting that lobster are largely scavengers and will eat any dead thing they encounter during their nightly feeding forays. Some say they can taste the difference between bugs, probably based on the lobsters' diets. After eating my own cooking for 40+ years, I have no sense of taste (and a cast iron stomach as well).

Some of my readers in far off places like Maine may not realize that our SoCal lobster do not possess the big claws theirs have. They may feel our poor bugs are defenseless and easy to take. Of course based on my shredded dive gloves from decades past, I can assure you that is not the case. Our bugs are members of the spiny lobsters with other species known from tropical waters including the Caribbean. The two groups have evolved separately. Ours have developed other means of defense, both against predators like us or giant sea bass, and annoying underwater critters like kelp bass. The primary defense against humans rests in the spines that give this group its name. They are sharp and can make it difficult to grab a bug even when they are out in the open. The spines on the tail can be especially painful if a bug hunter isn't careful. Even the whip-like antennae have spines on them.

Bugs have other defense mechanisms as well. Although it won't deter a good diver, the long antennae are used to defend against smaller fish like the kelp bass when they get too close. I have seen lobster use these appendages very effectively against many species of fish. On several occasions I have seen them seem to defend blacksmith that were sheltering at night from hungry kelp bass. The spines on the antennae are quite irritating when they are used to whip the intruder. Of course they are useless when a giant sea bass decides to suck up a bug or 10 (I'm told they don't adhere to the legal limit).

You often hear of the "fight or flight" option when facing danger. Well, lobster are not especially good fighters so flight is usually their better option. No, I'm not suggesting they go airborn like baitfish being chased by yellowtail. However, they can use their tail to jet away from danger quite quickly. Many times while diving at night I've had lobster crash into my neoprene clad body as I was filming. That often makes the footage a little jumpy, so on such occasions I have to edit it out. Based on the footage I have saved, this jetting response takes less than a tenth of a second to send them way out of camera range.

The past two seasons I've observed and filmed another response to danger. Most lobster I see are out on the gently sloping sandy bottom searching for "munchies." However, others search the rocky reefs for their goodies. On a number of occasions I've seen these bugs act almost like lemmings, leaping off the reef into thin... water. Yep, they are acting just like Michael Jordan or the octopus I referred to a few weeks ago as "air octo..." but they are heading down, not up. I refer to them as "leaping lobbies." At least they don't need a parachute given water's density and resistance.

Will we ever see the return of the "goliath lobster" like the ones divers were taking back in the 50s and 60s? Perhaps. All they need is a chance to grow without hunting pressure, and it is the larger ones that have the greatest potential for reproduction. This is one reason why many in the dive community are urging hunters to release the big bugs they catch. The establishment of more marine reserves will increase the chances that bugs get larger over time. Although some anglers and underwater hunters question this, there is compelling evidence it works. The Goat Island Reserve established by Dr. Bill Ballantine in New Zealand during the 1970s was initially fought by the commercial crayfish folks. Yes, they call their bugs crayfish "down under." Once they saw the increased yields achieved catching lobster that spilled over from the reserves into the adjacent areas they fished, the "crayfishers" actually "lobbied" (double entendre intended) for the creation of more reserves in Kiwi waters.

© 2010 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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Lobster with antennae in defensive posture, using antennae to ward off a round stingray;
"leaping lobbie" and lobster preparing to jet away from my camera.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2010 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia