Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"The March Of The Lobsters", by Cal Porter

The late 1940’s or early 1950’s is as close as I can come to recalling the date, probably a day in early Spring. I was working at Zuma Beach and it was going to be a fine, clear beach day. There was almost no one on the beach at that early hour but we always kept the area well covered, and when the lieutenant came out with his usual, “I think we’re going to need a pair of eyes up on the north end” (he said this a lot), I volunteered. We were all permanent, full time Los Angeles County Lifeguards on duty at that time of year, and we took turns in the towers when needed in the off season. This was before we had sand vehicles for patrol, so when it appeared that we might have swimmers one guard would head down to a south tower and one to the north, leaving the lieutenant and two guards for the emergency car at headquarters. There were many winter days when a total of only three guards were on duty at Zuma, including the lieutenant; or without the lieutenant, with no replacement, if it was his days off. The crowds at Zuma in those days were nothing like today. At that time there were no Malibu Canyon and Kanan Dume Roads through the Santa Monica Mountains that bring the bulk of today’s visitors to Zuma from the valleys. I drove past Zuma recently on a week day in the middle of March and the crowd on the beach and in the water looked like a day in July compared with then, sixty years ago.

Zuma Winter Crew, 1949

I drove my car up to the last tower and parked on the highway. This was long before Zuma had parking lots. I believe the last tower number was six or seven at that time; we originally had just four towers, whereas now it’s more like fifteen. Zuma was then the entire northern division for the county. When the beach opened in 1945 the first and only lifeguard worked out of a hunting lodge that was once there on the bank of Zuma Creek and the lagoon. This story takes place just a few years later. The public, county lifeguard operated beaches of Topanga, Las Tunas, Surfrider, Corral, Westward and Nicholas Canyon didn’t exist then, they were all privately owned. There were six private homes on the sands of Zuma; the county by then had purchased three of them. One was converted into the old, original lifeguard headquarters, the second one was lived in by the lieutenant, and my family and I lived in the third, the most northerly of the six for which I paid the county twenty-five dollars a month in rent. Of the three remaining private homes one was owned by a well-known orchestra conductor, another was owned by the president of the many Bullock’s Department Stores, and the third was rented out to various entertainment figures. The county eventually purchased these last three and the four on Westward Beach, and in time demolished all ten of them for parking lots and such.

The Original Zuma Lifeguard Headquarters

Now back to the story. I parked my car (a nifty 1948, white convertible Ford V8) behind the tower which was just down the beach from where Trancas Creek meets the Pacific Ocean, and a few hundred yards north of my beach home. I opened the tower and did the usual: put up the flag, swept the tower, washed the windows, and put out the equipment. There was no one on the beach or near the water so I called back to headquarters to inform them it was workout time. I planned to swim some distance down the beach and then run back to the tower in the soft sand, the usual. I wore my diving mask for the swim because the water in those days at Zuma was crystal clear (and often still is) and I liked to check on the number of slumbering halibut I would encounter below me to keep them in mind for a future spear fishing episode. I also took note of the other edible fish and the plentiful beds of giant Pismo clams that were everywhere at that end of the beach in those days. What I wasn’t expecting to see was a lobster. The nearest rocky bottom that lobsters would frequent, and where we did our abalone and “bug” diving, was a mile north at Trancas Point. And to the south it was another mile or so to the rocky bottom at Point Dume. I was in quite shallow water with almost no surf that day to rile the visibility. I didn’t know why he was there but he was a nice legal size lobster so I grabbed him with my hands, trying not to get cut by his spikes, and proceeded shoreward to throw him up on the beach for retrieval on my run back to the tower. Resuming my swim, I immediately came upon another lobster, and ahead of him another, and I suddenly realized that there was a whole line of lobsters ahead of me bunched together as far as I could see under water. They were everywhere, and almost in single file heading south, dozens and dozens and dozens of them. It was perplexing to say the least but what was a fellow to do but make the most of the situation. I swam along above them, picked out a large one here and there, and then cast them up on the beach for harvesting on my run back to the tower. I don’t know how long the lobster line continued; it seemed to go on forever but my workout swim was now over and I figured a dozen lobsters on the beach was plenty for now. My house was near the end of my swim so I ran there, picked up my lobster bag and hurried back to pick up my plunder. I had a very large freezer at my house for just such sea life occasions as this, and after work and boiling a lot of water that’s where these fellows would end up. There was still no one on the beach to witness this phenomenon.

My Zuma House, 1952

Lobsters live in, around and under rocks and pilings. They don’t do a whole lot during the daytime but they do get active at night. So what were these lobsters doing in broad daylight on a sandy bottom far from home? Just out for a three mile stroll? Most of the divers and lifeguards I talked to had no idea, had never seen such a thing. They probably thought I made the whole thing up anyway, since later that day, on an afternoon swim, there was not a lobster to be seen. But in speaking to experts later, who knew much more about the life of lobsters than I did, I learned that it is not uncommon at all, and that lobsters do migrate from time to time for one reason or another, often going to safer water. But usually the journey is at night, and they sometimes travel far greater distances than my caravan on its little three or four mile hike. The process has also now been filmed.

I had done a lot of diving before and a lot since this march of the lobsters at Zuma Beach sixty years ago but I have never seen a mass migration of this magnitude again. What I can say about it is that this was the easiest bug diving I have ever encountered; couldn’t have been easier unless they just left the water and walked up to my house. The aftermath was that these lobsters were greatly appreciated by family and friends for many a tasty dinner.

Cal Porter

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All the photographs featured in this story are courtesy of Cal Porter. Story and Photos are the copyright of Cal Porter and are used here with permission.

Many Thanks to Cal for yet another great story. We've got another of his stories "on deck" as well, so get your rest Recurrents!... cuz we've got some more fun stories comin' your way soon.


Until next time.....

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1 comment:

William Maguire said...

*** Courtesy of Terry Flanagan***

From: Leaf...
To: flana...
Sent: Thu, Apr 8, 2010 5:25 am
Subject: Re: "The March of the Lobsters", by Cal Porter;...

Great story. I love to hear about the old days at L.A. beaches. I'd love to be at Zuma right now.
Here is a link for some youtube clips of migrating lobsters.