If lobsters had post offices, photos of scuba divers Stephen Alford and Stephen Speregen would be prominently positioned on the wall.
Toiling under the balmy, moonlit sky early Wednesday at a spot off the Malibu shoreline they preferred not to disclose, Speregen captured a 10 3/4-pound monster and Alford grabbed seven lobsters--the legal daily limit--weighing a total of 38 pounds.
The diving buddies were easily among the most successful of the hundreds of hyperkinetic crustacean catchers who participated in an annual Southern California tradition--the opening night of lobster season.
Just as justices of the U.S. Supreme Court don their robes to begin their annual session on the first Monday of each October, scads of amateur divers don their wetsuits and oxygen tanks in order to jump off boats or wade into the chilly water at precisely 12:01 a.m. on the first Wednesday of each October, the official start of an arduous five-month season.
It's the Big Time
"This is the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Olympics of scuba diving," declared Bob Steffen, 41, a TRW engineer, as he stepped into his floppy black flippers near the Redondo Beach breakwater at about 11:30 p.m. Indeed, Steffen said, the night is such a draw that he was forced to cancel plans to take a charter boat to San Nicolas or another outer island after learning that all such trips had been booked solid for weeks.
"It's more than a tradition; it's a ritual," declared Cliff Spitzenpfeil of Tustin, who at 3 a.m. brought five smallish lobsters he had captured in Laguna Beach to Dive N' Surf in Redondo Beach for the shop's 11th annual all-night "Lobster Mobster" weigh-in contest.
Redondo Beach Harbor Patrol officer Randy Lyman, who took a 2-pound lobster diving 60 feet underwater early Wednesday, put things another way:
"It's a bunch of maniacs, that's what it is."
Speregen, 32, of Westlake Village, and Alford, 29, of Santa Monica, proved particularly lucky--and adept--in their hand-to-hand combat with the spiny but scrumptious creatures, commonly referred to in diving circles as "bugs."
Out of 365 divers who registered for the Dive N' Surf contest, which runs from 12:01 to 9 a.m., the two pals finished first respectively in the categories of largest lobster and most total weight. For their efforts, in which they grabbed the sharp-shelled, nocturnal lobsters with their hands as the creatures scurried for cover in breakwaters and other rocky crevasses, they were awarded specially designed scuba statuettes.
"We've got a couple of good spots and we dove our (rear ends) off," emphasized a beaming Speregen as he balanced two of the reddish-tinged lobsters on his shoulders while standing next to a rickety outdoor scale.
"It's like anything else," chimed in Alford, who last year finished first in the largest-lobster category with an 8-pound entry. "We pay our dues, we scout (prior to opening night), we dive every weekend and (in the end), it pays off."
At this point, Alford said, the pair have earned such a reputation that they occasionally are forced to take evasive action to elude jealous divers intent on discovering their hunting ground.
Like many who drifted into the shop during the night, Alford and Speregen, who grew up catching clawed lobsters off the shore of Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn, reported that the ocean had proven rough and that visibility had been poor. In some areas, returning divers reported, one could see no farther than three to five feet, no matter what the wattage of their state-of-the-art underwater flashlights.
Also, employees at the dive shop noted that even though the early catch seemed somewhat better than last year's, the average size and overall supply in the Santa Monica Bay area appear to be dwindling.
Yet after an hour or two at depths up to 90 feet, in water temperatures as low as 55 degrees at the bottom, most divers seemed exuberant in spirit, if not in body.
"It's nice to have a sport you can take home and put in your freezer," said Bob Pike, 38, of Buena Park, a veteran diver who captured a 10-pounder off a boat in 30 feet of water near Long Beach. "You can't eat your golf balls."
Pike, who planned to take a vacation day from his job with an auto importing firm, said he would freeze his lobsters' tails and eventually place them in boiling water before throwing them on a barbecue. Contrary to many reports, the large bugs are just as tasty as smaller ones if cooked properly, Pike said. And he should know, having having won the dive shop's total poundage category last year.
"I boil them, I bake them, I broil them. I eat them any way I can," said Hank Harper, 36, a confirmed lobsterholic.
A Good Haul
Harper, who said his vanity license plate reads "EATBUGS," showed up at the Redondo Beach dive shop with 24 pounds worth, while wearing a baseball cap with a fabric lobster on top and shorts featuring line drawings of lobsters.
The evening, however, did not prove as successful for all participants.
Charlie Chu, 32, who operates a Japanese restaurant in Malibu, had set out for Redondo Beach with three scuba-diving friends. For an hour, Chu anxiously sat by the surf--his knife in hand and Styrofoam containers of white rice, green horseradish and ginger at his feet, looking forward to preparing a special treat: sushi-on-the-sand.
Unfortunately, the hardy gourmet ended up empty-handed and empty-stomached, as his buddies came up with only two lobsters--both about half an inch under the legal limit.