Midmorning, past the rugged west tip of Catalina, the water has gone from green to deep cobalt and is smooth as oil. Whales puff white geysers in the distance. All that can be seen of the mainland are the snowy tops of mountains.
By noon, the boat is off the jagged shores of Santa Barbara Island. Sea lions swarm the boat, watching and playing. "Welcoming committee!" Herzik says in a booming voice. His family calls this his boat voice -- Capt. Herzik.
All around the island, waves explode through blowholes in the volcanic rock. Thousands of elephant seals and sea lions line the shore. Their barking cuts through the surf and wind, a forlorn sound, like children crying in a distant storm.
"What do you say here, Gary?" Herzik asks, about half a mile off the island.
Thompson is a slender, compact 65-year-old with a pencil mustache, a meticulous manner and smiling eyes. His voice is as twangy as Herzik's is deep. As a "walk-on diver," he brings in his own haul and pays a cut to Herzik.
Thompson looks at the churning water. "We could be in for some exercise," he says.
Fishery diving is a race against time. Divers get two hours or so underwater before they must surface and decompress for a similar spell. They race across the sea floor like farmworkers through a row crop.
The two men lubricate their limbs with hair conditioner to squeeze into tattered wetsuits. Thompson fires up the air compressor, which feeds the 500-foot-long hoses they will breathe from. The machine is so salt-crusted and beaten, it looks like a boulder covered in lichen. It is their lifeline.
They study the water. There is nothing beckoning about it. A normal soul facing hours fighting currents and cold 60 feet below the surface -- only to spend the night with no warm shower and no toilet -- would kill to be back on the freeway, driving to a dreary cubicle.
Herzik rolls in. About 40 feet down, he can make out a barren landscape. An explosion of brittle stars has consumed all the visible plant life, leaving a scene of gray devastation.
The swell has stirred up a sand storm and is knocking him around. Herzik follows the flat bedrock sea floor looking for outcroppings where the cucumbers might be sheltered. After 20 minutes, he is vexed. The pickings are scant. He has hernia surgery in a week, and then Andrew's graduation. He'll be out of the water for a month. The pressure is on. His wife, a nurse practitioner, has taken up a lot of the slack. But his income is critical.
He lumbers onto the boat. . "I'm trying to think of where we should go," Herzik tells Thompson. He ponders trolling to San Clemente Island, five hours south.
First he'll try a spot 200 yards away. "If this spot isn't good, we're going to have to do something radical," Thompson says.
Although fishery diving in Southern California dates to the turn of the last century, when divers harvested abalone from the reefs off Palos Verdes, most of the men in the business today started when the sea urchin trade opened in the 1970s.
Tales of good money attracted all types of mavericks: abalone divers, surfers, stoners, military frogmen, loggers, marijuana smugglers.
Herzik first heard about urchin diving in 1971 from his brother Doug, a Navy SEAL just back from Vietnam and living in Redondo Beach.
Herzik was working odd jobs in Maryland after dropping out of an engineering program at Texas A&M. He was a quiet man, shy in groups but drawn to adventure as much as solitude. Doug's pitch had immediate appeal. He moved to Redondo Beach, and soon he and Doug bought a 34-foot boat built for commercial diving, the Sunstar. By the late 1970s, fishermen were landing record numbers of red sea urchin, almost exclusively for export to Japan. What was once just a pest consuming California's kelp forests was becoming one of its most lucrative fisheries.
Herzik had found his groove. He fell for a former ballet dancer, Deborah Stellar, from Redondo Beach. They got married in 1982. Andrew was born two years later, and Nick four years after that.
Herzik jumped as enthusiastically into family life as he did into the urchin trade. He struggled with the absences from home, but eventually he struck a manageable balance.
He scheduled his trips around parent-teacher conferences, birthdays, school plays, sports. He doted on his boys. They would become top students, avid surfers and championship water polo players. Herzik would take up surfing -- a deceptively grueling sport to learn -- in his mid-50s just to spend time with them.
The urchin industry began to struggle in the 1990s as stocks were depleted. Although Southern California held up better than the north, the glory days were gone. And increasingly, divers grappled with the dangers of the job.