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In deep with the sea urchins

Terry Herzik assumed he'd be through with commercial diving by now. A weary 61, he's tethered to a dangerous and depleted industry.

February 19, 2008|By Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times
  • Diver Terry Herzik pours warm water into his exposure suit before entering the 52-degree water off Santa Barbara Island.
Diver Terry Herzik pours warm water into his exposure suit before entering… (Bob Chamberlin )

The Sunstar's ancient twin diesels fire up like an old man clearing his throat. Terry Herzik cocks his good ear to listen. They are losing compression, but sound as if they should make the three-day trip.

Dawn glows faintly behind the gantry cranes and shuttered canneries that overlook Fish Harbor, a blighted abscess of Terminal Island.

Herzik climbs into the door-less wheelhouse through a window, trying not to strain a hernia he tore putting up the Christmas tree while his two sons were home from college. His partner throws off the dock ropes. Herzik eases the throttles down, and the battered orange-and-gray boat chugs out of the harbor.

The stink and scrape of the port slowly recede. The sea begins to roll in big loping swells, a light wind cross-hatching the surface. He sets the course to 240 degrees southwest.

Herzik dives for sea urchins and sea cucumbers, considered delicacies in Asia. He is 61 and built solid by the work, thick in the shoulders and neck. His hands are knots of callus, muscle and buried urchin spines.

He thought he'd be out of commercial diving years ago. This is no job for an aging body. Divers spend hours in icy water, dragging 300-pound bags of urchins and sea cucumbers from the sea floor. They are at sea for days at a time, often during bad weather, in rickety, overloaded boats. They risk capsizing, drowning and shark attacks. More than half of the roughly 175 full-time divers in the industry have suffered decompression sickness, the potentially fatal "bends."

Like so many cowboy-types who flocked to the industry as it boomed in the 1970s and '80s, he is now heading into his senior years on a youthful dream that has grown more complicated with age.

Herzik can't see a way out. There is no 401(k) in his line of work. And his and his wife's financial planning was always aimed at their two sons' education. They took out second loans on their Redondo Beach home to put them through 13 years of prep school in Palos Verdes, and then sent them to two of the top liberal arts schools in the nation.

This has allowed little for retirement, at a time of diminishing returns. The urchin industry has been in decline for years, as local stocks are depleted and divers in Chile and eastern Russia flood the market. Herzik tries not to contemplate whether he will still be huffing out of the port at 75 -- or, worse, dying out there, in the empty blue.

After 36 years in the business, he has a more layered relationship with his calling than in his youth. There's drudgery and anxiety and a sense of mortality -- and a perennial sense of wonder exploring an offshore wilderness that few Californians ever see.

When his children were younger, they would beg to hear stories of his encounter with the great white shark off Catalina, or the sea lion that jumped into his tiny cabin when he was sleeping.

"Dad, what'd you see this trip?" the boys would ask when he walked through the door, grizzled, exhausted, smelling of diesel and ocean. "Anything cool happen?"

"Oh, I saw a massive pod of dolphins extending to the horizon," he would say, grandly, and sit down and tell them about his journey.

His younger son Nick, now a 19-year-old sophomore at Williams College in Massachusetts, recalls how proud he was when his dad brought a bunch of live sea creatures to his first-grade class: brittle stars and spider crabs and lobsters.

As he grows older, Andrew, graduating this month from Middlebury College in Vermont, marvels at his dad's strength and self-reliance.

"They say you come to a point where you realize your father is mortal," says Andrew, 23. "I haven't. He's almost indestructible in my mind."

Yet the sons know there is anxiety stirring in their father.

"He knows he cannot do this forever," Andrew says.

Terry Herzik's patch of the global economy is the four Channel Islands southwest of Los Angeles. Today Herzik and his co-diver, Gary Thompson, are headed to Santa Barbara Island, a wild, uninhabited square mile of plunging cliffs and roaring elephant seals about 50 miles off San Pedro.

The sea urchin market is overloaded right now, and his buyers don't want any of the spiny creatures until the quality of their roe -- the salable part of the animal, sold as uni in sushi bars -- improves. This has put many of the 30 or so battered boats in Fish Harbor out of work. Herzik can't afford to stand down. So on this trip, he's in search of "cukes."

Warty sea cucumbers are vile-looking creatures -- the size of their namesake vegetable, wormy in texture, with no eyes and covered with black-tipped bumps. They have no defenses against predators, but almost none will deign to eat them.

In China, sea cucumber flesh is dried as food and considered to have healing qualities.

Cukes are a gamble this time of year. At the end of every fall, they go into hiding to perform a quirky ritual: ejecting their internal organs and growing new ones. Herzik can only hope they are back.

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