Mikaela Conley hunts for fish off Catalina Island on a spearfishing trip… (Adam Caira, For the Los Angeles…)
Dylan Bruno bobbed buoy-like in his lizard-patterned wetsuit and offered some advice: "Just kind of float there for a minute." I lowered myself into the water after not-so-gracefully wriggling into a wetsuit, gloves, hood, booties, snorkel — all the attire a woman hopes to be wearing upon meeting a chisel-cheeked actor turned avid spearfisherman.
"Get comfortable," he said when I joined him.
I dipped my face into the water and peered down. Kelp forests swayed 20 feet below. Garibaldi fish slowly moved out from their hiding spots and jerked back into them again. Rock lobsters too. A large school of opal eye ebbed and flowed beneath me.
We were a motley spearfishing crew on the Zodiac one Sunday morning off Catalina Island: Bruno, probably best known for playing FBI agent Colby Granger in the CBS series "Numb3rs" and Jason Paul Dean on "NCIS." Henrik Windstedt, Bruno's friend and Swedish professional free skier, came along for the ride, along with Adam Caira, a scuba-certified photographer with a special interest in adventure sports photography.
Bruno has surfed for decades, but after moving west several years ago, he grew frustrated with the "aggressive and territorial surfing attitudes" in Southern California, he said.
Three years ago, he bought a spear gun and began free-diving with just a short wet suit and swim fins to aid him during his day out hunting in the ocean. Then he'd go home and research for hours the sea life he'd observed.
"I literally dream about it," Bruno said. "And now, when the swell comes up, I curse the waves, hoping for the swell to drop so I can get out and fish. As a surfer, I never imagined I would say that. Ever."
There is no hard data that shows an upward trend in spearfishing in the Southern California area, said Toby Carpenter, a senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Game, but dive shops in the area have reported growing consumer interest.
"We've definitely seen an uptick in hunting among both surfers and free divers," said Brett Bovard, owner of PCH Scuba in Burbank.
Bruno said he found a "great group of spearos." "It feels like a brotherhood, kind of a frontier-land mentality where it is in everyone's best interest to share, learn, teach and evolve."
And Bruno, in turn, agreed to show me the ropes.
Bruno placed the spear gun in my hand. His plan was to dive down, and I'd watch from above. If and when fish scattered, he'd signal me to shoot.
I held the gun still, face in the water, finger on the trigger as he glided to the bottom. I waited and then saw the school of fish bolt in harmonic panic. He pointed at a straggling opal eye. I aimed and shot. And missed.
We tried again, and I missed again as Windstedt emerged, gleeful as a sheepshead fish dangled from his spear.
"Because [spearfishermen] spend their time in the habitat of their prey, they understand the balance within that ecosystem," said Bruno. "To succeed, you have to become part of that balance."
The sport is meditation, Bruno said. When he's in the silence and intimacy of the water, nothing else exists: No bills, no deadlines.
Chris Hendricks, a San Diego-based attorney and avid surfer, agreed. "It is another way to explore … the life of a waterman," said Hendricks, who grew up listening to spearfishing stories from his father.
"In my opinion, this term [waterman] draws on having your entire lifestyle revolve around the water: your source of enjoyment, surfing, and your source of sustenance, fishing," Hendricks said.
And it seems those watermen are particularly fond of the kelp forests around Palos Verdes and Malibu, which have become popular areas to spearfish in recent years, said Tom Ford, director of marine programs at the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation.
Spearfishermen, he said, tend to be selective in their catch, acting as wardens of the sea. "The good spearfishers I know have an appreciation for the ecology of an area and know when to pull the trigger."
Bruno echoed those sentiments: "I eat less and waste none. I believe that it is an ethic needed in America, where as a culture, we eat far too much animal protein, waste too much and suffer from an obesity epidemic."
He said he'd rather confront the animal he would eat in its home, learn its behaviors and take it singlehandedly from a healthy ecosystem than buy "packaged, industrially mass-produced meat."
The day's light was fading. We had spent hours off Catalina, and everyone began moving toward the boat. I hung back, cold but disappointed I hadn't made a catch. Then I saw another opal eye, large and alone. For a moment I thought I'd leave him be as he swayed with the current.
But I decided this was my one last shot. The gun popped, the strength of the gun jolting me backward. I thought I'd missed, the fish disappearing from my sight, but then I saw a frantic wiggle moments later beneath me.
Bruno was swimming fast toward me.
"You got him!" he said as he joined me, methodically pulling the spear out from the water.
Bruno recommended fish tacos for the opal eye. And he said his boys, 3 and 5, are already practicing to join him by holding their breath for as long they can in the bathtub before reaching for a toy and emerging from the water exclaiming, "I caught a halibut!"
As much as he loves it, Bruno said he's conflicted about spearfishing becoming too popular, making the waters crowded and threatening respect for the ecosystem.
"It is one of the inevitable downfalls of the evolution of anything that relies upon a finite resource," he said.
But at the same time, spearfishing with a sense of respect and gratitude can change people's lives, he said.
"To be afforded this intimate glimpse at what happens in that world is a gift that I am thankful for," he said, "and that I love to share with others."