CAPE ANN — Not enough is made of the first person to eat a lobster, for that early human was a special kind of maniac. Hunger will make people do desperate things, but think of all the starving people who came before that who were still like, “Dude, I’m not touching that thing.”
That’s because lobsters are terrifying. They are 90 percent weapon. Even after you put the bands on their claws and cook them, they’ll find a way to pull a knife on you.
That’s reason No. 1 why I had never so much as touched a lobster, let alone eaten one. Reason No. 2: who has that kind of money?
Then I went armed snorkeling.
The guy who introduced me to this activity last summer, my buddy Doc, kept referring to it as “spearfishing,” and he seemed weirdly excited by the idea of shooting a fish, sticking it in a bag tied to his waist, and then trolling it behind him as it bled out.
For reasons that involve the movie “Jaws,” that didn’t appeal to me. But I was intrigued by the idea that my $10 saltwater fishing license allowed me to walk into the ocean carrying a spear gun. Just the thought made me feel like James Bond, only handsomer.
Doc had an extra gun, and though I had no plans to use it I figured carrying it might muffle the “Jaws” music in my head, so I went along for the sightseeing.
Almost immediately on that first dive, I completely forgot about the tautog we were supposed to be looking for, because I became preoccupied by the lobsters, which were absolutely everywhere, just sitting there for the taking. Suddenly, it felt like reason No. 2 had been removed. Free lobster!
I just had to get over reason No. 1. Because the state of Massachusetts does not allow divers to shoot lobsters. Nor does it allow the use of snares or nets. No, the Commonwealth’s rule for lobster diving is far more intimate and horrifying. You have to grab them with your hands.
Typically, this would be the stuff of nightmares. None of the lobsters I saw even had the rubber bands on their claws. But something came over me on that first dive. Maybe it was the gun in my hands. Maybe it was the warm pee in my wetsuit. But for whatever reason, I resolved that it was time to become a free lobster eater.
As soon as we got out of the water, I got online and gave the state $55 for a recreational lobster permit. Then I headed to a dive shop for a $45 dive flag, a $75 weighted belt to hold me down when I dove to the bottom, a $10 lobster gauge, and a $30 bag to put them in. But the most important thing I bought was the only tool you are allowed to use lobster diving in Massachusetts, something called a “tickle stick.” I chose one with a pink handle for some reason.
A tickle stick, I learned, is a thin rod, about three feet long, with a slightly angled tip. It cost $18, and the idea is that you stick it in the hole behind the lobster, use the angled tip to tickle it on the tail, and hope it marches out to turn around and fight whatever was behind it. That’s when you grab it. Allegedly.
Before our next dive, I realized there was no way I was gonna be able to grab a lobster with both my hands full, so I left the gun in the car, grabbed the tickle stick, and told myself what I always tell myself when the “Jaws” music starts playing in my head:
In my lifetime, only one person has been killed by a shark in Massachusetts. In that same period, we’ve produced two famous Wahlbergs. So, statistically speaking, I was twice as likely to become a famous Wahlberg as I was to be killed by a shark. Simple math.
I felt decidedly less James Bond-y on that third dive – armed only with a pink tickle stick – but it was so much easier to swim, and I was quickly able to spot two claws peaking out of a hole, dive to the bottom, and get the stick in to tickle its behind.
No one was more surprised than me when it worked. The lobster promptly walked out of its hole, turned around, and revealed itself to be roughly the size of a brontosaurus. Whatever breath remained in my lungs left in a scream.
Several more dives went like this. Then one morning, Doc and I arrived at the beach to find there was an exercise class going on, filled with a bunch of people I knew, which kind of put the pressure on.
I was barely 100 feet offshore when I spotted a lobster, and countered the fear pulsing through my veins by repeating a mantra:
You are 180 pounds of man meat. You are 180 pounds of man meat.
I took a breath through my snorkel and dove down slowly, but the lobster saw me coming and turned to fight. There was no turning back now, so I used the tickle stick to kind of flip him around, and reached down with my other hand and all my courage and quickly grabbed it in the armpits. I may have had my eyes closed. But when they opened, there was a lobster securely in my hand, and that hand was leading the way toward the surface, where I blasted through like a superhero, making sure I created enough of a splash for everyone on the shore to notice.
“Did you get one? You are so manly,” they probably shouted, but I couldn’t quite hear them on account of everything being drowned out by the dazzle coming off me in that moment.
That’s when I looked down at my hand to see that the lobster was the size of my palm. It may have been a crayfish.
“Just a baby. I’m gonna let it go and find a monster,” I lied, my heart still beating at a panic pace as I contemplated how I was going to release this thing without it coming back and killing me.
For the rest of the summer, we dove and tickled, and I even managed to grab a few more, but each time I’d surface and realize the underwater magnification had again made me mistake a midget for a monster. Even when the season ended and winter came, lobsters continued to taunt me in my dreams, whispering: You are 180 pounds of mashed potatoes.
When summer returned, I was on a mission. I didn’t even care that a lobster diver down the Cape had allegedly been swallowed by a whale. Plus, it had occurred to me that you could make a solid argument that there were four famous Wahlbergs, on account of their reality show, so my odds of getting killed by a shark got halved again.
I paid the state another $55 and then we dove, and dove, and dove some more.
Then one day, I rounded a rocky point off the coast of Cape Ann and there, in a little canyon, was the lobster I had been looking for. Right size. Right depth. And, most importantly, he was preoccupied with eating a crab. Before either of us really knew what had happened, I had him measured and stuffed in my bag, and was kicking for shore. It was a glorious moment in seafood history.
I raced home, and my children were in disbelief when I placed the lobster on our kitchen floor. That’s when reason No. 3 arrived.
“You’re really going to boil it alive?” one of them asked.
What happened next was its own melodrama, that involved much quiet screaming from me and probably the lobster. But I did it. I cooked and ate a lobster, and it was … OK. Maybe a tad weird because, as one of my children said, “I kind of feel like I know the guy.”
But something about the primitive act made me feel connected to that anonymous maniac who first ate a lobster.
Plus, think of all the money I saved.