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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Ode To The Goody Bag

I remember when I got my first goody bag, the soft nylon mesh bag that was all the rage back when I was learning to snorkel and then scuba in the late '70s and early '80s.

I felt like we were unwrapping "Certified Collector" badges when my best friend and fellow underwater enthusiast at the time, Brad K., and I got our hands on ours.

I also recall the temptation that gripped Brad when "slurp gun" ads hit "Skin Diver" magazine, and how badly he wanted to order one of those bazooka-like plexiglass contraptions that suck in unwitting fish.

I was less committal on the Slurp Gun, perhaps because it looked so ungainly. But more likely, it was because it was so highly specialized. It did one thing, and one thing only. The instructions must have read: Find fish. Aim. Click. Slurp. Repeat.

And we could only use so many fish, since we had just one 100-gallon, saltwater aquarium between us (technically speaking, it was Brad's, since his parents had bought it, it was at his house, and he did everything to maintain it). Besides, the greatest prize -- the bright orange damselfish known as the Garibaldi, which was even more arresting as an electric-blue-and-orange juvenile -- was California's state fish and therefore off-limits.

The goody bag presented no such problem. No task was beneath its dignity. Need to cushion your mask en route to a dive spot? Slip it into the goody bag. Don't feel like tucking a pencil and slate with the dive tables on it into the crotch strap of your wetsuit? (And who would?) The goody bag! Happen across a mother lode of abalone? Start prying, because you've got a goody bag.

It could hold stuff. And the very best stuff that it could hold -- in a 12-year-old's estimation -- was the stuff you found during your dive. And therein lay the problem, the feature that put the goody bag on a collision course with All That Is Good In The World. It was on the wrong side of history, if you will. Now more than ever.

To survive at all, goody-bag manufacturers had to adapt. And they did. Now they're specialized. You can get a goody bag that shows how big a crab must be in order to keep it. This one's actually turned utility on its head, serving primarily as a gear bag but "doubling" as a goody bag. Another could safely hold the headless corpse of the Creature from the Black Lagoon in it.

But the reality is that the goody bag's reputation is in shreds until mankind adopts sustainable ways to harvest the ocean's bounty. If it ever does.

With so-called factory ships filled to the gills, countless tons of "bycatch" heaved off decks and into death spirals, bottom trawlers scarring our seabeds, cyanide and dynamite replacing rod and reel, and drift nets killing everything in their paths for hundreds of kilometers, the thrill of a freshly stocked goody bag is gone. In its place, guilt and regret. With humans having taken so much out of the seas already, what self-respecting diver wants to take anything but photographs now?

The crew of the "Calypso" could feast on all the fresh lobster and seafood it could gather, and even harpoon dolphins to film frenzied sharks, it's just less cool these days for undersea documentarists to eat their way through their subjects at the end of the day. It seemed way cool 30 years ago when a camp counselor on Santa Catalina Island poached the occasional abalone; now, no respectable campers should put up with it.

No, the mystique of goody bags has been ghost-netted and left to drown by my generation. Don't get me wrong; I know they still have some important "adult" uses.

But I desperately hope their salad days return for my children and grandchildren. Because I aspired to learn a lot about those shells, plants and, yes, even animals that I proudly towed behind me as I emerged from the Southern California surf. And those kids should get a chance to do the same.

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