Symi, Where The Sea Is Always Grener

FEATURE by Willard Manus

"Going spearfishing at Symi? Ah, you'll find good fishing there, Manos. Groupers, sea bream, parrot fish-- all you want.

"The fishing is much better than here. You'll bring back ten, twenty kilos."

My Rhodian friends were forthright and positive. The tiny Greek island of Symi was a great place to fish. One of them told of an uncle who had fished there with a line a year ago and caught a 30-kilo grouper; another remembered a cousin who had gone diving and taken six lobsters in a single hour.

The stories and boasts flew everywhich way as half a dozen Greeks tried to out-shout each other, but from the resulting cacophony there emerged one clear theme: Symi was a fisherman's paradise. Here on Rhodes the fishing was rotten for both amateur and professional alike: the waters were fished out; there were more fishermen than fish these days; there were too many damn skindivers around; and so on. But Symi, ah, Symi. That was the place to go. That was where the fish were.

So we went, the entire family--mama, papa and two baby bears. I'd catch the fish and Mavis would cook them up. The prospect of good fishing and good eating filled us with hope and cheer. All the portents were right: the day was spring-warm and bright, the sea was calm, our ferryboat had been newly painted and was spanking along smartly on the 20-mile trip from Rhodes to Symi.

We had friends to visit: Willi Hempel, a German painter who for many years had been our neighbor in Lindos, and his new wife Maria, an American from Oklahoma. Once upon a time she had been married to the actor Lionel Stander. The daughter they'd had together now lived with Maria and Willi in the port town of Yialos. Yialos looked dramatic and appealing; it was horseshoe-shaped, one of the longest and deepest ports in the Aegean and had tightly-packed two- and three-story houses rising sheer from the quay side, all of them painted in whites and pastels. Situated close to the Turkish coast, Symi had suffered much in World War Two because of its harbor and strategic location. The Italians and Germans had occupied the island, which was mostly infertile rock, with a patch of greenery in the center, high up in the hills. There was a famous monastery and church at Panormitis, on the other side of the island; the abbott, together with a servant and a Greek resistance fighter, had been summarily shot by the Germans for harboring a group of British commandos.

Down through the ages Symi, along with Kalymnos, had been synonymous with sponge diving. Until the 1860s, the sponge divers accomplished their feats by diving naked and holding their breath. Then came the introduction of the air-compressor and "hard-hat" diving suit, with the Kalymnians and Symiotes serving as underwater guinea pigs. Because no one knew of the dangers of decompression, horrible accidents befell many of the divers.

In a recent book called "The Bell-Stone," by Michael Kalafatas, I had read about a poem written by his grandfather, Metrophanes Kalafatas, in 1903. It was a powerful work, written in homage to the divers (and their wives) and to protest the horrors that industrialization had visited on them ("hit by the machine" is how the divers described the bends). Metrophanes Kalafatas, a school teacher on Symi, was criticized by the Turkish authorities who ruled over Symi and by the sponge merchants and captains, who demanded bigger catches from the divers. The poet was villified for his words, but the islanders stood behind him and his 22-page poem, which has been described as "one of Greece's national treasures." There were battles over its message; the protests were led by women (and a few priests) and left blood on the cobblestoned streets of Yialos.

Metrophanes Kalafatas died a tragic death four months after his epic work was written, of a mastoid infection. He was only 38.

The poem was brought to the USA by the Kalafatas family and owes its rediscovery and recent publication to Michael Kalafatas, a retired administrator at Brandeis University.

Symi now survives on tourism not sponging, but the history of the divers radiates from its stones and can be read in the faces of its inhabitants. It was my intention to pay homage to the divers by descending into the sea where they had first learned to brave the depths. Like those oldtimers, I operated on held breath only--no tanks or airline.

A tour boat took us down the length of Symi, toward a town called Seskli. Again, it was a classic Aegean day; the sea green and clear; the sunlight burning down relentlessly on the brown pitted flanks of the headlands.

When the captain dropped the anchor he pointed to the rocky islet facing us. "Over there, that's where the fish are," he said. "But be careful, there are sharks. Last week we found the carcass of a goat floating in the sea."

I asked the captain if he would take me across in his dinghy. He refused, saying he was going fishing elsewhere. No sooner did he set off, though, did he head for the islet.

"What cheek," Mavis said. "He told you that shark story just to keep you away from the fish."

I suited up and dove over the side. The water was cold but clear; a strong current ran just under the surface, bending the tops of the sea plants along the bottom.

It was hard work kicking across the strait to the islet, and the water was even colder out here. The sea was so deep it was no longer possible to see the bottom. On the other side of the islet was open sea, the broad channel down which numerous ferryboats, freighters and yachts rumbled.

I started working my way around the islet. Soon I passed the spot where the captain was putting down his paregathia lines. My intuition told me I was going to have some action.

At a corner of the island, where two separate and angry currents met and turned the sea into a swirling, frothing mess, I spotted a grouper. He was a beauty, big and fat with yellow blotches on his back, and weighed maybe twenty or twenty-five pounds. I lay up top quietly, trying not to spook him as he nosed around from rock to rock, chasing small fry. When he sensed me, he looked up, turning from brown to grey, the color of the sandy bottom. He nipped into a cave in the side of the cliff, at a depth of about 30 feet. I dove down, following along the line of the cliff, adjusting my ears several times, and swept alongside the hole, peering into the dimness.

There he was. I aimed and fired, trying for a killing shot. But I had put the spear in too far behind his head and he began thrashing around violently, whipping sea and sand into a dense cloud.

I pulled hard on the spear and moved him closer to the mouth of the cave. But he was a fighter and he was strong. It was going to take one hell of an effort to get him out. I went back up to catch my breath, wishing I had brought a second gun with which to shoot him again and make certain he wouldn't get away.

As I lay gasping for breath and staring down at the black and silver fish which had clustered around the cave, attracted by the rofos's agony, I noticed a huge moray eel slithering its way in and around the rocks. He paid me no attention whatsoever.

I dove again, feeling winded as I pushed down, but preparing myself for a concerted burst of energy. I wanted him out right now. Going to the hole, I grabbed the spear and pulled on it with all my might.

A mistake, of course. I should have secured the fish better, shoved the spear through him and made sure the barb was holding. I paid for this error. As I brought the grouper close, almost close enough to dig my fingers into his eyes and paralyze him, he gave a ferocious shake and came off the spear.

I couldn't see where he hid himself, not in that churned-up water. Cursing, I went back up and reloaded. For the next forty minutes I made one futile dive after another, peering into every corner of the cave, trying to find the fish. But nothing showed, only darkness, emptiness.

Finally I couldn't dive any longer. My right foot was biting with pain and the fillings in my teeth were aching--a sure sign that oxygen was having trouble getting to my extremities. So I turned and swam back wearily across the channel, feeling heartsick and upset. I could hear the voices of those on the boat: " Well, where is it, where's the fish, where's our dinner?"

On the journey back to Yialos the captain asked me if I had seen any big fish. "Not one," I lied.

"That's because you fished in the wrong place," he said. He glanced over at the dark cliffs. In the flaring sunset every crack in the grey rock stood out like the fissures in an elephant's skin, and the heavily rising and falling sea had turned an arsenic green.

"You see that cove? If you really want fish, that's where you should go. Over there," he cried, waving his hand dramatically. "That's where the fish are. Over there, over there!"