Lobster tickling is an ancient art, and the whereabouts of the lobster holes on this particular stretch of the Cornish coast a closely guarded secret, passed down by word of mouth through generations of sea folk. Bob, my father in law, spent most of his childhood summers in a house high up on the cliffs above the holes, from where he and his two brothers would go fishing with the old boys of the village. In a time honoured tradition, the old boys showed the young boys where the holes were and how to tickle the lobsters out. He is keen to pass this knowledge on, now that he is in his ninth decade and thoughts of mortality begin to circle.
At over eighty, and seventy years after he first started lobster hunting on these very same rocky shores, he is as spry as ever and equally up to the task of clambering down the steep cliff face with nothing but an old bit of rope for aid as M and I were....
The terrain on this bit of coast is perfect for lobsters, which means it is treacherous for people...
Another hazardous element is that Lobster holes are often the favoured abode of Conger Eels. These enormous ancient leviathans of the deep have teeth like razors and jaws of such strength that a friend who once got bitten had to have the jaws prized off his arm even after the Conger was dead. It bit down and then wrapped itself tightly around the man's arm. I am on the side of the Conger here. Who sticks their arm down a Conger hole when you know a Conger is in residence?
Bob has all the locations of the holes firmly embossed on his memory, but even so it takes a while to locate them when the guidance tools you're using include remarks like 'somewhere between the big rock that looks like a rabbit and the other big rock that looks like a hare.'
Here are M and Bob looking for a lobster in one of the established holes, with Bob instructing M on technique.....
And this is what they caught....
After almost an hour I was starting to
Completely unexpectedly, right there, sitting in a pool of water beneath a slab of rock at my feet. No Tickling Required.
Seeing a real, live, wild, free lobster in its natural habitat for the first time is a magical experience. They gleam and glitter a sort of blue that is unlike any other colour I have ever seen. They also live to great ages, yet they show no sign of wear and tear because their bodies contain an enzyme called telomerase that enables them to repair their own DNA.
I felt a sense of something move through me when I looked at him. A prickling on my skin; a tingling in my fingertips; a whisper in my ears- a breeze from the sea, perhaps.
Bob is a fisherman, and I knew he was hoping to find some lobsters to take home to eat, and suddenly I didn't want him to. I felt an empathy and respect for this sea creature who had been born and lived his days in an environment so different from my own, yet who had chosen to reveal himself to me and me alone on the one day in my life when I came looking for him. I didn't want him to be taken away from his home (lobsters will often chose a hole and inhabit it all the days of their life, returning to it when they've been out at sea). I didn't want him to die and be eaten by people miles away from where he lived. I didn't want him to die and be eaten at all.
I deliberated saying nothing and steering the hunt away in a different direction, which would have meant cradling the memory all to myself which felt selfish, but then I thought: what if this is the only lobster who shows himself all day long, and M doesn't get to see him? So I whispered a quick prayer to the sea and, crossing my fingers that it would be alright, called them over.
Inevitably, Bob wanted to get him out of the hole, and with only a little bit of tickling he shot forward, straight into the net...
In what I thought was a remarkably brave move (considering the length of his arms and the close proximity of my hand to those incredibly sharp pincers), I picked him up.....
And then a few seconds later dropped him.
Quick as a flash, he had whipped his claws up and backwards in a lightening move. 'Snap! Snap!' Luckily, they closed on air rather than my skin. He landed in the water, shot backwards under the cover of his rock and sat there, waiting.....
'Nice. But a tiddler,' remarked Bob, looking down at the shape in the water. 'Probably only my age! No point eating him, best leave him here.'
I glanced at M, who had a strange look on his face. He was brought up on a working farm and has a practical if caring approach to all things in life. He is not given to flights of fancy, and yet as I looked at him I got the strangest feeling that he too had heard that whisper from the sea and did not want the lobster harmed.
The tide was turning by that point, mermaids riding their white horses closer to where we were standing, so we judged it a good time to retreat off the beach and leave all the unseen lobsters to get back out to sea when the water flooded in to reclaim them for its own.
It was, and remains to this day, the only time I have ever seen a lobster in the wild. I still think of him from time to time, and wonder if he is still there, sitting beneath the ledge of rock in his pool of water in his hole on the Cornish beach.